I’ll tell you a story or two or three.
I knew a senior wrestler whose father suffered from a debilitating disease. Before every match, this young man would cradle his father in his arms and carry him from a car, into the gym and then gently rest him on the bleachers. He was a good wrestler. He won match after match, but the tableau I best recall shows his father in his arms, both of them smiling and talking as he walked.
A guidance counselor came to my room many years ago and told me that a new student who would be coming to my class in a few days had grievously suffered. She was sixteen. Her father was dead. Her mother, captured by an evolving mental illness, locked her in a closet when she was 10 and kept her imprisoned there for three years. She fed her and beat her if she cried out. A neighbor finally figured out that something terrible was ongoing in that house. The 13 year old was rescued, her mother committed. For three years she had received intense rehabilitation. Her guardians thought she might be able to make the transition to a public school classroom.
When she arrived, the counselor walked her to my room and introduced her. She was about 5’ 2”, dressed in a plaid skirt and a white blouse, and her hair was very dark and short. She would not look at me. She would not look at the class. She said nothing. For one week, the counselor escorted her to my room and to her next class, to all of her classes. Chatting brightly, she tried for a connection, as did I, as did certain especially kind girls in class.
She said nothing. I never saw her make eye contact with another. She kept her head down, her eyes veiled. She entered the classroom, sat and did not stir. She rose when it was time to leave class, but not until everyone else had passed her desk. After a week she left school. Her guardians pulled her out. They thought the experiment was failing. I do not know what became of her. Her silence and stillness were all encompassing.
On July 4, 1976, my friend and I watched thoroughbred horses swim from the beach of Inishmore in the Aran Islands. Led by the halter by big men in curraghs and a row boat to a waiting freighter, their harnesses were attached to a winch, and they were loaded into a side door. One big red stallion, dangling in the air, turned his head in a state of preternatural calm and looked all around him. Once all three were safely aboard, the biggest Islander, a happy man, a mountain in a red shirt, swept his cap into the sea and back onto his head.
During the Civil War, runaway slaves who made it safely to Union lines experienced this unusual reaction from northern whites:
“Even the obnoxious ones were often curious to learn your life story, whereas Virginia whites never were; in fact they seemed actively to avoid realizing that you had one. …. Whatever else they did, these Yankees never looked through you as if you were a table or a chair (335).”
1861: The Civil War Awakening: Adam Goodheart
Stories open up lives to our view. Look at an unknown face in a crowd or a photo. Now someone tells you a story about a fraction of the life that goes with that face. If the story strikes a chord in you, the face moves, the story unfolds inside your mind’s eye and the face acquires a soul.
Even objects may acquire souls. A few years before he died, I bought my father a hand held lantern at an antiques’ store. About eight inches tall, stained black and grey, made of tin, it contained a closed box out of which a wick sprouted. One poured oil into the box. A type of magnifying glass and a shutter mechanism made up the front of the lantern. Two handles were attached to the back.
It had been used by State Policemen on patrol in the Coal Regions of Pennsylvania sometime in the first two decades of the 20th century. My father had patrolled those counties as a young man.
When I told him the story behind the lantern, I could tell that he was excited. I think his memory was flooded with sights and sounds and the faces of the lost passed. For a few moments I watched his eyes glaze over as he made the journey.