suzy mom

A Haiku is a Memoir in 17 Syllables

My phone rang. It was 2:30 in the morning. My brother was calling to tell me our mother had died suddenly.

By that Tuesday evening, my brother from Flint, my brother from Grand Rapids, my sister from Houston, and I had gathered in Grand Rapids. That evening we ate together and shared memories about the woman we cherished who had been our gateway to this world.

In the days following, we began to do the things you do when your mom dies. We began to sort through her things, and we began to plan a memorial service to celebrate her remarkable life. As we were preparing this service, my daughter said, “Mom, the grandchildren would like to do haikus for her service.” When we asked her what that would be, without hesitation she said: “We’d like to write and read Haikus about her.” Of course, we said yes.

I don’t know if my brothers and sister knew what Haiku was. I just knew I didn’t. I was curious.

That week we prepared Mom’s condo for sale and easily sat together deciding how to share and dispose of all her personal and household treasurers. On Friday, we gathered with Mom’s community for her service.

And so it was…her grandchildren’s words fit Mom to a “T.”

It was magic. The Haikus spoke, and Mom came to life in each person’s imagination.

Little did I realize what an impact this experience would have on my life.

At the time I was volunteering at the Westville Correctional Center. I was working with maximum security inmates in the art program that I had come to call this my “laboratory”…the place where I could try out new things when working with people. They were my “captured audience.”

I decided to try this one with them. It went like this:

I asked the inmates to sit quietly. I tapped each of them on their shoulders with my magic want…told them I was their Fairy Godmother…asked them to imagine that I was giving them all the skills, education and money they would require to do whatever they wanted to do for the next 5 years…just to imagine that.

After a minute or two, I asked them to imagine time had passed and I’d met their mother…or their best friend recently. I was so eager to hear about them…what they’d been up to. I asked their mother (or best friend) to describe them to me…what was he like…what did they observe about him…what had he been doing…like that. I told them to write down all the words they imagined their mother (or best friend) saying…all the words they could think of…no judgment…no stopping…just to write as fast as they could

I waited. When they put their pencils down, I told them to rest…to breathe…

Then I asked them to take their words and to copy them on another piece of paper in the order of importance to them.

Again I waited.

When I thought they were ready, I shared the principles of Haiku…17 syllables

5 in the first line

7 in the second

5 in the third

syllables…not words

I asked them to play with their words…and to add others if they felt like it…and to write their own personal Haiku.

I waited…the silence was deafening…after all…I’d never done this before…after a while I saw tears in the eyes of some of these men. They’d each just written what I have come to call their “Memoir in 17 Syllables.” They’d become aware of who they were at their core. The Haikus had spoken …, just as they had at my mothers memorial.

Later that summer the leader of the Holy Cross and Associates program for volunteers came to me. His volunteers were going to other countries for 2 years of service. He said the 2-week orientation program always seemed to leave them drained…even anxious. He asked if I would create a “day of respite” for them…so they could leave with ease on their adventures. And so, again, I served as a “fairy godmother” while they created their personal Haiku (“Memoir in 17 Syllables”)

After they had created their Memoir, I asked them each to put itin a safe place where they could find it if and when they were anxious or feeling challenged during their service years. That way they’d remember who they were…at their core…no matter what. We all need an anchor to hold onto sometimes!

Today I’m grateful every day for my mother and daughter…and fof who they were and are, that live on in the gifts of these Haikus.

Just in case you’re curious…My Memoir in 17 Syllables is:

* If you’re a stickler for Japanese Haiku tradition, have one of the words suggest the season in which the Haiku was written!