For many among us, 2020 has been a time of grievous loss. My family is no exception.
During the 1930s, Mary Elizabeth Frye was a Baltimore housewife and amateur florist, the wife of clothing merchant, Claud Frye.
A young Jewish woman was living with the couple at this time, unable to visit her sick mother in Germany, due to anti-Semitic violence of the pre-war period. Her name was Margaret Schwarzkopf.
Margaret was bereft when her mother died, heartbroken that she could never “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear.” Mrs. Frye took up a brown paper shopping bag, and wrote out twelve lines. Eighty-seven words arranged in iambic tetrameter, save for two lines.
She didn’t title the poem, nor did she ever publish, or copyright the work. People heard about it and liked it. Frye would make copies and send them to those who asked, but that’s about it.
“Do not stand at my grave and weep…“
The short verse came to be read at funerals and similar occasions, the world over. The first four lines appear on the Chukpi Lhara, that cold and silent memorial to climbers who never returned, from the slopes of Everest. “Desperate Housewives” character Karen McClusky recited the verse as she spread the ashes of her best friend on a baseball field and yet, for three-score years and more, few knew from whence the elegy had come.
There were many claims to authorship, including attributions to traditional and Native American origins.
“I am not there. I do not sleep...“
The unknown poem has been translated into Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Ilocano, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and other languages, appearing on countless bereavement cards and read over untold services.
In the United Kingdom, many heard it for the first time in 1995, when a grieving father read it over BBC radio in honor of his son, a soldier slain by a bomb in Northern Ireland. The son had left the poem with a few personal effects and marked the envelope ‘To all my loved ones’.
“I am a thousand winds that blow…“
For that year’s National Poetry Day, the British television program The Bookworm conducted a poll to learn the nation’s favorite poems. The top picks were published in book form, the preface describing the untitled work as “the unexpected poetry success of the year…despite it being outside the competition.”
The elegy has been set to music and featured in television series and movies and even appears in the multi-player on-line game, World of Warcraft.
Even so, the name, even nationality of the author, remained unknown.
“I am the diamond glints on snow…“
Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby”, researched the history of the poem in 1998 and determined that Mrs. Frye was, after all, the author.
Mary Elizabeth Frye passed away in Baltimore Maryland on September 4, 2004. She was ninety-eight.
The Times of Great Britain published the work on November 5, as part of Frye’s obituary. ‘The verse demonstrated a remarkable power to soothe loss”, wrote the Times. “It became popular, crossing national boundaries for use on bereavement cards and at funerals regardless of race, religion or social status”.