When I was five my mother said she was going to teach me to memorize poetry, edifying poetry as it turned out, poems with a moral message. My mother, Mama, was a stern taskmaster and I was afraid that she would be mean to me. However, I soon realized that not only did I like poetry, but I enjoyed having Mama all to myself, since I usually had to compete for attention with my seven siblings. Those poetry lessons instilled in me a lasting love for poetry and the written word. And edifying or not, those poems my mother spent so much time hammering into my head, are embedded in my memory to this day. The lessons all began the same way.
“Patsy Lou, stand up straight and clasp your hands behind your back. I’m not gong to have a child of mine fidgeting like some kids do, even chewing on their fingers when they speak. No siree, you are not going to be like that.”
The first poem mother taught me A Touch Of The Masters Hand set fire to the performer in me, which burst joyfully forth. In my high childish voice I announced the title of the poem and its author, just as Mama had taught me to do. “The Touch of The Master’s Hand by Myra Brooks Welch.” I said, and then launched full-throated into the poem, Mama coaching me all the way.
“Patsy Lou, look at your audience when you speak,” she said, “not at the floor. And listen to the words. A poem tells a story. The Touch of The Masters Hand is about the hand of God changing the value of a violin that was being auctioned cheap until a master musician stepped forward and played that old violin, and then it was worth something. Like a soul that is lost...”
“And is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd much like that old violin,” I said, beaming.
“Patsy Lou, Myra Brooks was a young crippled girl, she wrote that poem when she first saw the light of God. Poetry speaks to our soul. You must speak as loudly, child, make your words ring up to the rafters of the church-house. Feel what Myra meant in her poem and put that feeling into your voice. Put emphasis into your words or you’ll sound like a housefly beating against a window-pane, buzz, buzz, buzz and your listener will sleep.
I giggled and than cleared my throat.
“It was battered and scarred, And the auctioneer thought it scarcely worth his while To waste much time on the old violin, But he held it up with a smile....”
“That was very good, Patsy Lou. You can recite it in church next Sunday.”
Over time, Mama led me to Somebody’s Mother...”The Woman was old and ragged and grey, and bent with a chill of a winter’s day.” And then it was on to Rudyard Kipling’s When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted...and the tubes are twisted and dried... ” Many of Emily Dickinson’s love poems were beyond my comprehension. Mama wasn’t too thrilled by her anyway, equating any mention of love with sex, a forbidden subject in my home. Eventually, I graduated to Shakespeare. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s Day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do not shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date...
Although I had learned to love poetry and even tried writing it myself, I balked when Mama gave me Thomas Grays Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard to memorize. “Thirty two verses,” I screeched, “I might as well learn the entire book of Psalms by heart, Mama!”
“Well, now, Patsy Lou that’s a very good idea. You will not find more beautiful poetry anywhere in the world than in the book of Psalms.” Mama opened her black leather bound bible. Oh, heaven help us, I thought, now she’ll be off on a scripture-quoting tangent, for sure. I decided not to listen. But as mother began reading aloud, I soon became transfixed by the melody, the rhythm of the poetry, the comfort in the words. “The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green valley’s, he leadith me beside the still waters, he restoreth my soul.”
At age eighty-seven my mother slipped this mortal coil. My family selected me to recite a poem at her funeral. Standing behind the pulpit in a small clapboard church in Modesto, California, I looked down at my mother lying in a white casket below me. For all our disagreements and quarrels, and there were plenty, she had taught me to appreciate writing and poetry in its various forms and for that I am deeply grateful.
Standing tall, my hands behind my back, my voice strong, I began to recite The Touch of The Master’s Hand. I'll swear that my mother looked up at me and smiled.
Causes Pat Montandon Supports
PETA, Women for Women, Amnesty International, Children as the Peacemakers, Peace to The Planet