When I Grow Up

Some Birthdays Are Meant to Be Celebrated Forever

I got an email reminder yesterday from an e-card company wanting me to send birthday wishes. This reminder was completely unnecessary; the birthday in question is one that I know as well as my own. Unfortunately, sending electronic birthday wishes is now impossible, as this person is no longer with us.

As far back as I can remember, one constant Christmas gift from my uncle was a calendar. Upon my opening said gift, he would always prompt me to flip to April where on the13th, often in red felt-tipped marker, he had prominently written, “Uncle Lee’s birthday.”

Though he left us last August, Uncle Lee is on my mind often. While growing up, I had a stronger relationship with my parents’ siblings than most of my friends, but I was especially close to Uncle Lee. Though we lived at a distance from the time I was about 3, it never felt that far; we were always closely connected.

He had an enormous influence on my life. From the day I was born, he was looking out for me. He provided resources to feed my curiosity. He made sure I was never without quality books to read and encouraged me to read and write – often. He introduced me to some of the cultural advantages that only a major city can afford and welcomed me into the world of my childhood heroes – children’s book authors.  It’s just over the past year that I have realized the extent of his involvement in my early life. Reading letters he wrote to my mom when I was very young and living halfway across the country, I was surprised to note that I was mentioned in every one and that he was thinking of me in many of his world travels.

I miss his SMILE

When my family moved back into the same time zone, we spent considerable time together. A couple-hour drive was an obstacle, but easy to overcome a few times a year. I spent a week each summer at his condo, the highlight of which was a night on the town and a show, with much of the balance of the week spent relaxing, reading books and chatting about whatever my interests were at the time. He genuinely cared about what I was interested in and tried to find ways to bring those things into closer focus for me. He spoke to me like an adult, asking my opinions and more importantly, listening to the answers. He introduced me to new things and watched closely for my reaction; he took joy in my joy.

I miss his LAUGHTER

Anyone who heard him laugh knows what I mean. His was an infectious laugh, one that took over his whole body. And he laughed often. He saw the absurdity in much of life and liked to point it out. He was quick to poke fun at himself and would often laugh when talking about his accolades, which he seemed to find overwhelming.

I miss his PRESENCE

I always knew what he did for a living. We would joke that he was “my famous uncle,” but it wasn’t until I first heard him speak when I was in high school that I saw that this was true. On this occasion, he was speaking to a small group of librarians at a restaurant a short distance from our home. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember him commanding the room and the reverential attitude among the attendees. I was stunned to learn that my uncle had “groupies.”

The next time I heard him speak was at the inaugural Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award celebration. The whole family was there, dressed to the nines, in the palatial governor’s mansion in Harrisburg, PA. It was a magical night, and as his guests, we got personal introductions to the guest of honor, Ashley Bryan. The following years, I was excited to be invited again. The awards ceremonies, moved to Hershey, were wonderful, the post-parties where I got to meet and chat with so many interesting people were exhilarating, but most special was the time spent after, debriefing in his suite for hours, before finally retiring to our rooms to sleep, then breakfasting together before heading our separate ways.

When my kids were young, I talked him into making the trip to be a featured speaker at their elementary school. Again, I got to see him “in action,” this time addressing children and encouraging them to continue to read and write.

When he moved to Florida, our visits became less frequent, but we stayed in touch via email and phone conversations. When he told me he was to receive an award in Philly, I told him I’d book a train ticket. I’m thrilled that I didn’t pass up that opportunity. While I saw it as a way to spend some time with him (though I knew I would have to share him), there was a surprise in store for him that I feel honored to have witnessed. He not only received the 2009 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, but also was feted, with countless poets speaking about his generosity and reading poems they contributed to a volume of poetry dedicated to him, Dear One. (I was a bit miffed, however, since I had mistakenly thought that I was the Dear One.) That day I learned that he had made a much greater contribution to the world of children’s literature than I had previously realized. He was much more than a poetry anthologist and a poet, but also a driving force behind so many others’ published poetry.

I miss his DRAMA

Ever the drama geek, simple things were always a production. He didn’t just give gifts; there was always a “Presentation of the Gifts.” Even appetizers at family gatherings were delivered with a flourish. At times he seemed full of himself, but it often was a reflection of his incredulity that he was held in such esteem by so many. Though some saw him as pompous at times, I believe it was all an act.

In his later years, his health didn’t allow him to travel much, so in 2014 when he heard he was to receive the PSLA’s Outstanding PA Author Award, he called to ask me to accept it for him. When he learned of past recipients, he was shocked and humbled. It was clear he could not have put himself in such company. I was happy to oblige and, after many drafts, shared my view of the man behind the legend with several hundred people in Hershey, PA. While this trip did not include some of the superstar perks of my previous Hershey trips as I received as his guest at the Poetry Award ceremonies, it was still special; I was proud to speak in his stead.

I miss his SUPPORT

On one of our Florida visits, he asked me why he and I had not done a book together. My reply was simple, he hadn’t asked me. He said he had wanted to do a collection of “found poems” and asked me to complete it with him. I am not a poet. Of course I have written a few poems, but nothing worth publishing. Thinking this might be something I could possibly do, I agreed. He asked me to go through some classics (public domain) and put some together. I sent him a few and he said he’d get back to me later. I wonder now why we never circled back to that. I suspect I missed the mark altogether, but wonder, was he afraid I wouldn’t take the criticism well? Or did I lack the passion in the project and he knew it? Or was it related to our one disagreement – I wanted to include a piece from Doyle’s The Lost World and he was vehemently opposed to Sci-Fi. In truth, I am not upset that this was dropped (I did lack the passion) but today I wish I had followed up again, not to have my name on a book, but to explore a new path in our relationship. I think I missed an opportunity here to grow as a writer.

He was interested in my work. He read my blog and would ask about my novel in progress. While he said that historical fiction was not his area of expertise, he provided some guidance and plenty of encouragement (as well as LOTS of links to helpful information). He would ask about where I was and remind me to get my “butt in seat.” After my first rejection he reminded me that a piece in the mail is better than a piece in the desk, advice he would repeat any time I spoke of an article or essay I had written but was not yet accepted.

What I don’t miss is his LOVE.

His love is still with me. That’s the one thing I’ve been left with. It’s something I have known with certainty all my life (even when we were at odds) and am reminded of in my memories and through his written words. One benefit of loving a writer is the assurance of having their thoughts and emotions in print. Lucky for me, I have lots of those words, from letters to my mom before I was able to read, to letters to me when I could read and write, to decades of emails between us, covering things profound and mundane. I have photos (though not enough) and mementos from events and places he shared with me. I have a lifetime of memories, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing I had more.

For me, April 13 will always be a special day. I can’t help but think of him on this day. (Not that he would ever have let me forget it!) Though I haven’t made the connection before, I recently realized that April is National Poetry Month. I took a few minutes this morning to try to determine why April? I didn’t find an answer but want to think it has something to do with my Uncle Lee. They couldn’t have chosen a better month.

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