Thursday, May 12, 2005

mother to son

Our final for the creative writing class was a recital of acclaimed poems of our choice. I had chosen "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now" by A. E. Houseman. It is rhymed, and thus easier to memorize, I thought. I was also interested in the use of cherry blossoms as a symbol of both celebration of youth and premonition of death, seemingly common to Japanese and American literature. I went to the classroom, muttering the verse to myself.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about woodlands ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

A girl sitting in front of me turned back and asked if all we had to do was to recite a poem. I told her yes.
"I wouldn't come to the final if I didn't like this class. It's only worth 25 points," she said. "But I do, so..."

"Yeah, this is probably the most fun class I've ever taken in this college. I thought about skipping the final, but you know, I just want to be nice to the teacher," I said. Then I dropped my gaze onto the poem. There were several lines that my tongue never seemed to twitter.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

Ms. Brandet, our teacher, came in, smiled to all of us, and handed back our last assignment--the drama. As everyone went up in turn to the desk to fetch their script, I continued to rehearse the lines. The language of the poem, as I go over it time and again, seemed to grow dull. I half regretted my choice.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Chasing the back of the last student going back to her seat, Ms. Brandet asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to go first. Several hands went up, but Denise was the first to go. An African American woman in her early forties with a history of writing that extended longer than the lives of many of us, her solid presence had always been an anchor to the world. Her polite, if old-fashioned, "yes, ma'am" to our instructor had been a delight to hear, soothing me into a different America. Vivid colors and bold patterns on her shirts always intensified against her dark, tanned skin.

"My poem is 'Mother to Son' by Langston Hughes. I chose this one because it has always been my favorite poem of his since when I was a young girl. It speaks so much..." she posed, and continued. "I lost my son. He was killed." Her perfect composure, complete with even a hint of smile at the corner of her lips, made me think that she was referring to a distant past. Then, suddenly a strange warp appeared on her face, as if a trememdous force gripped it, shook it, and ripped it. I saw a drop of tear run down her cheek. "On Monday I was with him in the hospital. He died on Tuesday. That was why I came in late," she said it in a breath. We were silent, not knowing if we should be looking into her eyes, as if intently listening to a well-made story. "He was my only son. I wanted to come here today because he was proud of my getting an education. He wanted me to go on."

"I'm sorry, I'm crying," she said, and recited the poem, trying to fight back the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her with sweet vigor.

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor--
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.

Tears welled up behind her black-rimmed glasses, ran down her chocolate cheeks, but she didn't stop. Surpressed by her physical, violent attempt to stay composed, her voice became at times inaudible, but she didn't stop. With her eyes tight shut, she wrung out the last lines.

For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

Calls to the boy in the poem became her calls to her son. Her fiercely shaking whisper filled the air, tore our eardrums. When she finished, everybody was hesitant to applaude, for despite its genuine power to move us, it was not a performance in its ordinary sence. Not knowing what else to do or say, however, we applauded at last.

"I'm going on. I have to go on," she repeated, then apologized again, and said she would leave the class if we wouldn't mind. Nobody answered. Nobody could answer. She briefly went back to her chair in the front row, still fighting to be calm. Ms. Brandet put her arm around Denise's shoulder, whispering something in her ears. "I had really enjoyed all you guys in this class. Hope to see you next semester, too." She was courageously polite until the end. All we could do was to give her hands. She picked up her library tote bag and left.

We couldn't continue the final after she left. Reciting poems we had chosen on a whim seemed utterly hollow and meaningless after we had witnessed such a divastating force of reality.

"I don't think anybody wants to follow that," said Jane, a beautiful mass-communication major of Italian descent said it for all of us. Many of our eyes were opaque with the threat of spontaneous tears. Some nose were rosier than usual. We blankly stared at our desks, unable to meet the eyes of the others. The only appropriate thing for me to do was to write about it. Most of us shared the feeling, and we wrote, some to be handed to Denise, others to be read only by Ms. Brandet. For a long time, I waited for the fact to sink in. The whole scene seemed unreal, from the very death of her son to the tragic irony of her poem selection, which had been made months before the incident.

I finally wrote, but I didn't hand it in. "I want to keep this to myself," I said. I was the last to leave the classroom. "It's not pretty."

"That's okay. That's not the point. All that matters now is that the writing makes you feel better," said Ms. Brandet. I thanked her, for her apt and compassionate handling of the sudden explosion of the final exam, and for her concise advise throughout the semester, smiled, and left the classroom. The parking lot felt further than ever. I hastened my steps, hoping that my liquid eyes wouldn't be too noticeable, with a reawakened suspicion unsettling my stomach again.


At 11:05 AM, Blogger Allen said...

In a Mother's Day more then 5 years ago, I tried to reach a high school buddy, who I had not seen for a long time because we both enlisted in the army, by making a phone call to his home. His mother picked up the phone and I said "excuse me, is Chiang Kuo Hsing there?" She replied in a rather remote voice "He had passed away late last year..." I could not believe my ear and asked again "what? I mean I would like to talk to CHIANG KUO HSING..."
It was really a bad time to make the phone call; I was like forcing her to announce her son's death again. I recalled that I had prepared my first question for my buddy, if he did come to the phone: "hey, what are you going to do in Mother's Day?"


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