Jacqui Banaszynski, one of our dearest speakers, writes Christmas letters to friends and family every year. Much of the one she wrote this year talks about her time in Romania and the serendipitous moments that conferences like us can create. We republished the letter, with Jacqui’s permission.
You meet people in passing at workshops and conferences. They reach out afterwards through email and social media and you sometimes reach back. They remember you if you have the chance to return, and rush up to welcome you, and sometimes you remember them. You are always honored, but the contact is fleeting and you move on to the next thing and the next. Your life is like that.
But some stick with you. Not always in the moment, but over time. You’re never sure why. An intriguing question they pose? (Which you try to practice and teach.) Their persistence, which is somehow generous and not pesky? (And which you try to practice and teach.) Some connection you simply can’t explain? (Which you try to understand and reciprocate but don’t always get right.)
I first met Cristina Balan at the inaugural Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest four years ago. Each year since, she has been in the audience, up five or six rows and a bit left of center, always attentive but never demanding – as some workshop groupies can be. After each conference, we would connect through Facebook with a brief exchange about writing, or a default LIKE. Nice. No big deal.
This past October in Bucharest, I found myself comforted – thrilled, really – to see Cristina in her usual place. I climbed the auditorium risers for a hello and hug. That seemed enough. More than enough.
Three mornings later, my hotel room phone rang. “Yes?” I answered. It was Cristina. Had she interrupted my sleep? Would I be at the hotel for the next 30 minutes? Did I have a bit of extra room in my luggage? I answered, not completely honestly: Of course not. Yes. Um…sure.
It is both a burden and a wonder when people you barely know give you gifts. It makes you feel a bit obligated, and it humbles you. It also reminds you of goodness as non-expectant and it is unexpected. That is more valuable than any material gift you receive.
After a mad dash to brush my teeth and throw on some hard-traveled jeans, I met Cristina in the hotel lobby. She handed me a large gift bag – not an inexpensive thing in itself in her world. It was sky blue with a beige leaf pattern surrounding a flowered center panel. A cut-out fairy with sparkly embossed wings was attached with mounting tape on the panel, as if floating above the field of flowers. The head and wings were a bit bent where the tape didn’t stick. It was very sweet and, to my sometimes-snooty Western mind, very Eastern European.
“Open it,” Cristina said. “I hope it’s OK.”
I reached inside. My fingers sunk into thick, warm cotton. I pulled out a sweater, hand-knit in deep navy with perfect cables and scallops, a V neckline, broad in the shoulders and cropped at the waist, with elbow-length sleeves and a row of six small but sturdy silver buttons down the front. I don’t much care about clothes and am not an easy fit, but this seemed like it was made for me.
I looked at Cristina with confusion.
“My mother”, she said. “This is what she did.”
There was a pause before she continued. “She has Alzheimer’s now. But this is what she did.”
I looked again at the sweater in my hands. “Oh”, I said. “Oh… You remembered.”
I’ve told a few stories about my own mother in recent years, at the conference where Cristina and I met, in classes and as I face my keyboard, as I’ve pondered the power and purpose of stories – especially stories we all, in someway, have in common. I’ve told about what I’ve learned from writing my mother’s obituary and having old family friends approach to tell stories about her that I never knew. About the endless pies she baked for whoever stopped in and the endless blankets she knit for wedding gifts and the endless Barbie doll clothes for the children that came after. About seeking the patience to listen to her repeat the same story over and over as her short-term memory failed and she returned to some long-ago world. About the gift of grace that comes with being present and listening to what life has to teach me. About failing to do any of it as well as I had wished.
“Of course I remembered”, Cristina said now. “I hope it’s OK.”
And then we both cried.
We have moments. We have mothers. We have our own stories, and our shared stories. And I have a beautiful sweater – a story told in stitches and scallops and cables and silver buttons – to help me remember.
I wish you the best of this season of musings and memories, in whatever storyform that takes. As always, the front porch and back patio in Seattle welcome your company.The wine is chilled, the coffee hot, the bookshelves crowded and yours to browse. Don continues to thrive as mountain editor at his Methow Valley News. I continue to survive between Seattle, Mizzou, Poynter and wherever Delta takes me or someone will have me. When I’m lucky, it’s to Bucharest. By the way, I found space in my luggage to bring the sparkly-fairy gift bag home – where I put another gift in it to give to someone else. Someone in Ukraine.
Thank you, Cristina. Thank you, all. And God bless us every one. ~ Jacqui ~
Jacqui Banaszynski was a speaker at all editions of The Power of Storytelling in Bucharest, as well as at the inaugural edition in Cluj. Follow her recently launched blog on the writing craft for lessons, advice and other stories.