My father is my favorite poet. You've never heard of him; the only time his poems made it to paper was when one of us copied them down into a school exercise book. But as we grew up, Dad's ditties brought rhyme to our days.
Dad can turn just about anything into a rhyme - a nonsense rhyme, that is.
There was the poem about my pet rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, and his rather exuberant eating habits:
"Benjy the rabbit could not stop/ Until his tummy went pop-pop/ Bonnie in the next cage got such a shock/ When Benjy's tummy went pop-pop."
Hardly highfalutin', but we loved it.
He made rhymes for his daughters: "Katy the Cat/ There she sat." He made up songs to while away the stuffy hours spent on a crowded English motorway on our trips to the seaside. "I Love My Sunny, My Nissan Sunny" fitted perfectly to the tune of "You Are My Sunshine."
To the delight of my sister and myself, he made up rhymes about our unborn baby sister, who he named "Itty." My mother was less charmed.
He sang to the family dogs, Francie and Tilly, as he prepared their dinners each night. They always had the same menu: biscuits mashed with canned meat, hot water, and a little gravy he'd saved from his own supper plate.
Listening as she washed the dishes, Mum shook her head.
Where does he get it from, this delight in the light tissues of things you can make with words? My father is, after all, a sober chemistry teacher. His only published book is a claret-red bound doctoral thesis filled with symbols that presumably mean quite a lot to him, but surely have little joy about them.
Maybe it was the air. We lived in eastern England's Lincolnshire, just a few miles from the birthplace of poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson, in the village of Somersby. At least one Sunday afternoon a month, we'd take house guests on a drive to see Tennyson's brook, where the 19th-century master is supposed to have written the hallowed lines: "I chatter, chatter as I flow/ To join the brimming river/ For men may come and men may go/ But I go on for ever."
It always looked like a muddy little ditch to me, but maybe Dad felt differently. Perhaps he could feel the poetry swirling through the air.
Or maybe it was Rupert the Bear. Dad loved - loves - Rupert the Bear books. We were three little girls and might have preferred "girlish" stories at bedtime, but Dad always picked yellow-scarved Rupert. He liked reading the rhymes at the bottom of the page.
Maybe Rupert was his literary model.
Or maybe chemistry and (let's call it) creative verse are not all that dissimilar.
They're both about making things, and both have a special language you have to string together just right to get what you want.
Chemistry is about doing that in a laboratory, with flashes of purple and Bunsen burners and a periodic table. Often the results are ephemeral - like the fireworks he concocted for us one November, a classroom Guy Fawkes display. But they're still beautiful.
Ditto for Dad's poetry. It brought us moments of joy.
Now, in my late twenties and on the other side of the world from my father - like the Katie in Tennyson's brook poem who "holds her head to other stars" - I surprise myself sometimes rhyming to my cat. It's taken me until now to feel the ridiculous pleasure in matching "kitten toes" to "furry nose."
You have to get the inflection right, of course.
Thanks, Dad. You taught us that life can be lived with a song . And that, if you want, you can write the song yourself.