A Woman of Words, Poetry and Power

My mother taught me how to preach. She did not give me lectures on homiletics, and she never entered a pulpit herself. But she taught me how to preach by teaching me a love for words.

It began with poetry. My mother would read poetry to my siblings and me. We read Emily Dickinson together and Langston Hughes, Longfellow and Whitman. And much of what we read we memorized.

It was from memorizing poetry that I learned the cadences of speech, the rhythms of oral expression—rhythms and cadences that quite naturally flowed into my preaching.

One of my mother’s favorite poets was Walt Whitman. One Mother’s Day, when I was about ten years old, I wrote out on parchment all 16 stanzas of Whitman’s “When the Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Then, I memorized the poem and recited it for my mother.

The poem is Whitman’s haunting and lyrical elegy to President Lincoln. It mourns his death and the death of those killed in the Civil War even as it welcomes death as rest. A central image in the poem is a sprig of lilac which the poet imagines casting upon the coffin of Lincoln. My mother loved lilacs, and she loved the words of that poem.

Today, this woman who loved lilacs and words sits in a nursing home--her once beautiful brain paralyzed by Alzheimer’s and dementia. She does not know where she is or who she is most of the time. She no longer recognizes me. And my mother, who so loved words, sometimes cannot make them make sense.

And so when I visited her some time ago, I did not know what to say to her. So I started to recite poetry. And, my mother, who could not remember my name, or that my father had died, or who she was, or how to put words together into sentences, began to finish my sentences. And we recited together, from memory, the poem I had given her in recitation so many years ago.

“When the lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed,” I began.

“And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night, I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever returning spring,” said my mother.

That poem, which Whitman penned in 1865, was about the death of a president assassinated for setting free people like my mother and me. That poem was about a war that ripped a country apart yet set it upon a road to justice and liberty. That poem was about all of these things, but at that moment when I was with my mother, it was about none of these things. Instead, in that moment, it was about a mother and a daughter performing a dance of words—a dance that was beyond memory, and Alzheimer’s, and loss.

“O powerful western fallen star,
O shades of night,” said my mother.

“O moody tearful night! “ I continued.

“O great star disappeared—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless
O helpless soul of me….”

The final stanza that we remembered together was this one:

“In the dooryard fronting an old farmhouse, near the white-washed palings stands the lilac bush tall-growing with heart–shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard…
A sprig from its flower I break.” *

A sprig from the flower of a lilac bush, I imagine breaking now in memory of my mother. With every leaf a miracle, I celebrate now the miracle of that day with her. She is the woman who taught me poetry and a love for words. She is the woman who taught me how to preach.

This reflection is in honor of Kennetha’s mother, Bobbie Jo Sneed Bigham, a woman of great faith, intelligence and creativity who currently resides in Austin, Texas.

*"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," by Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Bantam Dell, Division of Random House, New York: 2004, p. 274.

Rev. Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai serves as Superintendent of the Lansing District in the West Michigan Annual Conference. She is a member of the Conference Leadership Team and is the cabinet representative for the Conference Trustees and other annual conference bodies. Before entering pastoral ministry, Kennetha served at Grand Rapids Trinity UMC as director of Christian Education and as the director of the Grand Rapids District Peace With Justice Community. She also has served on the West Michigan Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, as the chair of the Conference Board of Church and Society, and on the board of Worship Arts magazine.


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