New York Times  Bestselling Author

Unexpected Gifts

Sometimes you find the prize when you’re not looking for it.

John and I were traveling the backroads of eastern North Carolina recently as I researched the setting for my work-in-progress, The Lies We Told. We stopped for an ice cream cone at an out-of-the-way restaurant, and we sat on the restaurant’s tiny porch, licking our yummy cones and chatting about my book. On the bench across from us, an elderly couple nibbled their own cones. Here is where I change a few details, because this is a true story and I don’t want this couple to be recognizable.

I wanted to talk to them, because . . . well, because I nearly always want to talk to strangers. They were dressed in their Sunday best, sitting about two feet from one another, and I wanted to know their story. So I said something profound, like, “Mm. Isn’t this good ice cream?” That was all it took. The woman never made eye contact with me, but I believe the man had been waiting for an invitation.

“We come here mos’ ever Sunday since we was kids,” he said. “They serve up the best fried green ‘maters you ever et.”

I listened to him talk–paying attention to the words he used, the cadence, the music in his voice–with fascination, wishing I could record him. His was the voice I’d been trying to capture for a few of my characters. I felt so lucky to have stumbled across him. 

I asked him questions to keep him talking. He owned a small store not far from where we sat. It was known far and wide as the place to buy a jar of Duke’s mayonnaise or a tin of chewing tobacco. One of the Miss North Carolinas used to toddle around the store when she was a child. And one time, a man rode his horse into the store, swept a female clerk onto the beast’s back, and proposed to her right there. Best of all, the old man told me, the store had a broad front porch and it was the place you’d go to sit and visit with your neighbors. He’d owned it since he was twenty-three. He was now seventy-six, and two months earlier, his store–and its history–had burned to the ground.

He began to cry. Tears ran down his cheeks and his voice cracked over the words, but he continued talking. I knew he wanted me to understand what his store had meant to him. It had been more than just a store; it was his heart and soul, the place where he’d been gathering his neighbors close to him for more than fifty years. Tears came to my own eyes as I listened to him. I stood up and crossed the porch to hug him, feeling helpless, wishing I could make things right for him again.

My heart ached as John and I pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. I thought about the gift the man had given me by sharing his story. Maybe I gave him one back by listening. I hope so. His wife hadn’t looked at him once while he talked, but who knows what her story is? I think of her husband often, and I know he’ll stay with me for a long, long time, because the music of his voice is in the pages of my book.   

7 Comments

  1. ronnie on August 21, 2009 at 8:33 am

    The sharing of marriage…
    The old man placed an order for one hamburger, French fries and a drink.
    He unwrapped the plain hamburger and carefully cut it in half, placing one half in front of his wife.
    He then carefully counted out the French fries, dividing them into two piles and neatly placed one pile in front of his wife.
    He took a sip of the drink; his wife took a sip and then set the cup down between them. As he began to eat his few bites of hamburger, the people around them were looking over and whispering.
    Obviously they were thinking, ‘That poor old couple – all they can afford is one meal for the two of them.’
    As the man began to eat his fries a young man came to the table and politely offered to buy another meal for the old couple. The old man said, they were just fine – they were used to sharing everything.
    People closer to the table noticed the little old lady hadn’t eaten a bite. She sat there watching her husband eat and occasionally taking turns sipping the drink.
    Again, the young man came over and begged them to let him buy another meal for them.
    This time the old woman said ‘No, thank you,we share everything.’
    Finally, as the old man finished and was wiping his face neatly with the napkin, the young man again came over to the little old lady who had yet to eat a single bite of food and asked ‘What is it you are waiting for?’
    She answered —
    ‘THE TEETH.’
    sorry I couldn’t resist!

  2. Margo on August 21, 2009 at 8:41 am

    What an emotional story Diane…from the beginning I knew that this man had given you a gift for your story but I was so saddened when I heard the end of his tale…I absolutely think you gave him a gift by listening to him…who knew what was up with his wife…possibly bitterness over the loss of the store…but he needed to talk to someone and you were it. I think you were both in the right place at the right time.

  3. Emilie Richards on August 21, 2009 at 9:50 am

    That’s beautiful, Diane, and oh, so sad.

  4. Joyce Whitley on August 21, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Diane, I was in New York City last May experiencing the wonder of “New York”. The hustle and bustle, the crouds, the noise, the very grouchy people who just wanted to get to point ‘B’. As I was riding along in the bus wondering to myself if I could live in this world I happened to look out the window to a sight that will always stay with me. Right there on the edge of Central Park, in the midst of the hords of humanity going somewhere, sat a couple that had to be at least in their 80’s. She had on a nice spring dress, a little dark for the season, but still springy enough and he had on a suit with a vest and hat. This is not what caught my attention though. Here it was at about 11:30 a.m. and they were sitting on a park bench, she had her foot in his lap and he was massaging it with the most satisfied look on his face. Her other foot just hanging off the bench as if it already had been lovingly caressed and was just enjoying itself while it’s partner was now being loved. I just thought, Is this what life is really all about? Having someone who loves you so much that they are willing to stop at one of the busiest times of the day just to rub my aching feet, in his good suit, and be satisfied doing it? How wonderful life would be if this is what really drove us. Not money, jobs, bills, power but just someone who loves us enough to massage our aching feet, in public, while out for a walk in central park and be happy to do it. I think I would smile much more if this were my life.

  5. Diane Chamberlain on August 21, 2009 at 11:58 am

    LOL, Ronnie!

  6. Diane Chamberlain on August 21, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    That’s so touching, Joyce. I love those little vignettes that touch us deeply and stay with us for years and years.

  7. Margo on August 22, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Oh Ronnie, you’re too much…I lol!!…my mother will love that story…my husband takes my mother on errands and things and they have a joke between them about her teeth…when they first see each other he either asks her ‘do you have your teeth’ or she speaks first and tells him ‘I have my teeth’…you see, Gary always takes her to lunch and 1 time she forgot her teeth so she settled for ice cream. You can never tell if mom has her teeth in or not because only the lowers or false…anyway, thank you for sharing that.
    Beautiful story Joyce…

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