My mother, Ida Mae Ball, loved poetry. Her own mother died when she was just a girl, so she dropped out of school to help raise her younger siblings. She never got to go to high school, but she loved the music of English words artfully strung together.
She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost. Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”
She filled a buffet drawer scraps of paper bearing homespun verse she had copied by hand, or clipped from the pages of Capper’s Weekly. After her death, I found her Bible. It was worn out and held together at the spine with pieces of packing tape. Tucked amongst the hand-scrawled Bible verses and sermon notes was a tiny piece of paper where she had written this fragment from John Greenleaf Whittier:
Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest of these, it might have been
In her 70s, Mother began a long, slow journey with Alzheimer’s. At first we thought she was just getting forgetful, but, in time, we realized she was losing her faculties. She forgot names and nouns.
Early on, she devised clever strategies to trick us into helping her fill in the missing blanks. “I’m going to the, um, you know,” she would offer, hoping one of us would bail her out by supplying “the A&P,” or the name of some other destination that had eluded her.
But, in time, she lost the ability to play Guess the Word with anyone. She slipped away from us and never came back, even though she lived for years neither speaking nor, as far as we could tell, understanding anything spoken to her. She lived so long probably due to some diligent care at the county nursing home in our small Missouri town, and to the fact my father visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.
I wrote her a poem, which I read at her funeral.
Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.
You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.
Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.
So now for you I pick this small bouquet,
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.