3 Stories of Gratitude and Powerful Love

A narrative project called "StoryCorps" illuminates inspiring stories of generosity and love from across the United States.

It began as a small oral history project in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, then blossomed throughout the United States: People from all walks of life recounted their true stories in pop-up recording booths. Over the past ten years, almost 100,000 people have participated in StoryCorps; often family members interview each other. One theme that keeps emerging: love and gratitude. We chose these heartwarming tales of connection.

He Took His New Baby to College: Wil Smith, 43, and his daughter, Olivia Smith, 16

Gratefully YoursPhotograph by Robyn Twomey

Wil: Four weeks after you were born, I was deployed. The hardest thing for me was leaving after spending just a few weeks with you. And I knew, had I stayed in the Navy, I would always be leaving you. So I left the Navy and applied to Bowdoin College and was accepted—though, at 27, I was considered a very nontraditional student.

Your mother had told me she was pregnant with you about a month after we stopped dating, and I had let her know that I would do whatever I had to do to care for you. And when you were 10 or 11 months old, your mother was having a difficult time. She reached a breaking point, and it just became clear that being with me was the best thing for you. So I took you to school with me.

It was very chaotic in the beginning. I actually thought that if Bowdoin knew I had you, they wouldn’t let me come, so I didn’t mention it to anyone. I missed orientation because I was moving. I jumped right in with no books, and I really didn’t know how I was going to pay for them.

For the first semester, I lived off campus with a roommate and worked at Staples at night, cleaning. I had to take you in to work with me sometimes and hide you in the closet. [Laughs] Working, taking care of you, and playing basketball was wearing on me. I think I lost something like 27 pounds just from stress.

To be quite honest, I was not prepared for college. Had I not been able to kiss you good night every night before studying, I would not have had the strength to do it. There were times when the only way I could get through was to check in on you and see you sleeping and then go back to my studies.

I thought that I could do it on my own, but it was getting very difficult. A woman who worked at Bowdoin reached out to me, and I told her all the things that were going on, and she helped me move to campus housing during the second semester. I was definitely the first single father raising a child on campus, but that was the beginning of my college experience taking a turn for the better.

Olivia: Were you ever embarrassed bringing me to class?

Wil: I don’t think I was ever embarrassed—that’s one of the few emotions I didn’t experience. I was just glad you were with me and that you were safe. I was very fortunate in that you were a relatively healthy child. You were quiet, didn’t bother anyone—you were easy. And you adapted to school right away. I would take you to classes or give you crayons and things to do, and you would just sit at a desk and do them.

My basketball teammates were your first babysitters. I remember coming from class, and there were four giant guys and this 18-month-old who was tearing up the room. [Laughs] Those guys on my team were the first people I trusted with you.

My graduation day from Bowdoin is something that I’ll always remember. I carried you in my arms to get my diploma, and they called both of our names. All my classmates stood up and cheered—they gave me the only standing ovation of the day. It confirmed what I had endured for the past four years. But it’s no heroic thing that I did; I’m your father, and it was the right thing to do.

Olivia: So, technically, I’ve already graduated…

Wil: Nice try. [Laughs] The degree has only my name on it, so you’ve still got to go on your own.

Having you was a drastic change to my life, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I felt like before you came along, my mother—my guardian angel, who passed away on my 15th birthday—was looking down from heaven and got tired of me drifting through the universe and said, “God, please do something. Send that boy someone to take care of!”

I was so close to her, and I felt so empty when she passed away. And I’ve never really been able to explain this, but when I was in the delivery room when you were born, I physically felt something go into my heart. It was a feeling of completeness that I hadn’t felt since my mother passed.

I was diagnosed with colon cancer two months ago, and now I’m watching you take care of me as if our roles were reversed. You’ve watched me at my weakest point—where no father wants to be—and you’ve been mature beyond your years. No matter what happens to me, I know you’re going to be fine.

Olivia: It’s hard for me, because I know you don’t want me to be the one to take care of you, and you’re probably scared about what’s going to happen to me if I lose you. But that first week when I was home from school, I would cook you dinner, and it made me happy being able to care for you, knowing that my whole life, you were doing that for me. You’re my rock.

Wil: I draw my strength from you.

Being around you is what I’ve always lived for. And that’s what’s going to make me beat this.

I’ve oftentimes referred to you as my complex joy, and you’ve never stopped being that. I want you to know that you are the most important thing in my life, and you always will be as long as I’m on this earth. Everything else is a distant second. You were my mother’s gift to me, and I believe that to this day.

Editor’s note: On February 22, 2015, Wil Smith passed away after this battle with cancer

Recorded on April 24, 2012. “I am blessed and very pleased to report that my body responded well to chemotherapy,” Wil said. “I am feeling much stronger and relatively healthy.” 

Next story: There’s Always Room at His Table »

Gratefully Yours
Photograph by Robyn Twomey

There’s Always Room at His Table: Scott Macaulay, 49

In September of 1985, when I was 24, my folks decided to get divorced. I was taught that to be a good son, I needed to be supportive and loving to each parent and to my siblings. But nobody was talking to anybody.

If you were nice to one parent, the other one would get mad at you. So when October came, I thought, What’s going to happen at Thanksgiving? And I just did not like the thought of being home alone—or anywhere alone—on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is not about gifts or fireworks or hoopla. It’s a meal around a table where you give thanks for the blessings you have, and you really can’t do that by yourself and have much fun.

I decided to put an ad in the local paper: If people thought they would find themselves alone, they could give me a call, and I would make a Thanksgiving dinner. That first year, a few people came, and they had a good time. I was nervous about making a mess out of the food and disappointing people. But the food was OK, and I didn’t burn anything.

I’ve held the dinner every year since. Last Thanksgiving, 84 people showed up. Sometimes they’re new to town; sometimes they’re recently divorced or widowed. I’ve had people who were new to the country and didn’t speak any English, but they enjoyed my Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve had poor people, people who come from AA, old people. Also, not counted within that number: I always feed the police. The firefighters and EMTs are in buildings with kitchens and can have their own Thanksgiving dinner among themselves, but the police officers are in their cars, driving around town on call.

Two years ago, a woman with Parkinson’s disease came, and she was not good on her feet. She had been in a nursing home for seven years and had never been out. Somebody told her about the dinner, and she hired an ambulance to bring her, at $200 plus mileage. She had a great time, and she cried when the ambulance returned to get her. She didn’t want to go home.

Most of the people who come don’t know who I am. They know that there’s some skinny guy in the kitchen, but they don’t know my name. I think the theme of my life, and everything I do, could be summed up with the name of an old hymn called “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” I hope my legacy will be that I came into the world, I brightened the corner, and then I quietly left the world unnoticed.

Recorded on October 21, 2010. This year, Scott will host his 28th Thanksgiving dinner, which will be held at the First Baptist Church in Melrose, Massachusetts. He’ll spend the day before the feast decorating the room, and on Thanksgiving, he’ll arrive at 4 a.m. to put the turkeys in the oven.

Next story: The Sergeant Was Her Mother »

“We have the mother–daughter bond, and we have a soldier’s bond. There’s just nothing more you could ask for.”

Gratefully Yours
Photograph by Robyn Twomey

The Sergeant Was Her Mother: Marilyn Gonzalez, 44, and her daughter, Jessica Pedraza, 21

Marilyn Gonzalez: We did our deployment together. But I was upset with you for a long time because you had the opportunity to stay on base.

Jessica Pedraza: I knew you were going to be upset, but I also knew I’d rather be out there and be the first to know if something happened to you than sit and wait for somebody in dressing forms to come tell me.

For the first three months, we didn’t see each other: I would be on a mission and come back, and then you would be on one. The first time we saw each other over there, I was literally five minutes from leaving on a mission. We shared a quick cry; then I told you to relax, and you told me to be safe.

Marilyn: It was hard to be “Sergeant Gonzalez” with you. Every time I saw you, I wanted to just go up and hug you. But I couldn’t do it.

Jessica: We kept our mother–daughter relationship quiet. But I couldn’t look at you seriously and say, “Sergeant,” so I would sneak in a “Mom” once in a while. And whenever I came back from a mission, my bed would be made, and you’d have a candy bar waiting for me.

Once, I was doing a radio check with you, and I said, “Truck 34, this is Truck 47. How do you copy?” And you said, “It’s a good copy.” And I said, “Roger. I love you.” And I heard you say it right back—you said it really, really quietly, but I caught it.

Marilyn: Whatever little messages I got from you kept me going.

Jessica: You know, I didn’t really have a close relationship with you before Iraq. I felt like the oddball of the five kids. I was the middle child, and I felt like I was kind of on the side.

Marilyn: I felt that you were strong, and you didn’t need me all the time, so it was easier for me to focus on the others. But it wasn’t because I loved you any less.

Jessica: I really got to know you in Iraq. And I know that you were upset that I gave up six college acceptances to do this with you. But being out there with you made me realize that you were there for me. It changed everything.

Marilyn: You’re my daughter, and I love you. But you’re also my battle buddy. And I could never tell you how much it means that you were willing to put your life on the line to be there with me.

Jessica: We have the mother–daughter bond, and we have a soldier’s bond. There’s just nothing more you could ask for.

Recorded on August 11, 2012. Pedraza is now an EMT, and Gonzalez is a machine operator. Both remain active in the National Guard.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest