Monday, June 25, 2012

The stories they tell

Once again, my summer is turning out to be full of stories.

I say “once again” because I feel like a summer of adventure-through-narrative hearkens back to my childhood, when summer vacation meant spending hours reading – reading in the air-conditioned library, reading in cars and airplanes en route to vacation destinations, reading in cabins or motel rooms or condos, reading in bed late at night.

When I was in grade school, I read adventure stories: Island of the Blue Dolphins; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. By middle school, it was more likely to be realistic fiction about the modern-day lives of girls in middle school or high school.

This summer the stories are different, though. They’re true stories, and they’re being told to me in person, and they range from tales of being sent off to boarding school or summer camp to stories of enlisting in the Royal Air Force to remembrances of being the only woman at medical school to stories of discovering a passion for painting at the age of eighty.

All spring, I foundered for a summer project: I wanted an endeavor related to writing that I’d be able to really sink my teeth into. The answer arrived serendipitously, after the Globe sent me to a nearby retirement community to cover an environmental activism group that had recently taken hold there. “This place is so full of stories,” I thought to myself as I left, after an hour of interviewing a group of women in their eighties and nineties. “I wish there was some way to capture those stories.”

Well, it turned out there was. I consulted with a staff member at the retirement community, and she and I designed a project: members who opted to participate would be interviewed on the topic of their most formative experience, the events or circumstances that they consider most responsible for making them the person they are today, and then I would write up the stories into a compilation.

So far I’ve completed 28 interviews, with another 12 scheduled for later this week, and it turns out my intuition was right. The place is full of stories, indeed, and one by one, the residents are sitting down at a conference table to tell me about them. A 90-year-old woman traveled 6,000 miles through Europe on a motor scooter when she was in her early 20s. A man from rural New Hampshire was sent off to Philips Exeter at the age of 13; eventually he became president of the student body. A woman in her eighties immigrated to the U.S. from England as a young mother and found herself befuddled by the cultural differences between metropolitan London and suburban New Jersey. An early entrepreneur in the computer field was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the height of his career and learned to reprioritize to save his health.

So far all I’ve done is listen and record; the writing and editing will take place later, and I’ll get to explore all of these tales and anecdotes all over again as I revise.

What a perfect summer job. My family isn’t leaving town for any summer travels for several more weeks, but I’m getting to venture through time as well as space through these narratives. And just as in childhood, my summer resonates with stories.

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