On New Year’s Eve, a round-up of 2013’s “trending” stories and people — including Miley Cyrus, Paula Deen and Phil Robertson — got me thinking ... and discouraged.
There are so many wonderful, quiet stories in communities across the country that never “trend.” The search terms don’t “auto-fill” on Google. The people behind the stories are hardly household names. And yet, these stories are certainly more fascinating than Miley Cyrus and her twerking.
Three of these quiet stories that I witnessed this past year are below.
First, in October, our family met and had dinner with David Cote, a major in the Marine Corps and the 2011 Military Times’ Marine of the Year. A go-getter since he started his own paper route in Bangor, Maine, at the age of 8, Cote later became an Eagle Scout in high school. Now, the young major is embarking on his biggest and most important feat yet: The Summit Project.
The Summit Project is a living memorial to honor every service member from the state of Maine who has lost his or her life in service to our country since 9/11. Families of the service members select a rock from a special location — camp, backyard, a nearby path — that reminds them of their loved one.
Cote meets with the families, hears their stories, then he engraves each of the rocks with the service member’s initials and birth- and death-years.
On Memorial Day 2014, Cote and a group of hikers will carry the rocks up Mt. Katahdin in Millinocket, Maine.
“We will honor the fallen by challenging the living,” Cote told us. (Some of the rocks weigh close to 20 pounds.)
Cote remembers the stories, the names and the circumstances behind every rock. He has the service members’ aspirations, interests and heroism engraved, in a way, on his own heart. In a world full of celebrities, Cote told us that his definition of success is not guided by pop culture or material things. It’s guided by living a life of service.
Next, in November, our family met Katie and Alex Hall, grown siblings who are legally blind. Katie has a very narrow field of vision, but Alex is almost completely blind. He can only see light and some movement.
The thought of living without sight might cause some to believe they would give up. Certainly, before we met Katie and Alex, the boys and I couldn’t imagine not being able to see. But Alex and Katie marveled us with their fearlessness and determination to live as fully as someone who has 20/20 vision.
Alex even used to ride a bike ... yes, while blind! He shovels snow and bakes pies, with only his sense of touch, smell and hearing to guide him.
Today, Katie is going to school to study nutrition, and Alex works to help others with visual impairments master Braille and technology.
Century of stories
But perhaps the quietest, most unexpected story I encountered in 2013 happened in late November, when I had dinner at a local retirement home.
I shared a table with a 101-year-old man who delighted me with a century’s worth of tidbits and trivia. Later, after dinner, a woman asked me to come see her room. I knew I needed to get home to my boys, and I was in a rush, but I told her I’d pop in for a minute.
Inside this woman’s room were dozens of paintings lining the walls. The paintings were of a younger woman with a face I recognized in the older woman beside me. The portraits were painted by her late husband, and they were elegant.
Without even knowing her husband, and barely knowing the woman herself, the love and history between them was clearly visible in the carefully hung pictures. The man even painted one of the pictures while he was a prisoner in World War II.
I was in awe.
Outside, the world flew by. Cars honked. People rushed home from work and grumbled about the traffic. But there, tucked away inside that retirement home was a tiny one-bedroom apartment filled with a couple’s — and part of the world’s — history.
My hope for 2014 is that our culture will begin to value stories like these above the latest, trending celebrities and their public faux pas.
These are the stories that make up the fabric of people. They aren’t flashy. You won’t find them on Google. But if everyone could come across people like Major Cote and the Halls, or stories like the elderly woman with a room full of painted treasures, as easily as they come across the definition of twerking, I think our world would be a better place.
Sarah Smiley is a columnist and author of “Dinner With the Smileys,” a memoir of a year of dinners and motherhood.