I always saw Melanie as a poet. She spoke in poetic lines, walked in soft, fluid movements, and saw the value in people. She could persuade anyone to pursue their passions — except herself.
I dated Melanie for two years before leaving for the Peace Corps and, since then, we have corresponded each month by letter.
“Hang in,” she wrote when I was at loose ends. “Do what you love doing — helping people.”
When I first met Melanie’s mother, Rose, she welcomed me into her modest row house in Germantown. But I soon learned that she didn’t respect Melanie. She belittled her and laughed in her face when she wanted to study creative writing at the University of Santa Fe.
It was Melanie’s dream to become a writer. It’s all she talked about, and often read me lines from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
“I’m not willing to invest in your education, Melanie,” her mother said. “I have limited funds and your brother is the best investment. You’re not much of a student, anyway.”
Rose didn’t see Melanie’s talent. She thought she should get a job at Sears after high school, become a salesperson for a few years, and later marry someone with a good income.
There was no use arguing with Rose. She was stubborn, old-fashioned, and sexist. She didn’t understand Melanie’s passion, or that she would flourish in New Mexico if given the opportunity.
Despite this, Melanie and her mother were surprisingly close. They took turns cooking dinner, often went for long walks together, and both had a passion for birdwatching in the park.
“How could you take your mother’s disrespect?” I asked Melanie.
“Oh, that’s just my mom talking, and I don’t take her comments seriously. I know she cares about me and doesn’t mean half the things she says.”
While demeaning Melanie, Rose put her son, Max, on a pedestal, as if he were God’s gift to humanity. The son who could do no wrong in her eyes.
“Max deserves to attend the best college because he’s special,” Rose said.
I didn’t know what Rose saw in Max. He did well in school but had a personality like a wet sock. I believed it was only because he was born a male that he received attention, and not because of any special gifts.
“As long as mom’s happy, that’s all I care about,” said a melancholy Melanie, whose writing ambitions were ignored. Melanie convinced herself that it was okay, that college wouldn’t have worked out, anyway. Moving to New Mexico would have been too expensive for the family.
“Girls shouldn’t go to college,” Rose said. “Somebody needs to stay home and do the dirty work.”
“But the rest of the world doesn’t think like you anymore, Mrs. Harris.”
“I’m aware of that, Pat. That’s why society is the way it is. Nobody’s willing to make sacrifices.”
“Wouldn’t you want to go to college if your parents had given you the chance?”
“Of course, Pat, but I’m glad I didn’t go. I’d be disappointed.”
It was ironic. Her mother wanted to paint pictures in watercolor, do abstract pieces like the French Impressionists when she was Melanie’s age.
“Sure, I loved to paint, but I don’t think I’d be good enough. I’m a woman.”
“How do you know if you don’t try, Mom?”
“Never mind, Melanie. I like being home, doing gardening, having my free time. I much prefer someone else to be a famous artist. A woman’s real talent is her love for children, which men don’t know anything about.”
They never talked about Melanie’s father, except that he suffered a heart attack while sitting at the kitchen table having his morning coffee. I’m sure his death changed the trajectory of Rose’s life. It perhaps made her pessimistic and less apt to be adventurous.
When I was in El Salvador during my Peace Corps stint, I corresponded with Melanie often about her writing and continued to encourage her.
In one letter, Melanie related some bad news. Her mother had been diagnosed with Leukemia and didn’t have long to live. Melanie worried about how she’d manage without her, and who would help her brother through college.
As it turned out, Max had graduated from Columbia in four years with financial help from Melanie, who worked two jobs. He graduated with honors and now manages a start-up company in West Chester, New York.
“See, Melanie,” her mom said on her deathbed. “I said your brother would become somebody. That’s why I invested in him. It’s not that you didn’t deserve to go to college, honey, it’s that we have priorities.”
Melanie wrote her poetry in secret. She sent me poems that I hung up on my bulletin board and read to my friends before retiring for the evening. The poems reflected her whimsical dreams and the beauty she saw in the world. As I thought about Melanie in Central America, I pictured her sitting by her bedroom window at night with the light turned down while her mother was dying. I imagined her round, pleasant face glowing in the moonlight.
Not long after her mother died, Melanie dreamed that her mom found her notebooks.
“What is this, Melanie?” her mother asked.
“Nothing, really. A few lines of verse when I’m feeling the urge.”
Her mom read Melanie’s poems.
“Mom, please. You don’t have to.”
Her mom didn’t listen. She kept reading with keen interest, going from one notebook to the next.
After reading all of them, she asked in a surprised tone, “Are these poems all yours?”
“Yes,” Melanie said, expecting criticism.
“Why, they're beautiful? I didn’t realize how talented you are.”
Her mother cried. “I should have listened to you when you wanted to go to Santa Fe.”
The dream impacted Melanie. She believed that not only did her mother ask for forgiveness, but gave Melanie the approval to write poetry.
Not long after that, Melanie sent one of her notebooks to a publisher. The publisher loved it, which was no surprise to me. The book came out in the fall, one year after her mother’s death. They made it into a hardcover and displayed it in the front window of one of Melanie’s favorite bookstores. She had book signings and readings across the country.
She dedicated the book to her mother.