Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Nameless Love

*Look for a new posting every Tuesday and Friday*

Amanda here. We're taking a break today from the posting of the War Letters book chapters, but we'll be back Friday with more beautiful letters from Catherine and Duke.  (And if you're behind in you're reading, you can catch up here with the Intro and Foreword, Chapter One, and Chapter Two.)

The essay below is from a creative writing class I took in 2012.  My grandmother's love of poetry is well-known, and her ability to quote it still is well-documented, yet it is still a magical thing to bear witness to.  (Another reading assignment: check out this excellent article from the New Yorker on "Why We Should Memorize Poetry.")  If you plan to visit Miss Catherine, you'd do well to stop by the library first and pick up a book of poems.  Perhaps we'll put together a booklet of her favorites to leave at her house to make it even easier. 


A Nameless Love

Sometimes there is darkness, sometimes there are glimmers of light, and sometimes there is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  I recently spent the weekend with my 96 year-old grandmother, Catherine LeDuke.  She doesn’t know where she is or who I am, but she is still delightful and she can still quote poetry.  She was an English teacher for over 40 years, and the musty and brittle and worn books on her bookshelves confirm a lifelong love of verse.  But that doesn’t fully explain the medical mystery that allows her to quote a John Milton poem word for word while not knowing the names of her children.  She began losing her memory about five years ago, and not long after,  during a brief hospital stay some nurses discovered that, even in her confusion, she was repeatedly reciting Emily Dickinson.  Suddenly she was the unwitting participant in a pretty neat party trick.

During my visit, we did all the usual things one does when visiting this small Tennessee town:  crane your neck out the window for a glimpse of a bald eagle near the lake, get a Baskin Robbins ice cream cone, and drive across the levee to look at the Mississippi River.  It was when we were parked by the river watching a barge go by that she started quoting Longfellow's  poem "A Psalm of Life":

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

She repeated that stanza over and over again and you got the sense that it was almost out of her control, you could hear in her voice that she didn’t know why she knew those words.  I felt the now-familiar sadness creep in, the feeling that there is something unjust in this amazing woman enduring this, where her only lucid moments, if she ever has them, happen inside her head. There is almost no way that she could understand the meaning of that poem anymore, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the English teacher in her has pulled together an anthology of poems in her mind that give her comfort.  It’s worth noting that the John Milton sonnet is “On His Blindness”:

 When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Just before I left I sat with her on the sun porch and read poems to her.  The light was waning and I thought of all the holidays I’d spent in that house, the games of hide and seek, the Thanksgiving dinners.  We read more Longfellow, some Emily Dickinson, William Blake, the Milton poem.  With almost every poem she’d chime in at some point with a few words or an entire stanza.  After each one she’d say, "Well that's a really nice poem, can you write that down so I can read it again later?"  Her vision is so poor, she could barely see me beside her. But she heard me flipping through the pages and she asked why I was skipping so many good poems. 

January 2012

Amanda LeDuke (Dad would love to hear from you...feel free to comment below, or click HERE to send us an e-mail.)

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