By Michele Thomas
When I was a senior in high school studying 20th century English poetry, my teacher, Mr. Arthur Strapp, called on me one day and asked me to read a poem to the class. The poem he selected was "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas. It was a poem I had never read before, by a poet I knew nothing about.
When I was done, Mr. Strapp said, "You have quite an affinity for Dylan Thomas, Michele." His words intrigued and inspired me. I set out to know everything I could about Dylan Thomas.
At the library I checked out biographies and collected works. I also found records of readings Dylan gave in the United States in the early 50's. Dylan, I discovered, died in 1953 at the age of 39 from "chronic alcohol poisoning."
I listened to his recordings in his rich, lyrical voice. The words he chose and the ones he invented spoke to me like no poetry had ever done.
Three years later, I went to England with my friend Denise. I went to study English Literature, I said, but when we arrived at the University in Guildford the first thing we did was catch a train to Wales. In Swansea, we went into a shop, much like an old-fashioned dime store, to ask for directions to Dylan Thomas' family home. The proprietor had gone to school with Dylan. He drew a map to the house. We walked there and stood on the steep road, across the street from the house, and read a plaque that verified that this was indeed the house where Dylan Thomas was born and lived as a child.
From Swansea we went to Laugharne. This charming village near a castle, overlooks the River Taf. The Boat House above the river's estuary is where Dylan lived for four years near the end of his life. It's where he wrote "Under Milk Wood", the play he was performing in New York City when he died.
Denise and I ended our Dylan Thomas pilgrimage sitting on the grass next to the white cross that marks his grave. He was buried on a hill in the modest village churchyard at Laugharne.
For Christmas after that summer adventure, Denise gave me a copy of Dylan's "A Child's Christmas in Wales". Since then, at Christmas time, I would get the small blue book out and dedicate an evening to reading it. Then a few years ago Denise sent me the CD. Now I listen to Dylan reading "A Child's Christmas in Wales", "Fern Hill" and several other poems.
Last night was the night, the once-a-year ritual of turning out the lights, lying on the sofa, closing my eyes and listening to his voice and his words: "One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six," it begins.
Each time I listen to "A Child's Christmas in Wales" I see myself and Denise there, in Wales, on a journey we might never have experienced were it not for the compliment of one teacher one afternoon one spring of my life.
Here's to teachers who care, to very best friends who don't ask why, and to the joy that memories bring at Christmas.