Our Northern Lights

A few blocks from here, in a modest house at the edge of town, lives a woman whose years, all by themselves, make her remarkable. Bessie is one hundred years of age and still lives on her own.

Last evening while starting out on a walk with my dog Molly, I caught a glimpse of Christmas lights from this neighbor’s home. Although ordinarily we avoid her block–on account of two miniature Dobermans who live around the corner–my dog and I walked the two blocks north to see the lights.

It was just becoming dark. What I mean is, the evening was past twilight but had not yet reached complete darkness. I wish I could describe this brief time of almost-dark. I could see the bright colored lights strung along the garage’s eaves and the low-slung roof of the house, but I could also see the house itself, which glowed with warmth. A grandma’s house in a little wood, with Christmas lights, too, around its window frames and above the garden gate.

But then, I have always liked her out-of-the-way house. Once in springtime several years ago, I asked permission to take pictures of the flowering tree behind her house, and the weathered shed and the iron wheel-rim leaning against the shed. She seemed amused to think that anyone would consider her backyard something to put in a photograph.

On this night in the beginning of the holiday season I saw it all in a different light. My thoughts were of her children—or, actually, grandchildren–who must have been here to put up the lights again this year. What a loving and beautiful thing it was for them to do for her—and for all who happen by her corner on that little-used street. Here and there across our town are all such messages of good cheer, but hers was the one I noticed first. I must go there soon, not in the near darkness, but on a bright afternoon, to say hello to Bessie and to wish her a merry and blessed Christmas. I will only be returning her greeting.

Knowing By Heart

A club two towns away invited me to give a lesson, on favorite poems. There would be about a dozen members in attendance, I was told. As it turned out, I knew them all, at least to say hello, and some have been my friends for years.

As was the case with the rest of the country, our minds were still on the hurricane that devastated New York and other eastern cities earlier in the week. My family members who live on Staten Island had come through it unharmed. We all have sorrow for those who did not.

About my little gig at the Arts and History Club in Albion, Nebraska, I can say that it went well. Faces brightened in recognition as I read aloud The Village Blacksmith, and The North Wind Doth Blow and Abou Ben Adhem. They are not, however,  the poems I am likely to remember from that pleasant afternoon. Instead, I am thinking of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, a poem by Eugene Field. One person told us that her mother used to read it to her at bedtime.

“Would you like to read it for us?” I passed the borrowed anthology to her, and she began—and could not finish. She had come across a tender long-ago memory, and for a moment, we all “remembered” with her…And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies is a wee one’s trundle bed. / So shut your eyes while Mother sings of wonderful
sights that be, /And you shall see the beautiful things as you rock in the misty sea…

Perhaps because of the stories of homes destroyed and people still missing, thinking of the wee one’s trundle bed, the sweet dreams at night, the Mother close by—was almost too much for us all.

My lesson, you see, was about three ways in which a poem might get on the inside of us: through long acquaintance; or when it takes us in memory to a place we have been; or when it takes us instead to a new place altogether. Such are the delights of poetry.

I had forgotten to say that we might also come to love a poem because someone we love once read it to us or knew it by heart. It is, you know, the way we really know—by heart.