To say that my mother loved poetry does not do her justice. She believed in it, and in what it can do to strengthen the soul. My mother’s manifestation of that love was such a seamless part of our upbringing that it never occurred to me how unusual it was until I got to my teenage years. By then we were well indoctrinated.
So many of our household quotes came from the poems of my childhood. For at least two summers, my sister, brother, and I earned our allowance by memorizing poetry. We were rewarded with a penny a line. After we discovered every lucrative haiku in the house, we had to move on to more substantive material.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow...
I was broke one particular week and memorized the entire “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Lengthy discussions inevitably followed: content, authors, words, rhyming, rhythm, and how it made us feel. We were resistant at first, but later found satisfaction and felt a sense of achievement after memorizing a new poem. We memorized and discussed poetry by many of the greats of literature at a time when memorization still held value.
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
Over harbor and city
On silent haunches
And then moves on.
It was clear to me from a very young age that my mother believed in the transformative nature of the written word. She was convinced that if we could understand poetry’s value, both to deepen our cultural literacy and to enrich our very souls, our lives would change for the better. She knew poetry was the vocabulary that expressed precisely to each of us what we could not say to ourselves, or each other.
When Mom took over Pymander Bookshop in Westport, Conn., in 1975, the store became an expression of her passion for what great writing can do to, and for, a person. For 30 years, her question to customers was inevitably, “What is it you are looking for?” This was not the inquiry of a person trying to find a good read for someone else, but a question that sought to find the “right” book for that person—one that would open doors to new thoughts or answer his unspoken yearning.
Mom and I shared the experience of divorce. There was a period of time when I called her in the middle of the night. We spoke of the pain, the healing, and the ability to move forward whole. She often quoted poetry as comfort, to help ease my broken heart.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Mom knew that we were just looking for a way to heal our hearts and carry inspiration with us. She provided to us a language of expression. What I realized over time was that poetry spoke for Mom, to us and to others. Poetry was the deeper language of our hearts.
If I should die and leave you here awhile,
Be not like others, sore undone, who keep
Long vigil by the silent dust and weep.
For my sake turn again to life and smile,
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do
That which will comfort other souls than thine;
Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine,
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you.
Maybe the poetry of A.A. Milne, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Kahlil Gibran, Emily Dickinson, or Mary Lee Hall was exactly what we were looking for.