I’ve spent a lot of time in skilled nursing homes and other facilities that offer assisted living to aging folks. For many years, my professional work took me into places designed for old people when they’ve begun to have trouble living alone. My mother spent the last few years of her life at Carefree Assisted Living in Cook. Although I was grateful that she was safe and well cared for, it was not always easy for her. No question about it, she missed her independence and her familiar surroundings. Who said it? “There’s no place like home.”
Mom was creative. She considered every space she occupied her canvas upon which she painted her version of beauty. She took great pride in her decorating, choosing colors, making drapes, arranging furniture and her personal artifacts in unique and appealing ways. As her health and capabilities diminished, so too did the square footage of each place she occupied, but her creative fingerprint continued to appear wherever she landed. Despite her physical and mental infirmities, Mom’s imagination seemed to make the necessary adjustments, gradually condensing her creative vision to accommodate even her final tiny abode, her cozy apartment at “Carefree”.
Perhaps to honor my mother, but maybe most of all, to ease my “missing”, I’ve continued to visit Carefree Living. On the second Tuesday of every month, with a folder tucked under my arm, I buzz myself in and take my place at a big table in the sunroom. Minutes later, I‘m joined by a half dozen or more silver-haired men and women for an hour of poetry reading, reminiscing, and some of the richest storytelling I’ve ever heard. Some arrive in wheelchairs, some with walkers, but all with smiles and enthusiasm for the opportunity to share innermost thoughts and feelings triggered by a few good poems.
I wasn’t born a poetry lover. Or if I was, somewhere in my early school days it got a knock-out punch. Maybe it was Mr. Koller, my 9th grade English teacher. I entered the class with a premonition that this might be a subject “over my head”. It didn’t take long to discover that I was right. Each time he’d call on me to explain the meaning of, say, a line from Emily Dickinson, or to define iambic pentameter, I either drew a complete blank or stumbled through some weak attempt, totally embarrassed.
By the time 11th grade came along, and Mr. Groebbel’s efforts to stimulate some excitement over a Shakespeare sonnet, I knew I was sunk. And, sunk was just one grade above flunk. I was freaked. My fear of failure was so intense that any chance for me “loving poetry” was not in the picture. I had to accept that “it just wasn’t my thing”. I gave myself permission to quit trying. It would be several years before someone would crack my armor of resistance.
When I was 21, I was restless. I decided to load my backpack and my big white German Shepherd into my VW Bug. Destination? Tucson, Arizona, to visit my big sister.
At an early age, Karen decided to be a teacher. She honed her skills throughout my childhood teaching me (and her dolls) how to read before we entered Kindergarten. Although she didn’t join the convent, which was also her plan, she did become a passionate high school English teacher. While she was fulfilling her life’s dream, I enjoyed exploring whatever possibility presented itself. By 1974, I was ready to “go west”. When I arrived, rather unannounced, on Karen’s doorstep, with my only accomplishment being that I’d left Detroit and found her, thankfully, she welcomed me with open arms and encouraged me to stay.
It wasn’t long after I’d moved into her little house that one evening, while I washed a sink full of dishes, Karen asked if I’d like her to read aloud the poems from that day’s lesson plan. As you might guess, I wasn’t enthusiastic. Just the mention of poetry triggered flashbacks of high school Lit class where my teachers pressed me to upgrade my appreciation for a “good poem”.
“But,” I thought, “How could I deny her when she’s agreed to support me until I get a job?” So, I listened.
To make a long story short, I found that my sister’s feverish love for poetry was contagious! While my stomach would tense, her voice would soothe. When my mind would drift, her voice would grab my attention and imagination. She pulled me into the world of great writers, as adept at their craft, creating intimate scenes with words, as great painters do with color and line. Those good poems imbued me with vivid imagery and poignant emotion. She showed me the power of poetic language and sometimes moved me to tears. By the end of that year, I was hooked.
Now forty years later, her legacy lives on — the roles reversed. No, my dear friends at Carefree need not slave over a dishpan in trade for some good poems. They’ve done enough just by allowing me into their home, saying “yes”, when invited to join me, listening to my personal “lesson plan”, and sharing that special kinship of the pleasure of spoken word. They have no idea how much I love listening to their recollections and shared stories, an art form in itself.
Poetry has the power to speak to our souls. It can connect us despite our differences of age or background. I have felt the joy and meaning of our being in that room together— a rare and intimate opportunity to share where we’ve come from and who we each are now. We laugh. Sometimes we cry. We’ve discovered how much we share in common. And when the hour is through, we quietly gather our belongings, ready ourselves to leave one another’s company, but not before words of thanks and hugs that will carry us until we meet again.