The Rising Is in the Telling: Learning from My Elders

by Rosann Kent (and Sarah Moore).

When I wanted to understand the role of recall in the aging process, I did what any self-respecting journalist would do: I interviewed the experts. I talked to psychiatrists and psychologists who specialize in memory, researchers who study the mind-brain connection, as well as the pioneers of reminiscence and narrative therapy. I attended their conferences, studied their literature and discovered that the mind cannot absorb more than the behind can endure. But it was an elder who taught me what I needed to learn the most about the life-giving connection between stories and growing older. Her name was Sarah Moore, but we could call her Tweet. When she first came to spiritual autobiography class, this elder from a small town in northeast Georgia immediately apologized for being there. She had wanted to tell stories all her life, but wasn’t too sure if she had any worth telling. Nothing big had ever happened to her, she said. After all, she’d never traveled that far from her dairy farm. Her English high school teachers, especially that one she had in the 10th grade, had discouraged her with their sharp criticisms. But as the weeks went by, she slowly began to share some of the most powerful narratives I’ve ever heard about living and loving, aging and dying. They began as simple anecdotes but grew, layer upon layer, into a rich tapestry, interwoven with many layers of meaning. As her stories brought laughter and tears, Tweet grew realizing that she indeed had stories worth telling. After class one day, I asked her what had changed.

“You see,” she demonstrated by clasping her arms tightly in front of her, “I realized that when you are young, your body holds your spirit close. You worry about all the things of the body. Appearances … children … housework. You don’t have time to think about what really matters. But as you get older, the things of the body begin to break away ….”And with a graceful, slow motion, she began to unfold one of her hands and forearms from the other, lifting it slightly. “And you can start concentrating on things of the spirit. And as you get closer to the end, your spirit can go free.” One arm flew upward, while the other dangled at her side. “You see,” she said, “the rising is in the telling.”

The rising is in the telling. It was one of those moments when the ear of my heart recognized what all the pundits have been trying to say: At its deepest level, story sharing can be much more than a nostalgic diversion. It can serve as the embarking point for the most fundamental of all human quests: the search for meaning in the face of death. For elders, stories told and heard can facilitate the transformation from scared to sacred.

There is a great deal of scientific research to back this up in my overflowing file cabinets. But, as Tweet taught me, the best way to understand story is to experience it. So listen to her recall one of her wise elders who also knew that the rising was in the telling:

Despite Successful surgery and absolutely no medical reason for any complications, Daddy did not recover as rapidly as expected from his colon cancer surgery.

“Mr. Reid must start wanting to live, or he isn’t going to,” the bewildered doctors explained.

Mama called me and my sisters in to help her. “Your daddy wants me right by his side all the time,” she said. “He’s getting so weak. I guess he wants to be sure I’m there till he has his last breath. He’s sure not here for

As we went in to see Daddy, we were too smart to mention the cancer word he so dreaded. Instead, we bombarded him with cheerful voices. “Oh Daddy, you’re looking better today!” Or, “Isn’t it wonderful how successful your surgery was!”

Despite our best efforts, we failed miserably, for he thought we were not telling him the whole truth. He was 84 years old, and he felt he’d received a death warrant. We finally decided that our brothers, Alex and Jewel, needed to be called so they could have their last chance to see Daddy. As we were talking about making arrangements, the doorbell rang.

“Liza! Where did you come from? How did you get here?” we heard my sister exclaim. She escorted the tiny black lady who had cooked for our parents from the time they returned from their honeymoon until several years past their golden wedding anniversary. Liza returned when they retired and now lived beside my sister’s farm, many miles from town.

“Well, I heard how sick Mr. Reid was, so I got a friend to bring me over for a visit when she came to town to do her grocery shopping,” Liza explained. “So here I am. Now, where’s Mr. Reid? I need to see him.”

We led her to Daddy’s room. She entered and, despite her diminutive size, immediately took charge in her old accustomed manner.

“Mizz Carrie, you jes go on out and visit with your girls while I visit with Mr. Reid,” she told Mama, who obeyed immediately.

Daddy made no protest when she left his side. Meanwhile, out in the living room, we talked to Mama about calling Alex and Jewel. “They would be upset not to have a final visit,” I said.

As we continued to discuss plans for the end, we heard Daddy’s door open. We then heard Daddy’s voice-stronger and more cheerful. “Liza,” he said, “Good to see ya. Come back soon.”

“Yassuh, I’ll come back soon as somebody comes to town and can bring me by. You jes’ keep on getting’ better,” she ordered.

As soon as the door closed, we all surrounded her. “What in the world did you do? What did you say to get Daddy to cheer up? We’ve done everything we can think of, and it hasn’t helped a bit.”

“Well,” she mused, “I went in there and Mr. Reid said, ‘Liza, I’m a sick man.’ And I said to him, ‘Yassuh, that’s what I heard and that’s why I come.’ Then I jes’ talked with him, ’bout how we’d raised six fine children. We jes’ talked and talked about all the good things that happened in all those years. You see, I jes’ walked Mr. Reid right on up to heaven-and he’s such as gentleman, he jes walked me halfway back.”

After our silence and not-so-muffled sniffling, Tweet beamed and added a postscript. “We had five more wonderful years with Daddy. And I have lots more Liza stories left to tell.”

This article first appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.

Rosann Kent, a graduate student in the storytelling program at East Tennessee State University, is working on a book called “Harvesting the Wisdom Tree: How to Write the Stories of a Lifetime.”

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