Careful listening brings

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 9, 1999

rewarding memories

Listen carefully when old people speak, for they not only talk softly, but important lessons long forgotten may be whispered into history. Three ladies, ages 102 to 106, convinced me to listen closer as I interviewed them for an article for Friends and Family magazine, an Alabama Farmers Federation publication. I call them my Ladies of the Century and they were a joy to write about, and a blessing to know.

My biggest fear was realized last Thursday when Lester Wooley Gregory died at 102 with the magazine not yet released. Miss Les, blind for some time now, looked forward to having the article read to her. It seems unfair for her to miss this final small pleasure and like family members who begin to think once a loved one passes 100 that maybe they will defy life and live forever, her death came as a shock. Today I am reminded of her love of history and how her eyes grew large when we talked about her remembrances going to more than 300,000 readers. "How wonderful," she replied.

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She told a story about "Big Jim" Folsom and seeing him in Selma, but mostly she spoke of the "old days" and her struggle to get a college education to teach school, her daddy’s years in the mines, and the families in the community where she lived. Miss Les knew people who didn’t believe the moon landing ever happened, but she said, "I know Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I just know he did." She spoke with pride of Dr. Martin Luther King and "that lady (Viola Liuzzo) from the North" and their work for civil rights, and she spoke with happiness of her family’s own struggles in a segregated community.

At funeral services Sunday in Rushing Springs Baptist Church, the Rev. James Wright eulogized Miss Les as "one sharp lady," a thought echoed by her former paper boy, Richard Davis, now a minister and a frequent visitor to Miss Les at the Jefferson County Nursing Home. He noted Miss Les’ recall of events was remarkable and her sense of humor stayed intact until the day she died.

Miss Les and her fellow residents, Lillie Smith Love Erwin, 102, and Minnie Green, 106, regaled me on eveal afternoons with stories passed from person to person for more than a century. Stories that made me realize something I had forgotten. It’s the personal things that count the most no matter how long we’ve lived. The invention of the indoor toilet was ranked as a number one invention to all three, and seeing man on the moon was big, but a mother teaching a daughter how to pat out biscuits on a wooden table and a tiny girl who loved to climb trees with her brothers brought tears.

The struggle of a family to live in a confined world, the fear of a brother at war, and the burying of a child make for a life. A sense of humor was evident in all these ladies from Miss Minnie’s insistence that she be allowed to hold her own cup of hot coffee, "but bring me the real stuff," to Miss Lillie’s question, "what am I going to get out of all this?" Well, we can read you the article, I told her. "Why do I want to hear it, I already know what’s in it," she retorted. OK. How about a special present like something good to eat or drink? "I got everything I need right here," she told me.

She thought a minute.

"Hey. You know those old Co-Colas? The ones in the little glass bottles? They tasted the best," she hinted and then boldy, "You can bring me one of those."

Miss Les, Miss Minnie and Miss Lillie have become part of my family stories, just as their lives are reflected in the family memories shared by those who first loved them and the people who stand beside them today. We need to listen to old people. They have much to say.

Fran Sharp is a freelance writer in Alabaster. Email her at fsharp1229@aol.com.

Dec. 9, 1999 10 AM