Lesléa New­man is the author of 60 books includ­ing A Let­ter to Har­vey Milk, Nobody’s Moth­er, Hachiko Waits, Write from the Heart, The Boy Who Cried Fab­u­lous, The Best Cat in the World, and Heather Has Two Mom­mies. Her most recent book, I Car­ry My Moth­er, is now avail­able. She is blog­ging here today for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

My cel­lo is my old­est friend, my dear­est friend.” – Pablo Casals

My pen­cil is my old­est friend, my dear­est friend. We met when my fam­i­ly moved from a 60-unit apart­ment house in Brook­lyn to a four-bed­room house on Long Island. I was eight years old and my world was shat­tered. In Brook­lyn, I could walk to school, Aunt Gussie’s Can­dy Shop, Mrs. Stahl’s Knish­es, and most impor­tant­ly, to my grandmother’s apart­ment across the street for a kiss on the kep­pie and a nosh (her home­made blintzes were to die for). In my Long Island sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hood, there was nowhere to go. Noth­ing was in walk­ing dis­tance, and my moth­er, born and bred in Brighton Beach, had not yet learned to dri­ve. After the bus dropped me off at the end of the school day, I was stuck in the house. The hours between then and the time my father came home from his office in the city and sup­per was served were end­less. My moth­er watched what she called her sto­ries — As The World Turns” and All My Chil­dren” — in the liv­ing room. My broth­ers played stick­ball in the street. And I retreat­ed to my bed­room with a stack of books.

One day, hav­ing read every­thing I had cart­ed home from the school library, I picked up a pen­cil and began to write. What emerged onto the pages of my black-and-white com­po­si­tion note­book was a long, sad sto­ry about a dog being hit by a car. Some­how I knew I need­ed to make myself cry over all I had lost: my friends, my neigh­bor­hood, my inde­pen­dence, a teacher I had espe­cial­ly loved, prox­im­i­ty to my adored and ador­ing grand­moth­er. The lit­tle fluffy dog I killed off in my sto­ry was my tick­et to my own grief. Alone in my room, I could cry over him, which I did both as I wrote the sto­ry and as I read it after­wards. And then strange­ly, I felt much bet­ter. And thus a writer was born.

My pen­cil kept me com­pa­ny through a lone­ly child­hood, a dif­fi­cult ado­les­cence, and my tumul­tuous twen­ties when I strug­gled with an eat­ing dis­or­der. I nev­er wrote because I had some­thing to say. I always wrote to see what I had to say. And to this day, I do not write to be under­stood. I write to under­stand. Writ­ing is how I make sense of the world: the world inside me, the world out­side me, and the rela­tion­ship between the two.

Though half a cen­tu­ry has passed since I wrote the sto­ry of the lit­tle dog, in many ways I am still that sad lit­tle girl who uses her writ­ing to make her­self cry. This was espe­cial­ly evi­dent two years ago when I found myself back in my child­hood bed­room, hav­ing returned to take care of my moth­er who was suf­fer­ing from two dead­ly dis­eases brought on by her life­long love affair with non­fil­tered Chester­field Kings: blad­der can­cer and chron­ic obstruc­tive pul­monary dis­or­der (COPD). My moth­er was one tough rugeleh and she expect­ed every­one around her to be tough as well. She insist­ed that she was fine and didn’t need help, even when her face clenched tight as a fist and she moaned in pain. (“I’m not moan­ing, I’m kvetch­ing.”) One day, we struck a deal: she promised to tell me the truth about her ill­ness — clear­ly she was not fine” — if I promised not to cry. And once again I kept my feel­ings bot­tled up until I could creep upstairs to my bed­room where my pen­cil — my old­est friend, my dear­est friend — await­ed me. Every night for four weeks, I tucked my moth­er into the hos­pi­tal bed we had set up in the liv­ing room, cleared away dish­es of food she had no appetite for, shut the light, and tip­toed up the stairs. And there in my room, after I sobbed into my pil­low so she wouldn’t hear me, I picked up my pen­cil and wrote a tri­o­let, which is a French poet­ic form that con­tains a spe­cif­ic rhyme scheme and rep­e­ti­tion pattern.

Why did I choose such a rigid form to write about my mom’s impend­ing death? I didn’t pick the form; the form picked me. Like an old, dear friend, my pen­cil instinc­tive­ly knew what I need­ed to get me through a time that was sim­ply unbear­able. The unyield­ing struc­ture of the tri­o­let not only held my poems togeth­er, it held me togeth­er. Focus­ing on rhythm, rhyme, rep­e­ti­tion, and line breaks brought me clos­er to my own grief and dis­tanced me from it at the same time. As I wrote — and rewrote and rewrote — the same words and phras­es became a bell of sor­row resound­ing deep inside me, forc­ing me to con­front what I so des­per­ate­ly want­ed to deny. At the same time, focus­ing on form and strug­gling with the chal­lenge of fit­ting all I was feel­ing into 8‑line stan­zas with a pre­scribed pat­tern, gave me some dis­tance from my emo­tions which offered a tem­po­rary respite from the deep­est sad­ness I have ever known. Writ­ing in this way took a lot of con­cen­tra­tion. My pen­cil knew I had to use my head to pour out my heart. Like a true friend, my pen­cil saw what I need­ed and found a way to give it to me.

She was just here and now she’s just gone
In a New York minute I lost my moth­er
How can the rest of the world car­ry on?
She was just here and now she’s just gone
On whose lov­ing breast will my head rest upon?
I’ll search all of my life but I won’t find anoth­er
She was just here and now she’s just gone
In a New York minute I lost my mother

Excerpt­ed from The Deal” © 2015 Lesléa New­man from I Car­ry My Moth­er, Head­mistress Press, Sequim, Wash­ing­ton, 2015. Reprint­ed by per­mis­sion of the author.

Relat­ed Content:

Lesléa New­man has writ­ten more than sev­en­ty books and antholo­gies, includ­ing the high­ly suc­cess­ful and con­tro­ver­sial pic­ture book, Heather Has Two Mom­mies. She has received many lit­er­ary awards, includ­ing, recent­ly a 2019 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, the 2020 Syd­ney Tay­lor Sil­ver Medal, and the 2020 Syd­ney Tay­lor Body of Work Award.