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What story stays in your heart?

Things of the heart are hard to predict. Even though I’ve heard this story several times, I find that unexpected emotion surfaces at every telling. This tale may be true, or the result of someone’s tender imagination. It really doesn’t matter. It’s a story with heart.

The narrative begins with a young child in a full-blown meltdown — a flailing, screaming tantrum — in an airport boarding area. The boy is traveling with his pregnant mother who, after several wholly unsuccessful attempts, is at a complete loss about how to calm him. Clearly exhausted, she sinks to the floor in tears next to her child.

And then it happens. Women — seven or eight as I envision it, slowly come forward from various parts of the boarding area. They are strangers to the mother and son — and to each other. Women of all ages and ethnicities approach and encircle the mother and son. Crouching down quietly, they begin to sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Other things happen, of course. These comforting women offer tissues and find the sippy cup. They have water and snacks and a cuddly toy.

But it’s the singing and the song itself that always leaves me smiling but wet-eyed. ”Itsy Bitsy Spider” is a decades-old nursery rhyme. Some people refer to it as a folk song. It relates the adventures of a spider as it ascends, descends and reascends the downspout (waterspout) of a gutter system. It’s usually accompanied by a series of gestures and finger exercises that mimic the words. After a few renditions of it, you really admire the gumption and perseverance of that spider.

I have sung “Itsy Bitsy Spider” to all our grandchildren. Perhaps you have done the same. More than a decade ago I sang it to my daughter’s boyfriend’s son as I dried his socks in front of our fireplace on an early winter morning. He was visiting us — we were both up early, and he was walking me through his young, tumultuous life. I was looking for a way to encourage him to be his “best self.”

In retrospect you might think I could have come up with better musical reference, but that song delighted him even though he was approaching 7 years old at the time. He had never heard it before, and it launched us into a discussion about spiders and sent me looking for our frayed copy of “Charlotte’s Web.” I witnessed him singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” with more flamboyant gestures than I had used, for his younger sister later in the day. I noted he did not try to scare her with the spider references — in fact, he made her smile; she even laughed. He was indeed being his best self. That was a complicated visit. My daughter’s boyfriend (who I never really liked much) is long out of the picture, but that young boy is in my heart forever.

What is your heartfelt story? What stays in your heart and makes your “best self” come forward on a regular basis? I do not know. I trust you do — or will. Maybe stories like these pave the way. Everyone has a story. Tell it well.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@rbtrv.org.