Natalie's poetry drawer

MY aunt Natalie, a short, solid woman with sly, good-humored eyes and the zestful accent of her native Hungary, loved, above all things, poetry. When she made meals, always on her kitchen counter she would prop up a book of poetry near her so she could read and work at the same time. She read the poems out loud, to herself, and was sometimes so moved she drifted blissfully into total Hungarian, ``becoming,'' she told me, ``if not a poet, then a translator.'' In a drawer in her dresser she kept hundreds of different-colored, scented pieces of stationery -- rose, laurel, violet -- on which she had neatly typed her poems. Poems shouldn't just have meaning, she felt, but color and fragrance too. This was her ``Poems for my drawer.'' And why for the drawer, not for the world? Under them was another drawer full of rejection slips from places where she'd sent them. Now into her later years, she'd yet to have a poem of hers published. She always said she hoped it was because her English wasn't as good as her Hungarian.

I remember a kitchen talk we had together, when my family had come to share a holiday. ``Aunt Natalie,'' I asked, ``why do you love poetry so much? What is so special about it?''

She looked up from a yellow onion she was slicing, an open book propped nearby. ``If only all the tears in the world came from onions,'' she said, sighing with a smile. ``I love poetry, David, because it gives me something missing in my life. My life has been full of duties, first with all the children and my husband, and now with the two of us here. I still work very hard. I cook. I clean. I mend. I wash. Some days I don't even look out a window.''

She nodded toward her book. ``Poetry brings the outside inside. The sky. The flowers. The trees. The places. All the beauty. Poetry is my . . . messenger. It even makes like new to me the inside as well, the familiar things around me. Give a look at those old chairs at the kitchen table. You know how a poet once described chairs?''


``Chairs are `inanimate persons sitting dumbfounded through all eternity.' That's poetry.''

``Isn't it enough for you just to read poetry, Aunt Natalie?'' I asked. ``Why do you write it, too?''

``Well, even in a life of duties, a person has time to think. There are words in my noodle'' -- she tapped her brow -- ``that want to come out. They want to go straight from my noodle to somebody else's. Am I a stick-in-the-mud that I should stand in their way?

``I'll tell you a secret. Some years ago I treated myself to something. A course in how to write poetry at the community college. It's true.'' She nodded proudly.

``I was the oldest hopeful poet in the class. All the rest were young people. They called me `Grandma Natalie.' They said I would become `the Grandma Moses of poetry.' I said, fiddle.

``The teacher said we could write about anything we wanted, provided it was something we knew. We each read our poems to the others, and they said what was good, and what was not so good. The teacher said, too, and after class he wrote a personal comment on all the poems.

``He had a kind, round face, like the moon. He was a real poet, David. He made poetry even when he talked. Once, a few of the students sneezed almost at the same time. He said, `Gesundheit, o my princes and princesses of lassitude.'

``He helped me a lot with my poetry. Not to rhyme just for the sake of rhyming. Not to show off. Not to waste words. He wrote on one of my poems, `You have integrity, and thank goodness you don't act as if you invented it.' He wrote on another, `You have the courage to be vulnerable. Never lose that.' After all these years, I still remember his praise.

``He liked to sit out in the sunshine. All by himself. Sometimes I could feel the light from his moon face in my eyes. Once, I wanted to go over and make a little joke -- to tell him that the moon stole its light from the sun, so from him I was receiving stolen goods, wasn't he ashamed? But I didn't. I remembered what he'd said in class once. He said a poet needed sometimes to be alone with the child in himself.''

``Do you ever get downhearted, Aunt Natalie, because your poems haven't been . . . ?'' I couldn't bring myself to say the sensitive word.

``Published, David?''


Her onions done, she washed her hands and stood drying them for several moments, and dabbing the moisture from her eyes. Then she smiled at me and answered, ``Of course, I do. I even had a dream once in which I complained to the Wailing Wall about my rejections. To the Wailing Wall, David! With all its troubles, the poor Wall had to hear about my rejections.''

``What happened?''

``My poetry teacher came up to me and said, very gently, `You're doing yourself no good by this. Time will reveal whose judgment was correct, yours or that of your age. Meanwhile, take heart.' So, I woke up, and I did.

``Who knows, I may be famous someday. `The Grandma Moses of poetry' after all. My drawer thinks so anyway.

``Now shoo, David. Go join the merriment. My eyes are dry now. I can read a little, before I start the potatoes.''

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