Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

New Prose by Ann Rogers-Williams

From three blocks away you can spot them in one little huddle, gently holding on to each other’s sleeves as they slowly weave their way down Main Street. Ella, Marge and Cele navigate their way around the uneven terrain of the sidewalk pushed up by the roots of great old Chestnut trees. Cele is always in front with her walker slowing the other two down, but they never seem to mind as they chatter their way down the street—ever mindful of tripping hazards. They maneuver around them as if they were dodging land mines.

“Ooh, there’s lots of chestnuts on the ground today,” Ella says.

“Watch out for that one,” says Cele, the leader, as she rolls over the cracks of broken pavement.

Marge brings up the rear, her baby bird tufts of unruly white hair blowing crazily in the slight breeze.

All three ladies are in their mid-80s. Strong survivors of war, recession, labor disputes, parenthood, pestilence, bad food, and bad boyfriends. They are full of wonderful transparency and guilelessness in some respects, and they share a gift for weaving such dramatic stories out of the most mundane things. One of the greatest gifts they’ve ever given me and each other is their love of storytelling.

Out of courtesy to the listener they might begin their story with “Did I ever tell you this?” Or, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.” Or, “I might be repeating myself when I tell you this, but…” There’s always a brief stall of embarrassment at the beginning but quickly the momentum of the story just takes over. I’ve never yet heard them say, “Oh, so you did hear this one before.” And stop there.

And even though it’s often the same story, there’s always something new in it. A catch in the voice. A change in a detail. A missed sequence. The same story is never the same.

Today, they are preparing for the annual Solstice event at our church. They have been working on this event for weeks. Sending out flyers, organizing the potluck refreshments, decorating the church, scheduling the Sunday school singers and, this year, dancers for the event. There’s plenty to pull off but they know what they are doing—they’ve been doing this for years.

Every year people come from the community on December 21st or 22nd, depending on the year, to participate in the Solstice celebration. Ella, Cele, and Marge usually preside over the festivities, which consist of a presentation by the Unitarian minister about the tradition of Solstice followed by music, followed by a verse and a ritual where people basically call out what they’d like to leave behind in the darkness, followed by dancing through and around the church, followed by food.

The three of them are sitting around a table tying garlands and laughing about what was left in the darkness last solstice as if they are digging through last year’s trash.

“Well, you know how people can be so somber about calling out things that they’d like to leave behind.” Says Ella, her fingers winding wire around the ends of a garland they are all working on.

“Yeah, it’s usually stuff like petty jealousy or bigger stuff like war, racism… You know, the serious things,” says, Cele, reaching for more wire and thread.

“My favorite was when some guy called out ‘I’d like to leave about 30 pounds in the darkness,’ Marge laughs.

They all laugh then, even though this happened five years ago and they’ve all heard this story at least as many times.

“Ooh, I wish I’d thought of that,” says Cele, patting her hip. “I’ve got a few generous portions to give to the darkness myself.”

Marge goes on about that night, describing how the man looked and how the whole congregation laughed and how such a small gesture just made things seem a little friendlier from then on. They spend the whole afternoon drinking decaf and laughing and retelling old stories.

At one point Cele announces to me that the three of them have known each other since they were in elementary school and that sometimes they forget who’s memory is whose. “But,” she said pulling on my sleeve, “I’ll tell you a little secret about stories, dear.”

I lean in closer to give her my full attention.

“Life is a spiral.”

“What?”

“Life. It’s a spiral. Get it?”

“OK? Not really?”

“It means, dear, that our stories will never get old as long as somebody’s there to love them in a new way each time they come around,” Ella chimes in.

“Our stories will never get old,” Marge repeats.

And yours’ won’t either.

Ann Rogers-Williams is a writer, artist and student living in Portland, Oregon.  Originally from L.A. by way of Massachusetts, her stories reflect her appreciation for diversity within American culture and the wide spectrum of gifts that people of all ages bring to the table.

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