A Poem in Her Pocket

A Poem in Her Pocket

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom

A Poem in Her Pocket

Poetry is a packsack of invisible keepsakes.
~Carl Sandburg

My mother always had a poem in her pocket. Instead of memorizing lines to the most recent Michael Jackson song, my mother and I would recite the harmonious words of Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” or of some unknown poet whom we had just heard at a local college. Poetry was not reserved only for the classroom or the poetry reading. Her poetry tapped me on the shoulder at unexpected times—when we were sitting in a tub full of bubbles or riding in the car on the way to school. She collected words. Not just in her memory, but on her bookshelf as well. Living close to New York, we would often pop into that bustling city to catch a poetry reading and top off the adventure with a frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity. Before leaving the reading, we would ask the author to sign her collection. My mother’s bookshelf slowly filled up with a magnificent and eclectic assortment of texts that included Gwendolyn Brooks, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty and a number of other poets who were not as famous, but were equally talented. I never realized how important those texts were to me until I lost them.

During my senior year at Princeton, my mother passed away from ovarian cancer, but the tangible memories of our sojourns into the world of poetry stayed on our shelves. A few years later, I helped my father clean out their house. The books on the shelves had grown dusty and so had my memories of those poetry trips. We held a garage sale to rid the house of clutter, and along with it, I lost this fortune. I watched a woman at the sale pick up every book from my mother’s side of the bookshelf and open up to the first page. She then decided to either keep it or put it back. I knew exactly what she was doing. She was searching for buried treasure. Those signatures, those memories, were like little gold nuggets found while shifting through a dirty stream. And I watched her. Just watched her. After a while she came up to the desk where I had sorted my quarters and nickels and she plunked down her change to carry off those precious moments with my mother. I did not say a word. For some reason, I was too shy or embarrassed to tell her that the signed books were not for sale.

For many years, I did not look back at the shelf to see which books she had taken with her. I was too angry with myself for letting this stranger walk away with my heritage for pocket change. After a number of nomadic years, I returned to my childhood home to collect all of the things that I had left behind during my travels. I wanted to settle and build a little nest of my own. I clenched my eyes, then opened them and searched through the bookcase to see what remained of my mother’s collection—if anything.

To my surprise, many of them were still there. The stranger had not taken them all! I gathered up what was left and brought them to my new home. Regardless of the lost books, the poetry encircling my childhood is still fixed in my head thanks to my mother’s love of words. When my little ones get older, I will take them on new poetic adventures to fill up their pockets with poems as my mother did with me many years ago. Our little shelf of literary journeys will grow along with my children and their love for these musical words.

~Michelle Dette Gannon

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