January 22nd, 2015

And now for something completely different—my mother’s childhood poetry

Long-time readers here probably remember when I used to write about my elderly mother. And you probably also recall that about two-and-a-half years ago she died. Although I haven’t written much about that event, some day I may.

Shortly after my mother’s death I went through a lot of her possessions, sorting things out and throwing much of it out. It’s not an easy task. But then after that initial spurt of energy I stopped. In particular, I’ve been reluctant to go through the notebook she kept of her poems.

I’d seen that notebook long ago in my childhood, and had already read much of the juvenilia in it. In fact, the whole thing is mostly juvenilia. It’s heavy on poems my mother wrote between the ages of ten and fifteen, when her poetic precocity was much-admired by her family and in her school, and she got a lot of praise from both sources for it. She was always good with words, both spoken and written, and as a child she could churn out boilerplate poetry for holidays and family birthdays, often on demand (a demand she told me she sometimes resented). The notebook goes right on through her college years with a certain amount of more mature poetic verbiage about love gained and lost, and then the whole poetic endeavor abruptly ends when she’s about nineteen years old, never to be resumed.

I don’t know why my mother gave up writing poetry so early in life, but she did. By the time I knew her (I was born when she was in her mid-30s), the only verse she wrote was light song parody to be performed at friend’s parties or fund-raising functions. She was very very good at that, too (I particularly remember one song about shopping at Loehmann’s, to the tune of “Loch Lomond”).

But last night I decided to take up her poetry notebook and do some reading. Amidst the usual odes to snowflakes and flowers, Thanksgiving and grandma’s birthday, was a poem she had written that seemed very very different from the others. I offer it here for your amusement. She wrote this at fourteen, obviously after having gotten a rather hefty dose of Poe’s “The Raven” in the classroom (it’s actually entitled “Written for School,” and the date is 1928). It’s not perfect in its rhyme scheme or meter (and my mother’s name wasn’t “Eleanor”; that was poetic license). But I think for a fourteen-year old it’s awfully fine:

Have you ever had a feeling
That has set your head a’reeling
While so calmly lesson learning
You’d no midnight oil a’burning
On the night before.

Mists before your eyes are lifting
Farther is the classroom drifting
In a daze of joy abounding
Drones of voices never sounding
Thrilled by dreams’ sweet lore.

Suddenly you hear a tapping
Some one who is softly rapping
Tis the boy in back–quite frantic
And the teacher looks gigantic
Towering above the class.

Then you realize you’d been dreaming
Trapped by her ingenious scheming
As you’re thinking—what’s the reason
Nathan Hale committed treason?
This subject you’ll never pass.

Then it comes, that awful feeling,
Horror, clammy cold comes stealing
As you gasp and as you mutter
Swallow, and then madly stutter
She says, “Answer, Eleanor!”

When you’re in this cruel position
To get away is all you’re wishing.
Reader, can you ere forget
That great and most sincere regret:
“I’ll study now and evermore.”

[NOTE: Here’s Poe’s “The Raven.”]

22 Responses to “And now for something completely different—my mother’s childhood poetry”

  1. LisaM Says:

    This is wonderful! May I hazard a guess that your mother didn’t have to worry overmuch about studying or passing classes?

    I contrast this with my son’s Honors English class. He’ll be 14 in 2 weeks, so they’re of an age. He reports that they’re reading a book about a woman taxidermist who kills and stuffs the men she meets. I don’t even know where to begin with that.

  2. neo-neocon Says:


    My mother was very good at English and history.

    Math and science were not her forte, and she didn’t do well in them, especially math. But back then it didn’t seem to hold her back much. She went to college and didn’t have to take them there. She was a history major.

  3. MollyNH Says:

    Gosh a mom from that era who went to college !
    That is very commendable !
    My mom was an avid reader (esp TIME & Life magazine)
    back in the day. I d come home, the broom was propped up by the table with the pile of debris waiting & mom would have her nose in the TIME magazine !

  4. Sharon W Says:

    This is one of the reasons I love to read your blog, Neo. How interesting that your Mother never resumed writing poetry when she had received such encouragement for her ability. Seeing that she wrote in her younger years and then through 19 reminds me of young girls/women keeping a diary. Often times that is something that is not continued through adulthood.

  5. Rufus Firefly Says:

    That was very, very good! Brava!

  6. carl in atlanta Says:

    Very Nice. Reading your mother’s poem brought to mind a recurring nightmare I have (and I’ve heard that others have it as well):

    I’m in school (usually undergraduate college) and the exam is first thing tomorrow morning. But I realize that I’ve cut every single class and haven’t even bothered to buy the textbook. I always wake up feeling that “great and most sincere regret” indeed.

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    carl of atlanta:

    That’s the classic student anxiety dream, one of the most frequent dreams of all (something like the actor’s anxiety dream). I used to regularly have one of several versions of the student dream. In the most recent decade it finally seems to have phased itself out of my dream life, although I’d never be surprised to see it come back.

  8. zipper Says:

    Well, obviously you got yer

    poetic genetics

    from her

  9. Word Bully Says:

    The word you want is “juvenilia”, meaning the writings of youth. “Juvenalia” appears to have been an ancient Roman holiday.

  10. Gringo Says:

    A connection with a departed loved one helps keep the connection alive. I have read two memoirs of family friends, one of which was finished just two months before he died. One of them would have been good reading even if I hadn’t known him.

    I sat my grandmother down in front of a tape recorder when she was 86, nine years before she died. In listening to them years later, I was impressed at what a good speaker my grandmother was- none of the ums and ahs while she talked about rendering hogs on the farm or a Civil War story of her grandmother about those Damned Yankee soldiers. Which augmented the stories about the Civil War from the family history my grandmother from the other side of the Civil War had written down.

    When my mother died, we discovered some letters and a scrap book my grandmother kept which indicated that my mother had a sailor beau who was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We had never heard about this from our mother- she kept it close to her heart.

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    Word Bully,

    Oh, I knew I should have looked that one up! But I was in a hurry.

    I’ll fix it.

  12. Clarityseeker Says:

    I did some math myself. I hazard a guess that you are only a few years older than me. If you were born about 1950.
    Good for you that you keep your memories of your mother refreshed. My own mother passed 10 years ago this year. A great loss. She too was strengthened by her creative side. Taught music. Played a couple of instruments, with delightful acumen. As you miss your mother, I sure miss mine.
    Anyway, I may pour myself a drink this evening and in doing so, will toast our mothers. And also to your dedication to keeping her alive through writing about her and sharing memories.
    Well done.

  13. Clarityseeker Says:

    Gringo, what a great gift you were given in exploring these memories with your grandmother and your mother.
    The stuff which inspires books…

  14. Word Bully Says:

    Charming poem.

  15. Tonawanda Says:

    Neo (and others): I truly apologize for this comment, but I can’t help myself.

    Parental love is a gift.

    No parental love is a perpetual haunting.

    The bar is set so low. How much more lovely when the the bar is surpassed.

    What happens in our imaginations becomes the faith we live.

    Picture a person who comes across a poem not reflecting the humanity of a mother or a father merely, but a poem of love for oneself.

  16. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    My mother wrote poetry too, serious poems and humorous light verse. She kept it up all through her life, writing her last few poems in her 80s. She also loved to read and memorize other people’s poetry, reciting it for others as a way of savoring and sharing. She died around the same time that Neo’s mother did. It’s a treasure to have her poetry — the poems she wrote and the poems she loved — a way of continuing to know her and be with her, even though she’s gone.

  17. J.J. Says:

    My mother had only a high school education and was never what I would call bookish or even interested in the intellectual life. But she wrote poetry effortlessly. Never anything with deep meaning – always quite light and amusing. From about her fifties on she wrote her Christmas letter as an extended poem every year, right up until her sudden, unexpected death from a stroke. Friends and family all recount how much they looked forward to her Christmas poems.

    She was also very artistic. She could draw, paint, sketch, and design clothes – all without any formal training. I always admired her talents, but I have none of them. She had a sister who was also talented the same way. All my cousins on that side are artistic and creative. It’s interesting to me how those genetic talents seem to pass on to some and not to others.

  18. rickl Says:


    Off topic, but did you see this article about the AirAsia disaster?

    It’s still preliminary yet, but it sounds like your December 30 comment was spot on.

  19. Beverly Says:

    Our Dad loves to write doggerel poems. When my sister got married, her prospective mother-in-law was a bossy type who felt socially superior to us, and she took Dad aside at the rehearsal dinner and said, “Do you know that it’s customary for the father of the bride to make a toast?” Dad pulled about 14 stanzas out of his coat pocket and enquired politely, “Do you think that this will do?”

  20. Beverly Says:

    Here’s a bit of our dad’s two-fingered typing, about cars: He’s 87, so you can do the math. Sorry about the Artful Dodger-length post. 😉

    Beverly, I know this car stuff will bore you but it was so much fun thinking about the good old days and all the laughs in connection with the rattle trap cars we had. That term reminds me of our commanding officer’s statement in Harrisburp Pa. when we were starting out in convoy to Huntsville Ala. He said “we are going in to the South where the cars are mostly rattle traps and they will run into you if you will let them, so be aware it’s a problem ” He wasn’t far from the truth because in 1946 our car companies hadn’t produced a passenger car since Pearl Harbor. Prior to that my Dad used to buy a new car every year.

    But re old cars,I had lunch with [my brother] Bob, we looked at the Mercedes [87] pictures and talked for most of an hour re the 87 and many other old cars we have used down through the ages. Remembering is so much fun for our vintage, even Bob’s.

    Down through the years our garages starting with New Orleans had grease spots in the garage where family cars were parked all of which were new cars beause pre war Dad bought new Lincoln car every year during the “depression”, but they leaked in the garage.

    I know, ancient history,,,,,, so boring. So much for the grease spots and believe me my dad especially watched those grease spots to see if anything notable was happening…….justt natural with most guys but more so with Dad,,,, cars were his business. He started as a mechanic in Lake Charles La. with a Ford dealer and had lots of blue collar jobs before they turned white( No college degree ).

    In late 1942 I got a driver’s license because the gov. of Ga. Talmadge changed the driver’s age for elligibility to 15 years of age from 16. (I had learned to drive when I was 12). Dad was my mentor.

    One summer vaction while I was in H. school I was hired as a mechanic’s helper at Wade Motors a Ford dealer on Spring Street ( automobile row ) in Atl. Friend of Dad’s. In the service dept. ( Ovealls ) I learned a little including a lot of lousy jokes at lunch break brown bagging with the mechanics. They were prejudiced agenst me, age discrimination. And they thought they knew more about cars than I did.

    I know this is boring but it is so much fun.

    When Althaus moved in with us for the war and turned 15, together we begged and talked our fathers into buying a clunker 1930 Chevy from some mechanics that lived on our paper route. We were impressed with the car’s huge 6 cylinder engine. They wanted $60 for it so our dads looked it over and after lots of begging and pleading by us came up with $30 apiece and it was ours!!!!! Nirvana, Oley, Hooray Too. So we lived happily ever after for a while. But short story long it had a crack in the mighty engine’s block that limited it’s top speed to 30 mph and various other impairmints too long to list terminated it’s short but interesting career with us. We worked hard on it but a cracked engine block….NO WAY. So endlessly on “Irregardless”.

    So what to do?????, only a miracle could help but one happened !!!!! The Michigan farm boy across the street who lived in a former stable had a Model T Ford ( more model Ts were built than any other car so far). A lots of laughs friend named Elmer Dunn Some spelled it Dumb and I bought the thing after a training program by the Michigan farmer.

    Actually Dunn and I each got a one third interest for three dollars each and MIchigan guy kept a third interest.

    On our first training run after buying it, Elmer was driving it when we came to this high hill on Peachtree Dunwoody road and couldn’t shift down to a lower gear with the ” Planetary transmission” which involved three foot pedals and and double clutching with the throttle on the steering column. No big deal for us We knew waht we were doing every minute. But in spite of our expertise the T started going backwards on Peachtree Dunwoody because the brakes were ok when going forward but useless when going backward. So Elmer, whose IQ was pretty low, turned the wheel so the car ran off the road and up a steep red clay bank which stopped it at which point it was listing about 40 degrees to port and we jumped out.

    Will spare you if you are still aroind, the rest of the T story, but I lost my $3 I had earned at five cents per tip as a bag boy at Colonial Stores that summer. So moving on I remained clueless and carless untill we married and bought a 1934 Chevy from Mom’s brother Buck for $150 in 1953. Surely you’re not still reading this stuff. It did work OK and had a nice feature which was a hole in the floor next to the accelerator so you could check the quality of the road as you went along. It let lots of air in too…….”cool”. Our attic appartment at that time was real cool too.

    But then bad news I was transferred to Loisville, wherever that was. I told my Dad that mom and baby Vivian were going to fly up and I would drive the Chevrolet. He looked at the thread showing tires and said he wanted to drive it around a bit before the 400 mile drive. When he got back it had four new tires. I think by then he was thinking that ” a college degree doesn’t show me too much”

    In Louisville ( I made it , no big deal ) our friends across the hall ( great frinds, the Mudds from St Louis ) had a brand new Oldsmomile ” Rocket” 88 that was theee real hot car at that time with a huge over head valvue V8 engine and speed of sound no big deal. We were impressed, but they liked our 34 Chevy’

    I rode the train to cover my “territory” which was mostly West Virginia ” coal mine country “. End of the line on every other Friday was Bluefield where the life expectancy of an Environmentalist was averaging about twenty minutes. But I got a ride on the PULLMAN back to Cincinatti where I got a shave and a haircut at their fabulous train station. Grand Central was a distant second.

    I’m almost thru…………But a miracal happened ! I got a company car !!! But they wanted $20 a month if we wanted to use it for personal travel as opposed to business. We said ” Hell no” to the $20. Actually Loiisville was a lot of fun. We made it back to Buckhead when we were transferred and we still had the Chevy, but no company car in Atlanta they had a pool car there for business. Sacrificing a terrible but funny story about our 46 Buick Century ( it could go 100 mph when new but yhose days were long gone when we got it. I did learn how to drive a stick shift car when the clutch is not working. Not easy.

    So in 1954 we bought a 1950 6 cylinder Pontiac with unknown mileage on it which worked well except when the drive shaft fell off on main street when mom was driving and I was out of town and the Greenville office guys rescued her but I was exiled to the dog house and the dog was ticked off a lot about that. Eventually we got better cars but that’s boring except for Old Blue.

    Yesterday Bob reministe (sp?) about his old cars including some good Puegot stories and his highpowered Mercury that lasted a month or two and decided to terminate with a side swiping accident out near lake Chicamagua in the rain. His fault, $400 car. I wore out the Puegot’s clutch with the many trips up this moutain hauling the boat and having to shift throug all the gears to get to the top with the boat. But I did get a SHADE TREE GUY TO FIX IT ON THE PROVISION THAt I would pay him in full ” as soon as he fixed it” I said ok and he finished the job and called me at 2:00am saturday nite and said on the phone, “Mister Cooper your Puejot is ready”

    This is way too much but not the whole cars story. Love, Dad.

  21. J.J. Says:

    rickl, thanks for the link. Interesting. There’s more definitive information to be learned from the voice and flight recorders. It will be months before all that will be released. I get a lot of exercise jumping to conclusions, but patience is a virtue in aircraft accident analysis.

  22. Steve Says:

    Video: 42nd annual March For Life in Washington DC:


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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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