Hearing His Stories
Rosalind Moran, Division 3, College junior #ws16e-s1d3

Very few of the truly enduring experiences in life can be captured in a single day. The mere term ‘best experience’ implies an event or feeling which is somehow above, and apart from, every other moment. Yet how can that be the case, when experiences are so often culminations of groundwork laid in the time which preceded them? The best experience in one’s life is unlikely to be a random moment frozen in time, unexpected, and disconnected from passions and aspirations. It is, in my opinion at least, far more likely to be a period of time appreciated ever more in hindsight. As expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Life is a journey, not a destination”; and, I would argue, the same can be said for experiences. With this in mind, I would like to share with you the best experience of my life so far – the culmination of which would have been nothing without the years which led up to it.  

My great-uncle and I never lived in the same country: he resided in a cottage by the sea, in Cornwall, England, and I was raised in the parched embrace of inland Australia. Yet we always had an affinity for one another, and stayed in touch through the occasional family holiday. My childhood memories of him are punctuated by flashes of awe (the time he convinced me that seaside residence qualified him to be a pirate), nausea (the time we went sailing), and fearful reverence (the time he abducted my stuffed animals). Most of all, however, I remember a very kind person who enjoyed a quiet existence, tending to a sprawling maze of a garden with his wife. 

As a small child, I did not foresee the impact that we would come to have on one another’s lives. My first clue, however, came many years before I fully understood it. I had been looking through the cupboards in the guest bedroom of his house – searching for Narnia, no doubt – when I came across a heavy set of clothing which I now know to be a British World War II uniform. 

My great-uncle found me shortly afterwards, poring over a small stash of photographs, documents, and badges that I had unearthed. I have a faint recollection of him, my great-aunt, and my parents kindly explaining what the uniform was, and about that for which it had been used. 

This was hardly the best experience of my life – far from it. It was, however, the beginning my intellectual connection with my great-uncle. His wartime experience as a young man helped me cultivate my understanding of morals, and underpin many of my thoughts on good, evil, and empathy for the complex nature of human motivation. How could someone for whom I cared, for example, have killed other men who looked just like him? Moreover, as a child, two of my closest friends were coincidentally of German and Japanese descent – sparking further reflection. 

My great-uncle became something of an enigmatic figure to me, and I decided that I wanted to know him better. By this time, I was in my early teens, and my great-aunt had passed away; I felt he would welcome the contact. While geographic impediments might have put a quick end to my fledgling ambitions of connection, my mother fortunately suggested I write to him. After all, while my great-uncle probably received a thrill from shouting on the telephone, our phone calls tended to be low in successful communication. Such are the shortcomings of hearing problems; however, this ultimately consolidated a mutual gain.  

My great-uncle and I began writing letters to one another while I was in still high school. I commented that I was the only person my age that I knew who wrote letters; he replied that he was also the only letter-writer his age of whom he knew either, but that that was because the majority of his friends were “regrettably deceased”. Thus I became acquainted with the true character of my great-uncle: quietly droll, and in possession of all his faculties in spite of being a nonagenarian. Indeed, I often found myself thinking that it must have been hell, to be him; he was trapped in a body which was more often off than on its last legs, and yet his mind was a sharp as a rapier’s blade. 

In hindsight, one of the best acts of my life so far has undoubtedly been to have stood with him against the spectre of isolation and irrelevance, which haunts the doorways of the elderly and the infirm. While one might contest that this could hardly constitute a ‘best experience’, I disagree; though it may not have the individualistic fulfilment of winning a competition, or the altruism of volunteering in underprivileged environments, it has both impacted my life and the lives of many others. One might question the purpose of listening to the stories of a dying man, and fostering a friendship which, temporally at least, was doomed from the start. Yet I find that mindset to be unnecessarily fatalistic. To overlook the value of the relationship I had with my great-uncle is to focus on experience as an end – indeed, judging it by its destination – rather than as a journey leading to greater understanding, and enriched lives. 

My great-uncle told me stories about a world which was entirely different to my own. He taught me about honour; he discussed with me how, as a young pilot, certain that he was going to die, his views on life changed. His experiences also showed me that extreme situations can cause even the gentlest of people to take actions which, in any other time or place, would be considered unforgivable – and this challenged my own perceptions of right and wrong. Furthermore, on a lighter note, he also inspired me academically via his unusual gift for language learning, having notably studied Russian and German to the degree that he had read Tolstoy and Kafka in the original. Thanks to his encouragement, I have gone on to study several languages myself, and am presently in Taiwan learning Mandarin. 

After several years of corresponding with my great-uncle via letters, the opportunity finally came for me to be able to meet him again in person, as an adult. Coming from a small family, I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing one of my few remaining family members again; and, fortunately, it would seem that my great-uncle felt the same way about me. We met at the train station – he was shorter than I recalled, gravity and time having bent his spine – but he still had the same kind voice and impeccable wit that I recognised from our correspondence. 

If I had to freeze a moment in time, and file it carefully away, it would have to be the moment when I gave him his Christmas present. I had spent several weeks crocheting a blanket for him – a startling mass of patterns and colours – which I hoped would bring a little brightness, that his life was wont to lack, back into his home. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I gave it to him. 

One might wonder what has become of this experience now. My great-uncle passed away not long after my visit, and I no longer have a best friend who is also a nonagenarian. Yet in the way typical of the best experiences, our friendship continues to impact my life. Our years of correspondence inspired me to write letters to my own friends, and to my great happiness, I now have several friendships which are infinitely enriched by the carefully considered and personalised power of the hand-written word. Furthermore, I finally found a way of paying homage to the heart encased within the soldier’s uniform, by writing and publishing the true story of how my great-uncle returned the Iron Cross to the widow of a man he shot down. 

This last example, above all, shows the true merit of the experience of which I feel privileged to have been a part. By listening to an old man’s story and by learning from it, I have not only enriched my own life, but also been able to create a medium through which the experiences of my great-uncle may come to impact others. In this sense, our friendship not only led to the best experience in my personal life, but it also came to be a great experience objectively; for it is an experience which can be shared, which can educate, and which can thus keep our memories alive. 
Shared publicly