After I was born, my mother bought me timeless editions of her favorite books for me to read. A book lover and librarian, she hoped that I would be a reader like her and love the books she cherished throughout her life. On the inside cover each book, she inscribed my name on Winnie the Pooh book plates, and waited for the day when I would read them. I promised myself when I read them I would read them all at once, and the opportune moment arrived when quarantine began.
Of all the books my mother left me, only one author appears twice on my shelf: Sharon Creech. Sharon Creech is a children’s author my mother discovered while studying library science in college. In both “Love That Dog” and “Walk Two Moons,” she experienced a whirlwind of emotion. Even as an adult, she could succumb to the short but powerful stories these children’s books bring to life.
“Love That Dog”
While reading “Love That Dog,” my mother fell in love with the story of Jack, written in verse, as he tries to find his voice. Jack is a young boy learning poetry at school where he is tasked to write on his own. At first, he is hesitant to write poetry and struggles to understand the symbolism of it — “I don’t understand / the poem about / the red wheelbarrow / and the white chickens / and why so much / depends upon / them” — something my mother has said on several occasions. She loves to read poetry and many of her favorite books are written in verse, but she too grapples with the trapped meaning.
The verse in “Love That Dog” is simplistic, but not in a superficial way. Jack’s poems are indubitable in their meaning, written with the absolute certainty children tend to speak. While not written with the determined thoroughness of the classic poets he studies, Jack’s poems do not lack in substance. The undemanding candor in his poems adds to their beauty. From moments in the classroom to times with his beloved dog, Jack writes with a love so pure and obvious his words cannot be mistaken. “His shaggy shaggy paws / on my chest / like he was trying / to hug the insides / right out of me.”
For both myself and my mother, this is a refreshing style. I typically have a preference for complex verse packed with nuances and symbolism. The analysis of poetry is one of my favorite pastimes, which is where my mother and I differ. I remember when I went through a prolonged poetry phase that consisted of both writing my own faulty poems and reading the flowing stanzas of others, and my first instinct was to share them with my mother. I would wait for her to read the line that astonished me and later be disappointed when she looked up with a confused face: “I don’t get it.”
But “Love That Dog” is different. It’s a break for both of us, in our own separate ways. “Love That Dog” reminds me that poetry doesn’t have to bleed figurative language for it to have significance, nor for it to matter. Not having to delve into the connotation of Jack’s verse was relieving. For my mother, it’s a break from confronting the discomfort that normally arises from serious verse in her experience. Her numerous attempts to uncover buried significance would leave her feeling worthless, as if she was incapable of successfully reading a poem. “Love That Dog” does not spur any sort of competition. Its plainness guarantees that readers will understand.
Beyond the uncomplicated meaning, what makes Jack’s poems so much more touching for me and my mother is our shared love for our dogs, Rose, Frida and Jackson. Reading “Love That Dog” reminded me of the comforting moments I’ve shared with my dogs: Rose, who laid next to me every day and night when I was sick; Frida, who waits outside my bedroom door each morning; and Jackson, our inheritance from my late grandparents, who makes us think of them every day. “Love That Dog” opens the same portal for my mother. I have finally found the poetry that captures us both.
“Walk Two Moons”
“Walk Two Moons” is not written in verse, nor is it about a dog. It’s about a girl, Salamanca, and her search to find her mother. Salamanca’s grandparents take her on a cross-country road trip from Ohio to Idaho to see her mother. Along the way, Salamanca tells the story of a new friend from Ohio whose mother has disappeared. While Salamanca narrates Phoebe’s story, her own unfolds. The more she tells the story, the more she sees how hers — and her mother’s — is connected.
“Walk Two Moons” is one of the books my mother left that I have read before. When I picked it up again, I was surprised how quickly I remembered how I felt and where I was when I read it the first time. I was upset, and I was in the living room (which I can only recall because neither my mother nor I have forgotten how I threw the book when I finished it). What I couldn’t remember was why. As I read I tried to remember, and I was entranced by Sal’s story once again.
Salamanca and her mother were very close. Her mother called her “my left arm,” as if a physical part of her was missing when her daughter was not around. They bonded over their love of nature, specifically trees (Salamanca’s middle name is in fact Tree), and spent hours outside on their farm together soaking in the sounds and sights of their land in Kentucky.
Sal is also close to her dad, who is described as a “kind, simple and honest man.” His innate kindness begins to chip away at his relationship with his wife soon after Sal’s mother loses a baby and can no longer have children. Salamanca notes a change in her mother after this – the trees stop singing. As her mother grieves she grows frustrated with her husband, but more precisely at her own inability to express the same natural goodwill. She takes off to find herself, leaving Sal and her father behind.
Sal spends the day on the farm alone, waiting for her mother to return. The only contact she has received are postcards from her mother’s journey across the United States, from Wisconsin to Idaho. The postcard from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho is the last one she receives. Her father tells Sal that her mother will not be returning, and Salamanca does not hear from her mother again.
On the road, Sal is determined to reach Idaho by her mother’s birthday. As Sal tells the story of her friend Phoebe whose mother has also left, Sal hears the trees speak to her: “Rush rush rush hurry hurry hurry.” The urgency of the trees makes Sal tense, so she focuses on Phoebe. Reading the book a second time, I saw much clearer connections unfold between Phoebe’s and Sal’s story. Phoebe is distraught about her mother’s absence, and is convinced she has been kidnapped. She disguises her pain in her search. So does Sal.
But, as Sal continues to tell the story, she begins to reveal her own painful memories of how it felt when her mother left: “For the first few days, I felt numb, non-feeling. I didn’t know how to feel. I would find myself looking around for her, to see what I might feel.” This anguish drastically differs from Creech’s “Love That Dog.” Both the stories are about love, but only Sal’s hurts to read.
I cannot describe the multifaceted concept of love, or delve into the different ways love can make one feel. I only know that the pure love of a dog made Jack’s story so fulfilling and heart-warming to read. There is pain with loving a dog, but only in the end. Every other moment is filled with some sort of sweet happiness. It’s a reliable sort of love. Unwavering, and unconditional.
With humans, it’s harder. I know that the love of a mother is more difficult in some ways. Like Sal, I feel remarkably empty when my mother is not around. Most of the time growing up, I’ve attempted to resemble her. I think my efforts in doing so have led us to be quite similar people; the kind of similar where we share the same thoughts and laughs. Maybe that’s why Sal’s story made my heart ache. Because she loved her mother the same way.
Sal knew the truth of her mother’s failure to return. She didn’t want to leave Sal, but she died on her journey. Sal finally confronts her mother’s death out loud near the end of the book, when she reaches Idaho and the site of her mother’s bus crash. She later makes her way to her mother’s grave, what she was so desperate to take home. But when she reaches her mother, she knows she can’t take her anywhere because she is alive in the trees. Sal looks up from the grave and the trees sing.
(I didn’t throw the book then. I threw it when Sal’s grandmother passed away. I had blocked out her death, and it surprised me again. I didn’t throw it this time though.)
Sal’s story brings alive the true beauty of a mother, one I often forget. Before our mothers were mothers, they were people. Some still might be searching for who they are inside. “Walk Two Moons” reminded me of how my mother consoled me the first time I read the book and cried for mothers lost; it reminded me that my mother might still be searching — maybe for a sign of her innate goodness like Sal’s mom, or simply just for trees that sing — and how thankful I should be to have these books, a piece of her in each one.