My husband Matt and I are sitting around the kitchen table with Nanny, engulfed in chain smoke from her Winston 100’s. It’s Christmas in Selma, Indiana, and a blizzard has hit this eight-hundred person town where I used to live with my grandparents. Only the farmers’ sons on their snowmobiles can pass the roads, so there’s nothing to do but play Skip-Bo and talk.
Nanny is animated as she tells us stories from her past. The whites of her eyes have yellowed from years of smoking, but they light up as she recounts getting into fights at the county fair, growing up a coal miner’s daughter in Appalachia, stoking drama from the Free Will Baptist Church she attends.
I have always been mesmerized by her stories. Even as a little kid I was always the last one at the table, head desperately nodding so I could stay awake for every word. I loved seeing the wrinkles on her face come alive, the cross around her neck sway, her excessive jewelry shine.
Tonight, though, things feel different. I haven’t been home in almost a year because I’ve been busy running a design agency in Seattle. I find my thoughts drifting as I think about the work I have waiting for me back in a house with filtered water and the internet. For the first time, I notice myself tuning out.
I linger over a scene from the week before: Some web friends and I are at a professional meetup at a bar. People are friendly, but there is a heightened energy in the air—we’re all checking our phones obsessively, tweeting overheards, snapping pictures of one another mid-sip.
The difference between my two worlds feels like a record skipping, and I wonder if the disjointed parts can ever be balanced, even connected. How do Nanny’s stories factor into my life now? How do the two relate?
I am stuck on this thought when Nanny interrupts. Her drawl sounds like static and sandpaper bent over a steel guitar. She’s telling a story about Halloween in Jamestown, Tennessee, in the 1950s. As a practical joke, she and her sisters moved the outhouse, leaving the well beneath exposed. Then they sat behind a tree all night, waiting for someone to fall in.
“J.D. Pritchett never came by to fall in,” she says. “But, boy, Daddy almost did. I thought for sure he’d whup us when he realized what we’d done but instead he just stood there, scratchin’ his thick head, wonderin’ what happened to the outhouse.” She looks each of us straight in the eye to make sure we know how funny it is.
I’ve heard this story a hundred times, but I still love it. I feel grateful for the image I will always have of three young girls cracking up in their nightgowns, waiting for their father to fall into a shithole.
I look up at Matt and notice that for the first time in months, he, too, is completely absorbed. Focused. His phone and camera are nowhere in sight. He’s just sitting there with a huge grin on his face, looking back and forth between Nanny and me. We’re all having fun. We’re all laughing. Nobody wants to do anything next.
Nanny’s stories seem to have a special power over everyone she tells them to. You show up at her house, she stuffs you with pinto beans and cornbread and instant coffee, and the rest of the night you just sit there, doing nothing but listening to each other talk. The feeling is of being transported to someone else’s world, into another life, so that the one you’ve created, great as it is, fades into the background for a moment.
This must be what people mean when they talk about why good stories matter. It’s what they mean when they talk about exposing yourself to people who are different from you. Such people, great storytellers or not, have a story; they teach you there is life out there beyond your own.
Back in Seattle, my inbox is growing and my clients want their content. But right now, I can’t think of anything more productive than just sitting here, letting Nanny’s stories wash over me. When I go back to work, I know it will be with a greater appreciation, a deeper sense of empathy. That’s what listening teaches you.
It’s what good stories are for.