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Family & Relationships

How Haiku Connected a Daughter to Her Mother, Years after Her Death

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On the day of Sydell Rosenberg’s funeral in 1996, her two children, Amy Losak and Nathan Rosenberg, along with Nathan’s wife, Debbie, made a pact: they would publish a book of their mom’s writing.

Sydell, who went by the nickname Syd, was a public-school teacher, as well as a published author and poet, who had been talking about writing a book of haiku for children for as long as her own children could remember. Haiku had been an enormous part of her life. “She had been writing and learning and practicing and studying haiku for roughly three decades when she died,” says Losak.

Syd was a charter member of the Haiku Society of America when it was founded in 1968. Through that organization, she worked to improve her craft, and also to educate people on what haiku is. Haiku is not, as many of us are taught, limited to a three-line arrangement with five syllables followed by seven syllables followed by five syllables (although it can be that). Rather, the complex form of Japanese poetry is described by Haiku Society of America like this: “A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.” Adds Losak: “For some, it can be a lifelong immersion."

A New Yorker through and through, Syd referred to her poems as “city Haiku.” They described profound moments she’d fixate on in nature — pigeons and sparrows dodging the hooves of a horse; a squirrel munching on acorns as the sun warms its tail; moths highlighted by a car’s headlights. Her poetry burst with small, reflective observations that a person could easily miss if not paying attention. These were the moments that Syd relished.

After Syd’s death, Losak ended up with many of her mom’s belongings, including boxes loaded with manuscripts, writings, letters, notes and more. Those boxes sat untouched for nearly 15 years while Losak mourned the loss of her mother and then, in 2003, she grieved her father when he died.

It wasn’t until 2011 that she found the strength and energy to go through her mom’s items. That happened soon after she told her therapist about the book promise she’d made, and the fact that she felt stuck. “My therapist gave me the emotional tools to just kind of tackle this project a little bit at a time,” she says. “You’ve got to break it down. If you go through one envelope, one box, one manuscript, one poem — anything is better than nothing.”

And so, one haiku at a time, she combed through the meanderings of her mother’s mind. “If you read her poems, to me, they're almost like little stories,” Losak says, sharing this example:

Holding umbrellas,

children, like rows of mushrooms

glisten in the rain

In 2015, she took one of her mother’s old manuscripts and began sending it out to dozens of publishers. One publisher, Penny Candy Books, could see her vision and wanted to be a part of it. In spring of 2018, Syd’s decades-long dream came true when the ABC reader, H is For Haiku: a Treasury of Haiku from A to Z hit shelves. The book is filled with bright, whimsical illustrations that play off Syd’s poignant words and their meanings.

Losak is proud of her mother’s book. And she’s proud of herself and the way that she’s transformed through the process – reinventing herself in a way. She even began writing haiku, herself. The poetry, she says, has made her slow down and appreciate the world around her, relishing the little moments. In doing so, it’s given her a deeper understanding of who her mom was. “She had an unusual way of looking at the world,” she says. “I didn't appreciate it at the time. I would get impatient. I would get irritated.”

Now, Losak says she’ll take the time to stop and watch a butterfly dance in the air, even if the detour means missing a bus. “Those moments don't come back,” she says. “Those moments don't happen again.” And when it comes to connecting with her mom through haiku, those moments are everything.  

Here is one of Losak’s favorite poems, written by her mom, which can be found in H is For Haiku:

So pale – it hardly sat

on the outstretched branch

of the winter night.

And here are two poems that Losak wrote about her mom:

pastel pond

the iris of her eyes

staring back at me

donut shop banter --
mother's sweet mirth 
in my belly laugh

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