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Thought Spot: The Quest For The Vest

January 13th, 2011

The Sunday night bedtime story was a tradition in my family. 

As my brothers and sisters and I settled into bed my mother and father would lean against the doorway of our adjoining rooms to tell us stories from their own lives.

Our favorite stories from my father’s boyhood were about his pet rooster, a big black one that followed him around like a loyal hound. When it was my mother’s turn we never tired of hearing the story of how my parents met, as if we had never heard it before. 

The color rose in my mother’s cheeks whenever she described seeing my father for the first time.  And she always included the details of what he wore: a crisp white shirt, carefully knotted plaid tie and a yellow sweater vest.

The Legend of the Sweater Vest was family lore. When my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary approached, I decided it was time to bring the legend to life. 

And so began my Quest For The Vest.

 I took my search to a department store at a shopping mall. The sales person, eager and efficient and  twenty-something, wore a name tag that identified him as  Chaz, Team Member. He locked me in his sights across the shirt display he was straightening and zoomed in a Mach speed. “Hi, what are you looking for, a nice sweater for your boyfriend? These are great don’t you think, and they’re on sale, if you buy two, you know.”  I began to suspect that maybe he had a quota driven by a sales contest and I was now the target for Team Chaz, as I’d already started thinking of him.

 “I’m looking for a sweater v…” I didn’t get to finish. “Oh vests!” Team Chaz snared me in the word. “I have just the thing in faux fleece with zippered cargo pockets, they’re the hottest item this season you know, really stylish in this Black Forest green all the designers are showing…”

I feigned my way out of the store with my best I’m Late routine, gasping at my watch, the time, my urgent need to be on my way for a very important date.  That was the first of a series of unsuccessful  vest-seeking missions.  Goldilocks had an easier time sourcing oatmeal from bears.

A few days later I passed a small men’s store, with sensible and unremarkable clothing displayed in the windows.  Nothing special, I thought.  But The Quest for the Vest wasn’t going well.  Five minutes of browsing couldn’t hurt. 

A salesman greeted me from a respectful distance and busied himself as I scanned for a glimpse of yellow.  After a few minutes he asked quietly, “Are you looking for anything special?”

Special.  Yes, something very special. 

“I’m looking for a sweater vest for my father. A yellow sweater vest.”  He paused, letting my words filter down around us like the sunlight coming through the slats in the window blinds.  “What style would your father like? What size?”  He waited again. 

I found myself telling him the story of the original yellow sweater vest I’d grown up hearing and how I’d decided to find one for my parents’ wedding anniversary. And how I was pretty much failing at that.

Smiling, he beckoned me to a rack on the other side of the store. “Let’s see what we have for you.” He studied the rack, and deftly extracted a lambswool pullover vest the color of lemon custard.  Eureka.

 He noted the size. “Too large,” he observed. “When do you need it?”  I had a few days before the anniversary. “Not a problem,” he reassured me.  “Come back Friday and I’ll have it for you in the right size.”

He did.

Some of my happiest memories of my parents are their Sunday night stories, and the anniversary that they opened an ordinary shirt box, peeled back the layers of tissue and lifted out a yellow sweater vest.  Yes, persistence paid off.  The bonus was a lesson in serving others, a gift from that salesman who honored the story and the people who owned it.

I’ve been in similar situations in my service leadership. Sometimes I’ve been like Team Chaz.  Hearing a story of need, I’ve jumped in, making assumptions about how I can help and taking action before understanding what’s needed or wanted. 

The times that I’ve served best – and profited most – are the times I’ve been more like that unnamed salesman.  When I’ve understood that story listening is as important as storytelling because it allows us to take action in ways that honor both the story and its owners.

We may never fully experience the stories we hear in the same way as the people who own them, whether they are members of our immediate family or members of our Rotary club or children in a remote village without schools, clean water or medical care.  But we can make a great difference in their lives and ours when lend an ear before we lend a hand, grounding our contributions and our service in good story listening.

Sincerely,

PDG Elizabeth