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Timeless gifts

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They laugh as I read to them from Malcolm Cowley's The View from 80.m "Yes, yes," they say nodding. "That's exactly how it is." One of them interrupts the reading to describe himself. I lower the book onto my lap. For I have learned to listen when they want to tell me something. This is the best gift I can offer to them.

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We have been meeting together every Tuesday morning for half a year. And though the holidays put a month's hiatus in our classes, my old friends insist that we continue our gatherings indefinitely. I have no objections. I know them, and I want to be with them.

When the community college first asked me to conduct a "creative writing" class at the Senior Center, I had resisted. It would take time from my own writing, and probably the people attending would not be interested in anything literary. But, of course, my excuses were not valid, and, finally, by August, I was ready to begin.

On the first day of class, I almost canceled the rest. These people were strangers.One man and several women were sitting around the large table avoiding my eyes, looking at their folded hands. They were country folks. How could I possibly reach them?

Even though I had lived in this rural, flat, North Carolina county for 15 years, I still didn't speak their language. Oh, I understood it all right, but I didn't speak it. My vowels were still rounded, my consonants pronounced and clipped. My ear had yet to find pleasure in the elongated vowels of the region, where one short i becomes two sounds not easily identifiable, and where object becomes objek. Most of my octogenarian students were from Bear Grass. I ask you now, what sort of a name is that?

On that first day, in August, the center's director, my friend for many years , a Southern woman who has always understood the meaning of civil rights and human dignity, looked in but offered no assistance. Her eyes were amused. I had planned some introductory remarks which I scrapped the moment I saw my students. In the interval, while names and addresses were taken by someone else , I looked at them and thought, "You are somebody's parent, grandparent, great- grandparent. What do your grandchildren know about you? How will they remember you?"

There was great quiet about each of them, but it was the quiet of inactivity and apprehension. Of course, they were a little scared of me. "Creative writing" must have sounded like a foreign language to these people who have toiled on the land all their remembered years.

"Do you know what is the most valuable gift you can give your grandchildren next Christmas?" I asked it easily, as though talking to just one of them.

They looked at me for the first time, their eyes filmy and bemused. They waited.

"I'm talking about your memories, your rich memories."

Now they all wanted to talk at the same time.

"I can't remember a thing."

"Nobody is interested in what I have to say."

"It bores the young people."

On this subject, however, I could speak from experience. I reassured them that the memories were there, waiting to be called forth. I told them how in the course of doing research on World War II, I asked my father to write down his experiences at the Albanian front. My older daughter repeated the request on her visit to Greece. What emerged was the treasure of a lifetime. Ten handwritten notebooks spanning seven decades.

My students found that difficult to identify with, but I had their attention. "My father wrote all this down because I am not there to listen to him. Let's forget about writing. Why don't we talk and capture our memories."

From then on our meetings became occasions of joy -- good friends gathering once a week to celebrate our friendship. Our laughter is a common accompaniment to our talk. More people drift in each time. We join several tables together. Those who want to do so write at home and share their work with us, but the majority talk on a chosen subject, and I record them. At the end of three months we have enough material for a booklet. One of the ladies illustrates it with drawings. It makes a fine Christmas present for their grandchildren.

I realize how deep their roots are in this county, how real their understanding of the value of farming and hard work. Their speech patterns fit the stories they tell me. They remember old customs, and we laugh together at sayings only the country folks now use. When Mr. John stands up to recollect courting customs of his youth, he speaks of his Isolene, "to my mind the prettiest girl I ever did see," of their long marriage, "the Lord blessed us with six head of children," of her passing six months before. He concludes, "but if anyone was to weep for John, these should be tears of joy. It has been a wonderful life."

He has spoken of a rich love which lasted 60 years in a world where most relationships are often ephemeral and empty. I hug his simple words to my heart.

"How lucky I am," I tell Betty, my assistant, as I leave. "They trust me with what is most precious to them. They must like me."

She confides that daughters have sent word -- Mom -- Dad -- live from Tuesday to Tuesday. Tell Mrs. Whitley.

I walk to my car smiling. There is such a buoyancy to my spirit that I feel very young and happy. As I sit a moment to meditate, I realize that this youthful joy has been given to me by very old people -- a nice paradox.