For some reason I can't enjoy interviewing new residents. I love meeting new people, learning about them, mulling over impressions. I dislike trying to ask the right questions to construct the kind of shallow profile required by our newsletter. It should be a simple matter to ask someone where they come from, what brought them here, what they've done in their working lives, number of children and grandchildren, etc.
I recently had a challenge when I was asked to speak to a couple who have recently moved in. Both are known to everyone local because he is a judge, connected to the most well-known names in the state, and because he grew up in this town. His career is distinguished and varied. I thought this would be a snap.
Over several years I've discovered that for me to write something of interest, my best bet is to get the subject into a mood to chat--freely. I'm not a reporter. I don't have the temperament of a prober, of a seeker after "the facts."
The couple I spoke with are in their nineties--she in assisted living, he in an apartment. He spends nearly all his time with her in her room. Entering this tiny domain, walls decorated with pictures of their children and other relatives from both sides of their respective families, reminded me of days with my maternal grandmother. She was a committed Anglophile, southern, and devoted to tea not just as a beverage, but as a kind of symbol of civilization. The obvious missing element in the room was the tea tray.
I tried the usual approach with no success. Both wanted to talk about how the two had met (during WWII in England, where the husband was convalescing from wounds). The common rumor has always had it that she nursed him. In fact, she did not. She happened to be working in a hospital near the Army hospital. They met through Red Cross-sponsored social activities for the recovering soldiers. As time passed, I couldn't divert them from discussing the war, their experiences over the five years between their engagement and their marriage. They discussed his wounding and convalescence. He discussed his treatment as a wounded prisoner of war. She gently prodded him to include details he was omitting.
They talked about themselves--in relation to each other--in their youth. They had no interest in being quizzed about his career as an attorney and later as a judge. She was proud of having worked in orthopedic surgery when she came to North Carolina as his wife. They said relatively little about their five children.
When I told a friend about my afternoon, he immediately wanted to know the details of the gentleman's working life. When I admitted I knew only what was public knowledge, my friend was incensed. "A man's life is his work!" I tried to describe the joint efforts the couple had made to tell the story they wanted to tell. He was scornful, even rude about my lack of initiative as a reporter.
His reaction got me questioning what I should do if faced again (this was not the first time) with the reluctance of strangers to talk about what I understood was expected for the newsletter. I don't think I feel too bad about it because where I live, fellow residents--like myself--are mostly finished with the mechanics of earning a living, have numbers of grandchildren and great grandchildren, and enjoy their memories. In this case, the couple are so intimately synchronized that they effortlessly fill in blanks for each other. I felt, though welcomed most warmly, like an intruder. The strongest impression when visiting them is their total interest in each other. I came away filled with admiration for such a marriage (of 62 years). I hope readers of my interview will see that. Surely it's as important as all that's already well-known about the husband's career?