Dave Isay begins his new book with a quote from co-worker Lillie Love, whose name resonates deeply with his latest project. Shortly before she died in 2010, Love said, "Love is all there is ... When you take your last breath, you remember the people you love, how much love you inspired and how much love you gave."
Love worked with Isay at the Atlanta office of his StoryCorps project. In the organization's new book, All There Is: Love Stories From StoryCorps, everyday people narrate their personal experiences with love.
"One theme that keeps coming up is that no one should ever, ever give up hope on love," Isay tells NPR's Scott Simon. "It seems like it's not in the cards for people, and then it just sneaks up behind you and there it is."
In one interview, 93-year-old Paul Wilson tells his daughter, Marty Smith, how he met her mother. "One day I was waiting in the lobby for the elevator, the door slid aside, and there she stood: the prettiest girl I had ever seen," Wilson recalls.
His future wife was the elevator operator. The first few times he took her lift, he couldn't muster the courage to say much more than his floor number and "thank you." But he didn't even have to say that much — she remembered his floor.
"Thank goodness she broke the ice!" Wilson says. "She said, 'Do you know where you can get some good chop suey?' How about that for an opening line? I said, 'Sure. The cafe across the street is a Chinese cafe. They serve chop suey.'"
Wilson got the hint and promptly asked her out. "We had chop suey and we got acquainted," he says. "We got married right there in my mother's living room and we had a 63-year honeymoon."
Wilson's wife has since died, but he takes comfort in reflecting on their long, happy marriage. "We were real lovers, and every day is a memorial for her," he says.
People often tell Isay that these stories make them cry. But he insists that most of them aren't sad, they're just real. "You're hearing something authentic," he says. "You're hearing people speak from a place of honesty and generosity. Nobody's looking for 15 minutes of fame. Nobody's looking for anything but to kind of express their love to another human being in this booth and talk about what's meaningful in their life."
In one heartbreakingly real story, Granvilette Kestenbaum, 63, reminisces about the husband she loved and lost.
"He fell on me at a party," she tells her friend Darlene Griggs. "I thought he was the goofiest guy I'd ever met in my life. He had a shirt that was so rumpled and a pair of shoes, one of which had many rubber bands wrapped around it because the sole was coming apart."
At first, Kestenbaum didn't know what to make of his offbeat sense of humor. "Some weeks later, he called me. He said, 'Hello this is Howie.' And I said, 'Howie who?' He said, 'Fine thank you, how are you?' And I just thought, 'I can't walk around with this guy.'"
But his quirky personality quickly grew on her. They got married a year after meeting each other, and they stayed together for 31 years. "He started asking me maybe six weeks before 9/11, 'Do you love me, honey?'" Kenstenbaum says. "I said, 'You will always have my deep and abiding love.' And I don't know why I said that. I'm glad I did."
Kestenbaum's husband died in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. "We were supposed to grow old together," she says. "We were looking forward to it. He's always going to be 56 in my mind. I'm going to be an old shriveled up mass, but he will be 56."
Kestenbaum doesn't think she'll ever come to terms with his death. "There is no closure when you lose a loved one," she insists. "I don't care how you lost him. Your heart is always open. That's never going to change. And I miss him like hell."
After sifting through thousands of variations on the theme, Isay says he's learned a few things about love. Perhaps the best advice he's come across came from an 85-year-old man who described a drive he took with his wife shortly after returning from service in World War II.
Along the road in Philadelphia, he spotted a sign that spelled out "Things to Always Say to Your Loved One" in order to sustain a happy marriage: "You look great. Can I help? Let's eat out. I'm sorry, and I love you."
The man took those rules to heart, Isay says. Those simple statements "guided their marriage for 53 years, two months and five days. That pretty much sums it up."