Here is a Mary Oliver story for you.
One summer many years ago, when I was starting my first year in college and trying to figure out who I would be, my mom and I stayed in Cape Cod for cheap at a friend of hers from medical school.
Our first morning there, my mother woke up at dawn for a walk on the beach and asked me if I wanted to come. I groggily, grumpily, told her no, preferring to sleep in. I was at the age when one is still angry at being pulled along to family vacations, when there were more important things to do, to read or write. I had brought back some paperbacks that I wanted to get through and had stayed up late the night before reading them, in part to not deal with possible conversations or forced chatter with my mom’s doctor friends.
An hour later, just as I was waking up from slumber, my mother came in, all smiles and sun happy.
“What a walk, Tuan! It’s so beautiful outside!” I suspected her of exaggeration, to evince from me some regret.
“You would have liked the woman I met on the beach too.” My mother went on to describe how she saw a gentle gray haired woman walking her dog on the empty beach, how lovely the beach was with the sun barely up, how the woman saw her walking alone and started a friendly chat with her and how she had a gentle, kind, patient way about her.
What did you two talk about?
Well, life, family, the light on the cape.
“She told me she is a poet, and I told her about you and how much you love literature and wanted to write too.”
“Oh really!” I perked up, awake finally. “Who is it? Anyone I know?”
The poet on the walk, of course, was Mary Oliver.
Lesson learned. When your mother asks you to take an early morning walk on the beach with her, you should go. There is a finite number of such walks in your life. And there’s always a chance you could run into your literary heroine.
That’s the end of my story. It turns out I would never get to meet Mary Oliver in real life, though I would teach her poems to my students and would see her words move them as much as they move me in my solitude. Thus, the walk, lived through my mother’s description, is how I often picture her when I read her, alone at first with her dog running after waves by her side, then in the company of a Vietnamese doctor who has her own stories to tell.
I see it almost as my own memory, a bystander observing at a distant curve of the dunes: Mary Oliver walking side by side with my mother, in the Cape’s early dappled sunlight. Two women I hold the utmost respect for, in dialogue for an idle, relaxed half hour, neither one realizing how much the other’s words would mean to me throughout my life.