At 7 a.m. I meet my friend who lives nearby and we proceed to the little development around the corner for our morning walk. Today the air is cooler than yesterday, but it is still a bit muggy. Clouds gathering overhead cover us like a blanket and, in threadbare spots, the sun peeks through.
It is not just exercise. We ask about each other’s days, share stories of our lives, and help solve each other’s problems. We greet neighborhood pets, who are always happy to see us, if only perhaps for the treats I carry in my pockets.
This morning, after heavy thunderstorms, we marvel at how little damage was done in this suburban area that traditionally suffers many felled trees and downed power lines. The profuse flowers around one particular mailbox are a bit flattened, but I take a picture of them anyway because they are still so beautiful.
Making due with less
Our conversation turns to power outages and how they force us to make do with less. My friend recalls her mother, who cooked from scratch, used every part of the chicken and hand-made her children’s clothes, all while working full time.
I think this is how the story began. I listened, mesmerized, as my friend spoke of her childhood in Italy, where she was born during the war. Her father was a government official responsible for the safekeeping of historical documents. They were often buried here and there as the Germans overran their country.
Survival during World War II was a challenge. The Germans made themselves at home and took whatever they wanted without asking. One day, they showed up at my friend’s family’s house for their piano. They were unable to get it out the door, so instead, they came over from time to time and brought someone to play while they sat around and listened.
At one point the Germans took my friend’s father captive and he was held at a concentration camp near their village. His wife went to beg for his release. The only person brave enough to accompany her was the town’s unmarried woman of dubious reputation. They were greeted at the camp by a young soldier who menacingly brandished a rifle and used it to restrain her against the wall.
“Look at you,” the desperate spouse said, the weapon at her throat. “You are young enough to be my son. Would you shoot your own mother?” When entreaties and attempts at shame failed, the resourceful wife pointed to her husband, whose face showed the effects of Bell’s palsy. “You see, he is ill and of no use to you, and besides, it is contagious.”
Came to America
They released him; she walked him home, both of them safe for the moment. Later, bombs destroyed their house along with the piano. They came to America, and this wonderful and highly educated man took whatever job he could to support his family.
At memorial services, when I am asked to speak, I like to read Robert Frost’s poem, “A Time to Talk.” I am also reminded of the verse in Ecclesiastes, “to every thing there is a season . . . a time to be silent and a time to speak.”
I think of all the stories that have been lost forever because no one took the time to sit and listen. I think of my father, who served in World War II with Eisenhower, and my step-father, who was a Marine in the South Pacific at the same time.
I remember all the stories in my own head — simple memories of childhood, funny things that happened, and experiences that have helped shape me the way I am today. I wonder about all we have missed because we did not take the time to listen.
The lesson is clear and simple. Take time to talk; take time to listen. Our time is the most precious commodity we have, and our gift of it to others can sometimes result in the gift of a wonderful story in return.
I am enriched by the story of my neighbor’s family and their experiences in a war I have only heard about. A simple conversation with a friend or a loved one has the potential to unlock a treasure chest of marvelous stories. Take time to listen.
Audrey J. Osterlitz lives in Burnt Hills. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.