My mother, Marguerite, was very bright, absurdly literate, pathologically insecure, and a poet. As a young mother she gradually became aware that her first and most loved child was a psychopath, and believed that recognition of his defect would destroy her life. She could lose everything she loved most, both her son and her husband. Her response to this situation was to begin her lifelong relationship with alcohol, which allowed her to continue to not-see that her boy was a monster. The alcohol unfortunately also got rid of the bright wit and the poetry. She wrote nothing from then on.
Marguerite was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in her late fifties. Knowing she was dying, she began to write poetry again. She didn’t have the time or energy to write very much before she died, but she produced a small handful of poems. By then it had been more than 25 years since I really cared what she did or thought or felt, so most of her poems weren’t especially meaningful for me. However, there was one that I loved so much that I still remember some of it today. It was called “Magic.”
“No giants walked the earth in the days of my childhood,” the poem began. It went on to list the various forms of fairy-tale magic that were all absent from the life of a child in California in the 1930s. “And yet, a proper miracle was mine.” She described a scene in which her mud-cakes were magically transformed into ginger cookies when she was not looking. (My grandfather was a sweet man.) She says she told no one about the miracle and did not share the cookies with anyone. “I ate them, every crumb.” As a voracious reader of fairy tales, she knew that that would be the correct way to acknowledge this magical gift.
There are many categories of tragedy in this world, but one of these is the tragedy when someone has a gift, something they were born to do, and does not do it. When God or the vast magic universe or Lady Luck gives you a gift, by God you are obligated to use it. Wasting such a gift is a crime—one that is its own punishment. That my mother, blazing with talent, did anything instead of writing was adequately sad. It breaks my heart that what she did instead was spend her life in the bottom of a bottle.
The last line of the poem was, “Magic asks of us only this: Know how to accept the gift.”