Doctors say there is enough salt in one pickle to give us all the sodium we need for a year. I’d like more years, and so I consume fewer pickles. But this is a story I still gnaw on over the years. It is a story my father’s mother told over and over. And over and over. When I was younger I thought this was just the malaise of her advancing age. But it wasn’t. She was simply hoping we were listening.

The story goes that two or three times every year in the midsummer, my grandmother, and other ladies in the neighborhood, would gather at one of their homes to pack pickles. They each brought a bushel of cucumbers, dill, salt, bay leaves, jars, and their troubles.

They always gathered at different people’s homes but always around a large table. Each of them would unload their bushel baskets setting the ingredients before them. And then they would unpack their problems.

In turn and with respect, each of the women would begin to talk about what was wrong in her life. Who was sick. Who was still single. Who was getting older. Who hadn’t slept with her husband. Who wished she hadn’t. What couldn’t be whispered on street corners found its way to the table. We are all gasping to breathe, and here there was air time. Safe air. The tone was less gossip than confessional. The listening done with an ear to hear, to help. And no matter what was said. No matter the shouts of telling silences. A promise went into every jar with the pickles. A promise not to tell.

The conversation would last most of the afternoon and was punctuated by sips of hot tea from old jelly jars. Heads nodded with understanding as burdens were unpacked and pickles packed. Eyes rolled with disbelief at stories that would never leave the room. “Please, God,” they would nudge each other, “don’t show me what I can bear.”

At the end of the day, the women would stand and arch their backs. They would wash the coarse salt from their hands. They would slowly load their listening and jars of pickles back into the bushels they brought. Each of them would offer the others a feel of how heavy her bushel was. And then they would go home staggering under their loads. Each with her own bushel. Each a queen carrying her burden with bearing. Each thinking of what she had heard.

At this point in the story my grandmother would lift her eyebrow and wag her finger so the lesson was not lost. Spirit to spirit, I want her to know I got the message. Caring impacts what we are carrying.

Every one of the women had arrived at the afternoon feeling weighted by her burdens. And then, each of them had heard the load that the others carried. Each of them had felt the weight of the other’s bushel. And each had gone home thankful to be lugging only their own troubles. Thankful for what was theirs. Even the anguish, and the aches. The load had shifted. Their lives seemed lighter without weighing any less.

We offer others a chance to lighten their load when we say little and listen loudly. We learn a great deal about life and its burdens when we quietly help others to unpack theirs. Our own burdens weigh less when we listen to what is weighing on others.

Noah benShea Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved

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