Alan Riquelmy: Silent lessons

The girl just wouldn’t talk.

I say girl, but she was actually a woman. Eighteen years old, but very thin. And quiet. Speak too loudly and she might fade away. Yell and she’d disappear.

We stood outside a business that made gravestones on a hot summer day. Not too long ago she’d been in a car wreck with her father and step-mother. The adults were killed. The 18 year old was hurt badly, but had recovered by the time I spoke with her. She had an obvious scar between her eyebrows. Her grandmother, doting on her, jokingly called it a permanent unibrow.

I can only imagine the embarrassment of having that said in front of a stranger who works for the newspaper.

Out of the tragedy came a good story. The young woman and her sister had gone door to door, asking for donations for a headstone. The family couldn’t afford one on their own, and it had come to this — asking strangers for charity.

They got enough money, or near enough, for the business under the circumstances. Then someone from the family called me, thinking the newspaper would be interested.

So there I stood, desperately trying to figure out how to make a very shy person answer my questions. Every query I posed led to her looking to her mother, who would then answer for her daughter. I couldn’t crack this riddle: how do I get her to speak for herself?

And then it hit me — ask about her father. Not about the headstone, or looking for donations, but about the man she loved and lost.

Like some Indiana Jones puzzle solved, she began to talk. Softly, slowly, she told me about her father.

You have chosen wisely, I thought.

You might think this obvious. Looking back, I sure do. But when you’re there, in the moment, and you know time is ticking, the interview doesn’t always fall perfectly into place.

It can be tough getting kids to talk, or someone who’s younger and shy, like the woman outside the gravestone business. Finding the topic that intrigues them, even if they don’t necessarily have the vocabulary, usually works.

Once, writing a story about the perceived evils of Harry Potter, I found myself on the opposite side of the problem. The private school walked kids to me it knew would be talkative. Have you spent any time delving into precisely why Gryffindor is the best house at Hogwarts? There’s an unsurprising number of children willing to elucidate you on this issue.

Of course, with adults it’s a whole different game. They can be agreeable, angry, happy, snide — you name it, a reporter has experienced it. Barring a few exceptions, though, most everyone wants to talk. They’ve got a story to tell, regardless of how they’re feeling in that moment.

And that’s why we’re here, after all — to tell your stories.

As it turned out, the shy woman wanted hers told. She kept it short, speaking softly the whole time. Then I thanked her and her family, and turned to walk away.

They stopped me, though. The woman turned to her mother, whispering words in her ear. The mother then asked me if her daughter could hug me.

Sure, I said. Yeah, that’s fine.

She embraced me, and they then left, walking to their nearby car, driving away into the hot day.

And I, for one rare moment, was the one left unable to speak.

Alan Riquelmy is the editor-in-chief of the Sierra Sun and editor of The Union. He can be reached at or 530-477-4249


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