Did I get my love of poetry from you, grandma?
Posted August 31, 2016
My grandmother Fleeta had a poem hanging on her wall years ago that baffled my uncle.
She died before I was born, and all that I know of her comes from the stories I hear from my uncle and father, so I never saw the poem. Still, I can see — in my mind’s eye — a tiny frame with dusty glass covering a yellowing piece of paper in a corner of their house. Maybe she saw it in a newspaper and the words moved her. She clipped it out and put it on the wall, and when she read the poem, it spoke the words of her heart. As her granddaughter, that is what I envision.
My uncle couldn’t figure out why she would hang that poem, with the title, “Tommy son,” on the wall.
He wondered, “Who the heck is Tommy?” His name is William. His father’s name was Irvan, and my father’s name is John. It was a mystery.
And then, one day he realized he’d been reading it wrong for all of those years. The poem wasn’t about someone named Tommy, it was “To my son.” It was for him and for my dad. He finally understood.
I have a poem, too.
It is a poem that gives me courage when I’m feeling beaten, that gives me hope when I’m depressed. It is a poem that says the words of my heart. Coincidentally, it is called “To my child,” by Anne Campbell.
Campbell, born in 1888, was a poet who wrote for the Detroit News in Michigan. She married when she was 27 and had three children, two boys and one girl. She wrote one poem a day, six days a week, for 25 years. And she became known as “The Poet of the Home,” for her ability to capture the words in the hearts of mothers across America who wouldn’t otherwise utter the syllables. She wrote in a way that people could relate to her thoughts and understand her experiences.
I wonder if she also wrote the poem my grandmother loved. Or maybe another mother saw her poem in the paper and clipped it out to hang on the wall in a dusty frame.
All I know is that when I heard her prose, it was OK to let go of a piece of my dreams for a while.
See, I was bitten by the travel bug at an early age. I was 11 when my mother brought my sister and me to Italy. We met my brother there and saw every museum, artifact, fountain and relic that was humanly possible. I brought a journal, and I wrote in it every day, describing the shock I felt over what it was like to eat fresh mascarpone in a tiny trattoria where the chef personally walked around in his apron as he checked on the customers. I remember watching the city lights dance off the water of a fountain in Rome, a multitude of stray cats in our little hostel, and the dilemma I had picking out a souvenir to bring home to my friends.
My sister and I came up with a cheer and a handshake to celebrate the trip: “Ilarita!” (slap hands down low) “Euphoria!” (slap hands up high).
I was hooked. I traveled with my high school choir in Europe a few years after that, traipsing through Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic as I sang in cathedrals and cemeteries. Seeing the world was fascinating, and it made me happy.
In college, I took a few months to live in China, then I went to England for a year and a half, then Taiwan for six months, and as I toured southeast Asia, I seriously considered severing all attachment to a stable life of financial comfort and wondered if maybe I should become a permanent vagabond, teaching English to survive.
When I got married and I was pregnant with my first child, we went to Malaysia. And ever since that trip, I have realized that my traveling days are over. At the very least, they are on hold for a decade or more. My thrill of gaining passport stamps is not feasible with a little one, then two, then three. And I don’t have enough money to bring them with me.
And so, when I heard Campbell’s poem, it spoke to me: “You are the trip I did not take; You are the pearls I could not buy; You are my blue Italian lake; You are my piece of foreign sky. You are my Honolulu moon; You are the book I did not write; You are my heart’s unuttered tune; You are a candle in my night. You are the flower beneath the snow, In my dark sky a bit of blue, Answering disappointment’s blow with, ‘I am happy! I have you!’”
Maybe someday, when I hang this on my wall, my children will say, “But who is Tommy?”
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.