I stare at the words in my mother’s book and steady the wooden swing so that I can read them one more time. Above me a live oak tree sheds leaves that sound like raindrops as they hit the concrete patio. Absorbing each word and image, I don’t want anything crowding these lines out of my head. I push my foot on the table in front of me to move the swing again, and I puzzle over the familiarity of what I’ve read.
Emily Dickinson’s wit and words captivated my mother, but I never shared her enthusiasm for Dickinson or any poet. The only poems I enjoyed were those I read as a girl — epics of romance and adventure such as Hiawatha and “The Highwayman.” I thought Dickinson’s sparse poems looked too much like nursery rhymes, and despite my mother’s efforts, I turned to grand novels and biographies for escape.
When I did try to read poetry, I came away muddled and frustrated. Literature teachers were no help, with their quizzes asking questions such as “Point out lines of predominant iambic rhythm and discuss the effect of each variation in metrical feet.” In college I went through a poetry-is-deep-and-so-am-I stage, and during that time, I presented my mother with a new book of Dickinson’s poetry. Inside the hard cover, I wrote, “Happy Birthday — I love you 3/31/68.” This is the book I now read as I sit on my backyard swing.
My mother’s name is Dalma, usually spelled incorrectly — Delma — by her in-laws and even some of her friends. Dalma lived nearly her whole life in a place about as culturally far from Dickinson’s Amherst as a person can get. Emily’s New England environment was academic, with Victorian houses and tree-lined streets — a far cry from the blowy oil fields of West Texas, where the most philosophical question ever addressed was when and how the next well might come in. Yet those isolated and oil-rich Texas school districts manage to entice a few above-average teachers, and one of those teachers introduced Emily Dickinson to Dalma.
My own academic journey continues some forty years later when I enroll in graduate school. I try to avoid poetry classes, but as my options narrow and I need credits, I find myself in just such a class, beginning last fall. We memorize and recite a bit of poetry each week. I begrudgingly begin to appreciate this or that poet. In the middle of October, the class came to Dickinson, and I recognize images inspired by what we read.
“I’ll tell you how the sun rose —
A ribbon at a time.”
She sat in the back yard on an old redwood chair that was covered with a plastic green floral cushion. The sun was low, and her back was to me, but I saw that she was perfectly still, doing nothing. I assumed she was watching the sunset and the birds and butterflies — one hand rested on the chair arm, the other held a wadded up white tissue. I flew around behind her, slamming the screen door, going back and forth doing little girl things, dressing dolls or heading towards the piano. She didn’t notice.
Another year her flowers were wild and beautiful. They grew every which way, and that was good because the monarchs weren’t looking for ordered rows of flowers. The butterflies were numerous, nineteen to be exact, she told me later. Even at rest, the monarch’s wings fanned slowly back and forth. She watched them as they flew from bloom to bloom and landed gracefully on the top of a petal. She was statue still, studying them. I was older, coming and going between phone calls about what to wear to school, and who’s driving where. I didn’t care how still she was. I didn’t wonder what she was doing with no novel, no papers to grade, no Bible, none of the things she sometimes sat with. I didn’t notice her at all.
“A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.”
Reading Emily’s nature poems, I think about how patient an observer must be in order to notice the big drama in a bird’s or spider’s life, how quiet you’d have to be to catch minute actions by an ant or butterfly. Emily and Dalma had in common finely honed skills of observation — doing nothing but watching nature — a pastime undervalued today, to be sure.
Emily’s creative outlets were many. She entered cooking contests and corresponded with numerous friends, often tucking pressed flowers into the envelope with a letter. My mother’s creative mind knew no limits. In 1990 she finished a quilt begun in the 1940s when she was a newlywed. She painted with oils, using primary colors and large canvases. She entered and won flower-arranging and cake decorating contests. And she never belonged to a club for which she didn’t take over historian duties and make scrapbooks. Once for our Christmas tree she cut down a century plant and sprayed it with copper paint. When the time came to decorate the tree, my father and I were handed Mardi Gras beads and told to toss them on the branches.
Emily’s personality was a mystery to her friends and relatives, and teachers described her as shy and nervous. My mother, too, had nervousness about her. Because of a childhood illness, my mother was hearing impaired. Her skills in conversation had been perfected in a quieter century, and daily she exhausted herself trying to communicate in the cacophonic workaday world.
At age thirty my mother began wearing two hearing aids — not the unobtrusive small buttons common today. Her first aids were clunky with wires that trailed to an amplifier clipped in her bra, and they tended to back feed, giving off a high-pitched, continuous beep. My mother found solace in Emily Dickinson’s writing, especially the poems written in solitude, surrounded by only the smallest sounds of nature. Early in her life Emily isolated herself and didn’t leave her house. My mother suffered an isolation forced on someone who doesn’t hear well — imagine being surrounded by people whose mouths are moving, but all you hear is a silence punctuated every few minutes by loud laughter.
Biographies of Emily Dickinson always include a daguerreotype of a prim and proper young girl. In these lifeless reprints, Emily is small and ghostlike with tiny dark buttons for eyes. Her hair is parted in the middle and pulled back. Here any comparison with Dalma ends. Looking at a black and white photo of my mother, I see someone quick to strike a pose in front of a camera. The photograph shows a twenty-one-year-old Dalma wearing a smart navy suit she made from a Vogue pattern. “Those suede spectator heels matched perfectly,” she said every time we came across the photo. A knit beret sits askew atop her short, curled hair.
Emily quit school and returned home before completing her formal education. My mother had two degrees and a career — this before women commonly sought higher education. Emily was ahead of her time in a different way — using unconventional metaphors and idioms that fit better in the next century. She was iconoclastic and became known for her trademark word pairings.
“That Emily was such a modern girl,” my mother said to me. Modern was the word she used to describe the best of what passed for pop culture in her generation.
One day a member of my poetry class mentioned that Dickinson was, in all likelihood, the agoraphobic, scary old aunt to the neighborhood children. Mentally I stood up, knocked my chair over, and jumped to Emily’s defense. I had read that Emily was kind and gracious to the neighborhood children, so much so that a niece had written that “Aunt Emily stood for indulgence.” In the class discussion, I failed to articulate an adequate defense of Emily and could only mutter, “Some people just like to be at home.”
The poetry class ended, but my curiosity about Dickinson continued. There was more to learn about my mother, and Emily led the way.
“I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.”
My mother was the daughter of a great Bible teacher and the granddaughter of a learned colporteur who baptized more than a thousand souls and started twenty-two churches. Belief in tenants of once-saved-always-saved and the right of any individual to talk directly to God were passed down in her family much as other families pass down recipes. Every night she perched on the side of my bed and read me a “Daily Bible Reading.” When I protested that I was too old to be read to, she acquiesced. But she returned Christmas Eve and read Chapter 2 of The Gospel of Luke.
Her faithful tithing and church attendance — three times a week, twice on Sunday and Wednesday night — was the outward sign of her walk with God that was otherwise private. In the 1990s her religious denomination of Southern Baptists fell on hard times. Power grabs and turmoil fermented a new low in misbehavior by Christians. I worried about her and imagined her adrift in a sea of backward religious crazies. When I broached the subject, she fixed me with steely green eyes and said, “I am no longer a Southern Baptist.” This after eighty years as a devout conservative and defender of her religious affiliation. Ignoring the evangelical name-calling, she encouraged her tiny church to keep an eye on God and not His misguided minions.
“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home.”
Emily’s uneven spiritual life could have given my mother inspiration, had she needed any. Emily dealt with religion on her own terms, and as a girl, refused to be publicly converted, despite strong Calvinist pressure to do so. She included Biblical allusions in her poems and did not check her intellect at the door when confronted with issues of the Great Awakening. Like Emily, my mother started as a child in the arms of her family’s religion, but learned to trust her God-given powers of discernment. My maternal grandparents didn’t believe in work or play on Sundays, and I had a prissy wardrobe of Sunday-only clothes. As a grandmother, my mother dispensed with any Sunday formality, and to my surprise, couldn’t care less what my sons wore to church as long as they went and had a good time.
“My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If immortality unveil
A third event to me. . .”
My mother can no longer take care of herself. Parkinson’s Disease has robbed her ninety-year-old body of the ability to sew, cook, paint, drive, or garden. Her hair is white, her step unsteady when the time comes to move her. In her home of sixty years, I realized for the first time the enormous number of creative projects in various stages of development. I was dismayed to find seventy bud vases saved for transporting home-grown flowers to sick friends, new neighbors, or teachers on the first day of school.
Looking over my shoulder when I opened yet another cabinet full of unfinished creations, her eyes filled with tears. But she didn’t cry. A trunk held fabric purchased for quilts and clothes. Drawers almost too heavy to pull out held postcards and photographs to be painted in oil, water colored, or sketched. She called this collection of scraps her bone yard.
She followed me as I went from room to room, filling boxes to move, boxes to throw away, and boxes to recycle. I discarded a bunch of dusty plastic poinsettias, only to find them minutes later retrieved from the trash and buried in a box of keepsakes. I was mystified by her behavior.
“Life’s too short,” she said more than once.
Everywhere I looked I saw evidence of my mother’s ideas-in-waiting, now never to be completed. I tried to explain that she can’t possibly finish all that she has imagined. “Bullshit,” she said. I winced and am saddened by the tragedy of an artist who faces the possibility of no longer being able to dream something up with confidence it will be completed. I finally packed some oddly shaped pillow forms with their accompanying pastel fabrics and offered to find someone to finish them. She looked doubtful.
“I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose –“
From my wooden swing, I see a female nuthatch on the oak branch above me. Earlier I almost destroyed her nest. In my haste to clean up the patio, I was about to scoop dead leaves from the basin of a waist-high wall fountain. I reached in with both hands and in a glance I saw beaks pointing straight up. They were outlined with yellow and open wide. I jumped back in horror at what I’d almost done — tear apart a family of nuthatches. For days I awoke each morning to a reproachful chirping, and I understood why.
I never understood my mother as well as I do now — I never needed to. She is my mother. How and why she found refuge in Dickinson’s words is a discovery I stumbled upon, a discovery which lets me claim both their dazzling truths for myself, for my own refuge, comfort, and understanding.