Someone I know not but who is a reader of this column wrote to ask a question the other day. She had just finished reading my last book and was curious to know, “When these people or situations cross your life, do you take notes of what you’re learning from them?”
She, a journalism graduate herself, was intrigued by the stories I related and the lessons I had learned from them. I’m glad she asked for I want to share with you something I’ve been turning over in my mind.
Most of us — especially kids and teenagers — are too distracted these days by constant chatter to absorb situations and observe people who cross our paths. There’s too much talking and typing going on so brains are not being stretched and properly used. It’s almost laughable, I suppose, to remember all the summer evenings that Mama and I sat on the porch and watched the traffic go by.
We’d finish up a supper of fresh vegetables, wash the dishes and she’d say, “Let’s go out on the porch and sit a spell. We can watch the cars go by.”
Not that there were many — we lived out in the country where our address was Rural Route One — but there were enough to entertain us. She’d sit in the glider, often stringing beans, while I sat on the steps. When the butter beans or peas came in, I’d shell them until my right thumb was tender to the touch. We listened to the crickets that sang, the frogs that croaked, the leafy tree limbs that rippled occasionally from an unexpected breeze and the squirrels that scampered about. If the night was otherwise still enough, we could hear the creek as the water harmonized with the rocks, flowing south to Atlanta then on to the Gulf of Mexico.
That fascinated me — the thought that the very water that I waded in and the one in which my cousin had baptized my dolls would eventually find itself in the sea. I wonder if kids think about things like that anymore. I wonder if they see a river and shrug it off, thinking merely that it’s wet. Not me. I pondered where the water came from, what it had seen and where it was going.
Once when I was 11 or 12, I was sprawled out under my favorite maple tree on the creek bank. I was lying on my belly, chin in hands, daydreaming as usual when I became completely immersed in studying a trail of ants who were on a busy march. I watched them for a long time and I remember saying to myself, “Everything I see in life will be something I can use. One day, I will think of these ants again.” And, look, that’s exactly what I’ve done.
On those summer nights on the porch, I recall how Mama would sit quietly — usually she was loquacious — and string those green beans. She was thinking. She wasn’t moping or worrying, she was simply studying life and developing her opinions and philosophies. Her wisdom was commonsensical and desired by many. When Mama died and people filed through the funeral home, dozens of women said, “I always went to her for advice. She was my best friend.”
Some of those women we had never seen nor heard of.
I learned a lot from Mama but, without question, one of the best lessons she taught me was to be still and quiet. To observe and think. Then, to use those observations to develop wisdom. And, just like Mama, I’m happy to dispense my advice to both the willing and the unwilling.
To the reader who asked: Thank you. It’s nice to be reminded of the education provided by nights on the porch, watching the cars go by. It’s sweet to remember where I learned to think and ponder.
I like thinking about it again.