I‘ve made the pilgrimage before, even in the rain.
Early one morning, under a misting sky, I drove down to Boston – specifically, to Jamaica Plain. My last visit had been years before, yet I followed the course by memory. Urban landscapes can change in 35 years, but finding Forest Hills Cemetery is never a problem.
I parked inside the main gate and proceeded on foot with a thick but brittle paperback in one hand and a red rose in the other.
Except for a bit more moss, the grave looked the same as during my last visit. Etched in the embedded marker was a simple designation:
“Edward Estlin Cummings, 1894-1962.”
A native of Cambridge, Mass., E. E. Cummings graduated from Harvard in 1915. Following service in World War I, for political reasons, he ran afoul of the nation’s literary cognoscenti. His poems, however, spoke to the American masses. By the time of his death in 1962 he was the second most widely read U.S. poet after Robert Frost.
My fascination with Cummings began as an adolescent. Loving his sound as well as his form, I took to poetry as a seductive affair. At different times the works of Stevens, Eliot, Crane, Auden, and Frost enamored me.
Then I’d always come back to Cummings.
In college, I was an odd duck: an engineering major writing an English honors thesis. What was the subject of this 100+ page project? “The Influence of Romanticism in the Poetry of E. E. Cummings.”
It was then I began my journeys to Cummings’ grave. The drive from New York to Boston was just over three hours, and I started reviewing sources at Harvard. My studies revealed so many layers to Cummings’ life; after the first visit I felt drawn to his grave whenever I was in town.
Call it paying homage. Call it a Holy Grail of good karma for an essay on which my graduation depended. Whatever it was, I loved going to the poet’s final resting place.
During one of those stopovers, I struck up a friendship with a coed – I’ll call her “Sheila” here for privacy – from one of the Hub’s many schools. Sheila was an English major intrigued by an engineering student writing a poetry thesis. She sensed a fish out of water, and a romance blossomed.
Sheila would join me graveside, always reading her favorite offering, “somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond” over Cummings’ tombstone after laying down a red rose. Back at the library she reviewed my research and offered suggestions and insights.
Once, unannounced, Sheila showed up in New York on a weekend I was supposed to drive north. I told her she had wasted the trip. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, she reached into her bag and produced a new copy of “E. E. Cummings, Complete Poems, 1904-1962.” The peace offering changed my mind, and off we went into Gotham, instead.
This continued into the fall. In the era of no PCs, laptops and smart phones, Sheila and I wrote Cummings-inspired poems several times a week and dropped them in the mail to each other. We would chat into the night from hallway payphones using rolls of quarters, as neither of us had telephones in our dorm rooms.
Then, it just ended.
When winter set in and my research slowed down, we settled back into our campus lives, as distracted as any 20-year-olds. After graduation, Sheila and I stayed in touch for awhile, but then the connection faded.
More than a decade later, while attending grad school in California, I learned from a mutual acquaintance that Sheila had moved to the Midwest following college. Shortly thereafter, at age 24, she was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver.
And so, after a long absence, I once again laid Sheila’s red rose on Cummings’ grave marker. The rain fell at a steady pace, a drizzle that seemed appropriate to the occasion, if not to that dreary day. Opening my tattered copy of “Complete Poems, 1904-1962,” I flipped to a familiar page, 366.
Sheila may be gone, but I’ve held her erstwhile gift together with bright green duct tape, the same color of the scarf she always wore on our literary treks.
And even though the tape continues to fray and detach with each passing year, today I can’t look at that hue without thinking of her, or believing in my heart that I must carry on her eternal search for E.E. Cummings, now that she can’t.
I knew Sheila’s favorite poem by heart.
Still, I smiled, took a deep breath, and read from the book anyway – out loud to Cummings – closing with the line which has mystified generations of star-crossed lovers:
“nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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