When I was six, I wrote my first haiku. No, I was not a Mozart of Japanese style poetry. When I was six, I made friends with our bachelor neighbor, Jamie Pollard, the last of the Pollard family. Jamie was it – fini. He lived alone in the house several generations of Pollards had been born, died, married, and gone off to war in – just like our house, and many of the houses around us.
I was the only child in a family of adults and two teenaged aunts (heaven help them). I was great friends with Mrs. Goldie and her Pekingnese, Mrs. Konstantopoulos, old Mr. Michaux (old family Creole who was living “up north” to manage his family’s northern bank branch), and Beatrice, old Mr. Michaux’s Creole mistress. Let me clarify this: while “up north” was several states below the Mason Dixon line, it was several states more north than old Mr. Michaux’s N’awlins home.
One day, I was playing under the huge magnolia in our front yard. I had brought out several volumes of our family’s Encylopedia Britannica and was using several as a chair while I read from another volume. I was entranced in the article about sarcophagi when Jamie Pollard decided to stick his nose in my business.
He apparently had been standing on his front porch and beheld me sitting on books. As my back was turned, he could not tell I was reading. Pushing his way through the hedge that separated his yard from ours, he came blustering under the tree and stood in front of me. I ignored him.
“Little girl, didn’t anyone ever tell you not to play with books? Books are instruments of learning, not for play!”
I followed the line of his precisely creased white linen trousers up to his angry red face and back down to his well shined tassel loafers and began again to read.
“Did you not hear what I just said to you about these books?”
This time, I looked up and straight into his eyes. “Jamie Pollard, I didn’t invite you into our yard. You may turn around and go home. I have important things going on and I do not have time for you. You are not in loco parentis and have no right to tell me what to do in my own yard. My Ninny said I could bring these out here and I did. Go home. I don’t have time to play with you.”
He just looked at me and sputtered. At this time, he was 46 years old, single, and alone except for his housekeeper and gardener/mechanic/yard man. I went back to reading.
By this time, not only was he angry, but had become extremely curious. Here was a small girl with big glasses, a long braid of hair obviously reading an entry in the encyclopedia and using a Latin phrase correctly. He had finally met someone as odd and spoiled as himself. Snagging a couple of volumes for himself, he sat beside me.
“What are you reading about?” Since he had the brains not to ask me what I was reading when it was obvious (a book!), I answered him. “I’ve been reading about sarcophagi. Do you know about them?” “As a matter of fact, I do.”
I knew he had once been a professor at the university in town and had traveled around the world several times (everybody knew everything about everyone). He began to tell me about the different types, cultures, on and on. I listened to him go on nonstop for an hour, until he became hoarse. Abruptly he stopped talking and maybe for the first time in awhile, apologized.
“I am sorry for taking your time. I’ll go back home now.” I reached out and put my hand on his bony knee. “what else do you know about?”
And thus began a deep friendship. A 46 year old man and a six year old girl. Two odd ducks in world of swans. It was as if there were no barriers between us. Heart called to heart and we became friends. My family didn’t think anything of it. Being around adults most of the time, it was no different than him being one of us. The Newtons and the Pollards had known each other since the families first moved into their homes generations ago.
Jamie had been the only boy and youngest child in a house full of women. When his mother died, Jamie just withered and went into his own world. It was that time he did his world hopping. Later that summer, I was given a tour of his home and shown some of his treasures. One of the treasures was an ivory Japanese hair stick. He had me undo my braid and finger comb my hair and then showed me how to twist up my hair and secure it. I asked him about Japan. That entailed several visits. Several years later, my love for Japan was firmly planted in my heart during a school field trip. Jamie though, sowed the seed that day. Zen, wabi sabi, haiku, hanami, momiji gari, katanas, Samurai – all mixed in with fairy tales and mythology.
One summer night, my family and I were sitting on our front porch rocking, after supper. Jamie came over to visit and bring an armful of roses for my grandmother and mother. He sat on the porch railing and all of us talked and laughed and drank lemonade. He was interested in hearing about our Celtic and Norse ancestors. Suddenly, it began to rain. I was wanting to play in the yard among the fireflies that night and the rain meant I could not. Putting on my most solemn voice, I entoned, “Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain….creeps in this petty pace…rain, rain, rain, rain, rain.” Jamie clapped his hands. “By God little one, you almost have a haiku there! Shakespeare be damned.”
He again explained haiku. He ticked off on his fingers: five syllables first line, seven second line, five syllables last line. Kigo -season kireiji – cutting word, juxtaposition of two images. He was excited as I have ever seen him. Now we were all looking at him. “I know you can do it. Write a haiku for me.” And I did.
I came home from university to attend his funeral. Like a true Southern eccentric and intellectual, he died of cirrhosis of the liver. A fall down the stairs didn’t help either. Wearing the ivory hair stick, I stood and spoke briefly at his memorial service. My first haiku is one of the few I feel satisfied about. I know I write bad haiku, but it is one of my first loves, one of my first ties to Japan and all that came about in the years after.
Jamie sensei 先生, I keep trying. I hope I do you honor, my friend. I quoted one of my favorite lines from Issa at his memorial but amended it to: “There are no strangers beneath the magnolia tree.” and then poured forth my first haiku:
Rain rain rain rain rain:
Ducks like rain but I do not.
Rain rain rain rain rain.