Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Privileged to tell their stories

Weekly if not monthly I think about how lucky I am to be a journalist, but usually my reason for thinking that is just that I like the work so much and it’s what I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. This month it’s been a little different: I feel lucky all over again, but not only because the work makes me happy but because it’s been a genuine privilege to cover the stories I’ve covered this month.

Just yesterday, I put the final wraps on a “centerpiece” feature that will run the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. It’s about a nearby town that is unveiling a memorial to the four fallen soldiers who graduated from the local high school, and I’ve learned so much while working on the story, both about military logistics and about how families cope in the wake of tragedy.

I thought the calls I had to make would be hard: to the families of two young men who died in Iraq, six and seven years ago, respectively. But their family members talked about them with a sense of fond good cheer. One young man’s mother laughed and laughed as she told me about her son as a ten-year-old building a fox hole in the backyard. How can she be so merry? I wondered as I listened to her. Indeed, some of it might have been a touch of mild hysteria brought on by my taking an interest in her stories about him, and maybe preparing for the dedication next week has made her more emotionally mercurial right at this time than she normally is. But she didn’t sound like I expected. She just wanted to tell me funny stories about her son, and then in a tone only a shade more somber, she talked about her gratitude to the town for initiating the memorial.

After that I talked to the younger sister of the other Iraq soldier. He died at nineteen, as she was about to celebrate her thirteenth birthday. “He was the most awesome brother,” she told me, her tone exuberant. “He’d babysit for my little sister and me and do the silliest dances to make us laugh.”

I expected the families to sound more angry, more depressed. But they were proud of their soldiers, they were full of happy memories, they were grateful to the town for planning the Memorial Day dedication. “The community has been a tremendous source of support to us, and we’re so grateful,” said the father of one of the young men.

Last week I was working on a very different story, one about Transcendentalist and writer Margaret Fuller. A group in Concord was in the final stages of planning a bicentennial celebration honoring her 200th birthday, and they were just as eager and willing to tell me about their passion for Margaret Fuller’s lifework as the soldiers’ family members were to tell me about their lost loved ones. In the few days I spent researching that story, I learned a lot about Margaret Fuller, a historical figure I first heard about in a very general sense in eighth grade and then for several years thereafter confused with Margaret Sanger. I definitely won’t make that mistake again. I felt privileged to spend those days in her company just as I did with the soldiers.

And the weekend before that I did a story that was not like either the fallen soldiers or Margaret Fuller. I wrote about my parents’ volunteer work at prisons. For years, I’ve wanted to write about the program through which my parents volunteer, but it’s the irony of my work as a feature writer that I can write about anyone who I think is doing something fascinating except for my own family members. In a feature story, that is. But every now and then the Globe runs a personal essay segment. That’s a first-person narrative and the usual rules do not apply. I asked my editor if I could try an essay about my parents’ volunteer work and what it means to me, and she said yes.

The results were spectacular, not in terms of my prose but in terms of the response. Strangers were calling my home phone number to say how much they enjoyed reading about my parents. Friends and acquaintances from all over the Globe’s readership mentioned the story to me, and to my parents as well. My mother heard from two former volunteers who had lost touch with the program, and she also heard from a town employee whose brother was once an inmate – though not one my parents worked with – and the town employee felt reassured to learn that there were people like my parents devoting their time to people like him.

So it’s been a good month for me: not because I’ve had a lot of bylines or paychecks but because I’ve experienced so much through my journalism. I’ve learned about the resilience of brave and proud, though bereaved, parents; the determination of a nineteenth century feminist; and the power of my own parents to affect people through their work. And I did all this through my work. I’m not a soldier, a crusader, not even a volunteer to the needy. I can’t claim to be doing anything nearly as important as my subjects. So what I’ve done in telling their stories is not something for me to be proud of, just grateful for. I’m always grateful to be a journalist. This month I’ve felt enormously privileged as well.

1 comment:

  1. the distracted hausfrauMay 26, 2010 at 9:55 AM

    I loved that story, too, about your parents. Even more special since I know them. I completely agree about one of the greatest joys in working in journalism (photojournalism :) being the things you learn and the fascinating people you meet. To me, it's far more rewarding than seeing my work in print or receiving a paycheck.