Recently I gave my classes an assignment to write about a time in their lives when they displayed courage. I wasn’t thinking about the kind of behavior that society typically associates with courage: bravery in the face of danger. I wanted my students to consider times in their lives when they took risks–left a difficult job or marriage, for example, or began a new career. These moves take great courage, because remaining where we are sometimes feels safer and more comfortable than facing the unknown.
Many of us display other kinds of courage, which we often discount, like facing the diagnosis of a serious illness–our own or a loved one’s–and putting on a cheerful face so others won’t feel sad. There are all kinds of ways we put on a brave front or do the brave thing that don’t garner applause or a mention in the paper, but say everything about who we are. That’s the kind of behavior I wanted my students to bring to life in their stories.
Several years ago Gene Hensley, whose story appears below, received the news that she had only six months to live. She wrote a poignant and surprisingly upbeat story about receiving that news and how it affected the rest of her day. The story struck a chord with thousands of readers, for it found a place in several publications, both print and digital. It has been three years since Gene wrote that story … and she’s still alive and writing–at 92! She’s a hero to all who know her.
In the story below, Gene reaches back to the girl she was at 14 when she stood up to an emotionally troubled adult at a time when children were “seen but not heard.” Note particularly how Gene communicates her feelings throughout the story. She doesn’t just TELL us how she felt, she SHOWS us by describing behavior that illustrates those feelings. Novelists use this technique effectively to draw readers into the world of their story. It works equally well in personal histories.
by Gene Hensley
I don’t remember the neighbor’s name. At 92 I’m afraid her name escapes me, but then I was about 14 years old. Mrs. Smith? The name itself has a cozy anonymity. So meet Mrs. Smith.
Mrs. Smith puzzled me often, but for over a year I gladly babysat and did housework for her—any money a teenager could earn was gratefully accepted in 1931. She had me doing easy housework at ten cents an hour, but followed me around asking questions about me and my family: Why did my sister get a divorce? Why did Papa leave Mama? Did Mama have any boyfriends? Did I? Questions that bothered me a little, but I answered them truthfully and forgot the incident until the next time.
And at least once, sometimes twice, she changed her clothes in front of me while I worked in her bedroom. I didn’t understand, and it was so unusual I told Mama. She couldn’t figure it out either. We laughed about it, but Mama told me to excuse myself from the room if it happened again.
Helen, Mrs. Smith’s niece, came to spend the summer with her. Helen was my age and I liked her very much. She had been there for about two weeks, I guess, when one day she came over to my house and said she wouldn’t be able to see me anymore. I was shocked. She hadn’t planned to leave for another month.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because Aunt Betty doesn’t want me to be around somebody with a bad reputation.”
Disbelief held my tongue for several moments while I thought about that. Mama told us our reputation is the most valuable asset we’d ever have. Once lost, we’d never get it back. Finally I said, “She wasn’t talking about me. I don’t have a bad reputation.”
Helen looked straight into my eyes, shifted her feet and said, “Yes you do. My aunt said so.”
I felt hurt all over—somehow damaged. And suddenly I was angry, angry beyond any anger I had ever felt. It flashed all over me, the same way I felt the hurt. I started walking, passing Helen without a word, walking faster, and then running toward the Smith’s back door. Once there I reached for the handle and yanked the screen door open, charged into the kitchen and shouted at Mrs. Smith’s back leaving the kitchen, trying to get away from me, I thought.
“Come back here!” I ordered. “I have something to say to you.”
Trembling like a banjo string, I slid both hands down the outside frame of the straight-back chair I was using to hold myself upright. I remember how heavy the chair was and that I was glad. I wanted to kill her, with all my heart I wanted to kill her.
I took a step forward and lifted the chair above my head, ready to hit her with it. At that very moment the weight I held aloft disappeared; I turned around and there stood Mama, the chair in her hands. I couldn’t speak; dry sobs made my throat hurt and my whole body shake.
Mama said, “It’s all right, honey. Go home and I’ll take care of this.” I couldn’t answer her, but I walked home confused, ashamed, and heartbroken on several levels. When I got home, I walked straight to the linen closet. I leaned over to cry on clean, folded, stacked sheets. I hated to be seen crying, and chose to hide; the linen closet was my favorite place.
Before long Mama came in and put her arms around me. She didn’t say a word; in fact, the incident wasn’t mentioned, ever. She just held me and patted my shoulders and did some crying of her own, I’m sure.
The next day someone said Helen had gone home. I didn’t blame her. I hoped she didn’t get as hurt as I did.
I was afraid of my anger after that, and would not give in to it. Eventually, I seemed almost never to get really angry about anything–I was afraid to, afraid of myself, for I had learned that day what I, enraged, was capable of. I thank God for Mom’s intervention. I later learned that Mrs. Smith left for a sanitarium at the end of that week. I never saw her again.