Please Listen

Yesterday my mother came back later than usual from her badminton lesson, looking dejected rather than energized. She plays badminton two or three times a week with two other ladies, both of whom are much older, though in truth their athletic abilities are evenly matched.

“What’s the matter,” I asked, “Didn’t you have a good lesson?”

My mother nodded, her eyes ringed with fatigue, “Oh yes, the lesson was fine. But I didn’t practice much afterward.”

“Why not?”

“One of the new ladies came up to me after our lesson and asked if we could talk.”

“About what?”

“I thought she just wanted to get to know me better,” my mother said, “She started her membership some two, three months ago, but she isn’t the most social person. She doesn’t seem happy. Doesn’t really smile.”

The woman had approached timidly and spoke to my mother in a small, weak voice. My mother leaned in to listen.

“I know this is strange,” the woman said, “But I need someone to talk to. I’m so lonely. I don’t know anyone here, and it’s good for me to get out and exercise, but I’m also ashamed.”

 I’m not surprised that out of all the women in the club my mother was the one the woman felt comfortable coming to. My mother is quite judgmental, but you couldn’t tell by looking at her – she has a warm smile, soft inviting eyes, and a casual yet elegant manner that you can’t help but be drawn to. People see her and think, “Now there is a woman to whom I can pour my heart out to, who will be a friend and confidante.” More than a few times she’s had utter strangers approach her on long flights, tour buses and at conferences for Chinese teachers. They come up to her casually, feel about for mutual interests and when my mother seems receptive, unload their life stories upon her. Perhaps I’m making it seem too one-sided – my mother is a gifted conversationalist and a curious, inquiring woman, but it seems a bit excessive sometimes, the details she comes away with, and as she’s a master storyteller and I her favorite audience, she comes home and repeats the stories to me in such detail that I feel I’ve met them too and know their problems well.

“She told you all that?” I find myself asking, “And you met her when?”

“Just a few hours ago,” my mother will reply, as though it were normal to know so much about a complete stranger.

The Conversation Federico Zandomeneghi, 1895

When I was younger I scratched my head and thought, “What do they expect mother to do? How can she help?” But now, having had my own instances of over-sharing (though I hope not to a complete stranger), I know that they don’t expect her to do anything but listen; for some people, that is the ultimate help. Silence may be golden but talking to the right person can be quite therapeutic; my mother, and I know this from first hand experience, is not just an excellent and encouraging sounding board, but also that rare breed of person whose aura compels you to project your very best self – whatever hope and optimism you may harbor, however little of it is left – upon the conversation before you. That, I think, is the core of a good listener. They function like a diary you can write and write into, and the more you write the more at ease you feel, both within and without. The world is okay if you have a good listener.

This woman did not have a good listener. But she accurately detected one in my mother, and yesterday afternoon she waited on the pine green plastic bleachers, next to my mother’s racket bag, knowing that my mother would stop to wipe her forehead in between her lesson and her double’s game. My mother went to her bag and smiled at the woman, “Hello,” my mother said.

They traded pleasantries and my mother turned towards the court and her waiting friends when the woman asked her to wait a minute. Could they talk? My mother obliged – she hadn’t really worked up a sweat during her lesson, but what can you do when a lonely woman about your age asks you simply to listen? You cannot say, “Oh of course, but how about after I play two sets of 21 points?” Well, perhaps you could, but it isn’t the right thing to do.

Sensing desperation in the woman’s voice, my mother nodded, “Of course.” She placed her racket down on top of her bag, near the still-dry towel and turned to give the woman her full attention.

“What’s the matter?”

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