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An Evening of Poetry Leads to a Lifetime Love

It's been 45 years since I had that amazing experience. I was poet laureate of my graduating class at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, N.Y.

It was class night, and I was to recite the graduation poem on the very stage where, four years before, I'd seen Edna St. Vincent Millay recite her marvelous poetry. I remember how she ran nervously from one end of the stage to the other, turning off footlights. Nevertheless, she held me spellbound.

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Now it was my turn.

I stood on the darkened stage in the spotlight, ready to ''hush the world'' with my own poem that spoke of the Depression but ended optimistically with the words, ''In the chaos of the present lies the order of the future.'' I had faith.

On that night I wore my first long gown, made of blue silk, and a tiara of real roses. Mama had made the gown from a Sears catalog pattern, and my teacher contributed the roses.

I knew Papa and Mama were sitting somewhere in that huge auditorium, holding hands callused with work, and glowing with pride. I would give it all the emotion I was capable of, and that was plenty in those young years. I would make them proud. I would put my stage fright on hold. I started with ''We surge forward....''

Then I heard the soft prompting from behind the curtain. Whenever I stopped to pause, the voice continued. Didn't the fool know better?

I would not let that prompting destroy my poem. I stood staunchly and ended bravely, with all my feelings reaching out to the people I loved who were sitting somewhere in the back. I could almost hear Papa bragging, ''That's my girl!''

I stepped behind the curtain, amid the applause, and turned to face the hapless young man who'd been doing the prompting. I'd never seen him before.

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''Haven't you ever read a poem?'' I asked. ''There are pauses in a poem.''

He had green eyes and an incredible smile. His face flushed, and he held out a palm full of what looked like black ants.

''Have some breath perfumers,'' he said. I fumed but wondered who he was.

I hugged my parents at the end of the program, and we walked out in the snow to where the bus was waiting for us. We, like many of the other graduates, were going to Katz's Jewish Delicatessen in lower Manhattan to celebrate. On the bus everybody sang, including Mama in her thin soprano and Papa in his lovely tenor.

I didn't sing with them. Something had happened to change my life that night. That I knew, but I did not know what it was.

We filed out onto the crunchy snow and into the warm store. It was a lively scene: waiters shouting orders, the young graduates calling out greetings. The smell of snow clung to us as the waiters called harshly, ''Two pastramis, two pickles, and three potato knishes, four celery tonics....''

''You're in another world,'' Papa said. ''What are you thinking?''

''Something happened to change my life tonight, but I don't know what it is.''

And Papa who was so knowledgeable had no answer.

Something had happened. I'd met my future husband, the young man who didn't understand poetry.

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