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Bearing Witness

Last night I had the chance to speak at Martini’s Matter, a space where you can enjoy a cocktail while raising money for a local charity. Win-win, right? Last night’s event was a fundraiser for Loudoun Literacy Council, which offers free or low-cost language classes to new Americans. Put a different way, it’s an organization that connects people from a variety of backgrounds to learn from each other. I love this mission.

During the event (picture me in jeans, always underdressed for these East Coast affairs, with a lemon-drop martini in hand), I met an older woman who was dressed in a beautiful fur wrap and glistening earrings. She said she lived in the country club community that was hosting

the event, and that she also was a longtime volunteer of Loudoun Literacy Council. She meets regularly with the housekeeping staff at Salamander Resort & Spa and occasionally with farm hands at local vineyards to teach them English. The goal of some of the young women and men she tutors is to simply communicate with guests who visit the resort or winery. But, for others, these 60-minute tutoring sessions are their vehicle to move up in the company, to better their lives and those of their families.

The volunteer told me that she works with them because she gets to know people whose stories are different from her own. She’s become longtime friends with some of her former students, one who’s traveled back to Virginia from Turkey just to spend time with her.

I told her I’ve seriously considered working as one of the organization’s volunteer tutors, but that I can’t quite fit it in my schedule right now.

“Oh, don’t worry about doing it now. It will come,” she assured me. “You’ll have a season when it’s just right. … But when you do have the time, do it.”

Yes, it takes effort to put yourself in situations where you meet people who you wouldn’t naturally rub shoulders with, she added. But the reward, the relationships, are worth it.

Her comment was put more eloquently than the little speech I had given 30 minutes earlier, but it did dovetail nicely with the message I hoped to leave with the 40 or so people gathered there. I talked about how, since I had helped Sierra Phantom document his life story, I have been much more purposeful in asking people about their backgrounds, their hopes and passions—their stories. And just that little effort to be more aware of the stories that surround me has led me to hear a slew of powerful narratives just within my family. Some sad, some funny, but all meaningful.

Here’s one: My mother told me over Christmas that her father, who died when she was 12, was a funny, outgoing guy. And that in his 20s, he was very good friends with Gypsy Rose Lee. I had to Google this woman with a triple-barrel name. And, to my surprise, I discovered that she was a burlesque dancer, “famous for her striptease act.” That’s a direct quote from Wikipedia. Now, my mother noted, my father’s friendship with GRL was before he’d met my Church of Christ-going grandmother.

Here’s another one: A friend of ours recently found a recording of my husband’s great grandfather, Tilpher Eden Thomson. He had moved from Norway to North Dakota as a kid and, in his later years, was asked to share some of his earliest memories. Tilpher reluctantly obliged, and the interviewer hit record. One of the gems from that recording is Tilpher saying that he remembers his mother often talking about the assassination of President Lincoln. She’d never forget where she was when she heard that the president had been shot.

Suddenly that story, that for most of us has been a page in our history textbooks, felt as close as the here and now. Both of these historical individuals—one a Hollywood star, another one of the world’s most influential leaders—were now just a few people away from ​me. The latter was simply brought up in a conversation between a mother and her son, who would have a blond-haired, blue-eyed great grandson, who would become my husband.

It really is true; stories bridge time and culture. Documenting lives well lived helps us appreciate those who we encounter in the day to day bustle, and those who have gone before us. Bearing witness to another’s story is the best exercise in honoring a person’s mark on the world.

Can I get a witness?

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