Deborah Alexander writes … Word that the local doctor was leaving hadn’t reached my ears so I was surprised at seeing the little waiting-room packed to the rafters with patients.
I finally managed to sit down and the elderly woman next to me explained, ‘He’s leaving on Monday so everyone is here to get their prescriptions. He’s writing prescriptions left, right and centre.’
Doctors in France have something of a reputation for being generous in their doling out of a range of medication and the recipients all seem grateful to leave with a pass to pillage the local pharmacy.
The long wait obliges us to find ways to pass the time so the elderly woman begins by telling me that she is ninety. She adds that she doesn’t come from this small town in the Southern corner of France but was in fact born in Paris.
Running this timeline through my ever-curious brain, I make an observation.
‘So if you’re ninety and you were in Paris, perhaps you remember the German occupation of Paris in the Second World War?’
‘Yes, I do,’ she says and goes on to tell me her memories of soldiers marching through the city, looking fearsome in troop formation but when encountered individually on the street, yet talking kindly to the children and giving them sweets. There were clearly many who didn’t have the good fortune to see this side of the occupying forces. We talked, or rather I listened, until I was almost disappointed to hear the doctor call me through.
We could have talked about the weather. Or not at all. I could have perused my phone, connecting with distant and often unknown contacts, whilst ignoring someone sitting right next to me, someone who had witnessed a traumatic and dramatic moment in European history.
If you take the time to look around you, there are storytellers like this ninety-year old Parisian woman everywhere. To the outside world they may take the appearance of an elderly man shuffling along to the corner shop for his newspaper. Or a pair of women having a natter on a park bench. They aren’t shouting their stories out from the rooftops. Nor are they posting them on Facebook or Instagram. So if you want to hear them, you have to take the time to talk. And listen.
A recent project based in the London area, involving stories told by the older generation, caught my attention. ‘The Rotherhithe Babes’ are a group of women in their eighties and nineties who, with the help of people like Candy Worf and Jolie Goodman and the ‘Standing Together’ project, have recorded their memories of growing up in the Docklands area of Rotherhithe. If you visit the Mental Health Foundation website, you can see a videoclip of the women talking.
Alternatively, you can download their book, ‘Our Ups and Downs: Growing Up and Getting On with the Rotherhithe Babes’. I found these stories fascinating, funny and occasionally heart-breaking. Intimate insights into the everyday experiences of ordinary people that bring history to life.
The ‘Standing Together’ project is attempting to address and find solutions for the loneliness of many elderly residents. It is a London-based project but it serves to highlight a situation that is spread across the country and undoubtedly further.
Loneliness is a widespread problem, but often an invisible one, particularly in the older generation, many of whom are used to being stoic in difficult situations and who don’t want to ‘be a bother’.
However, taking the time to talk with and to listen to people shouldn’t, in my opinion, be seen as a charitable act, but rather as an opportunity. Many older people don’t see their stories as being anything special, don’t recognize that they have often been witness to extraordinary events such as the Blitz or the Depression, or they can give us insights into how families lived in another time, before the arrival of electricity, telephones or the internet.
Queuing up at the supermarket, standing at the bus-stop or residing in a care-home just down the road…storytellers abound. It just takes a moment, a simple hello and the time to listen.
Deborah Alexander – www.reflective-writing-group.org