Smyrna poet, 95, shares a lifetime of rhyme

Smyrna resident Lawon Underdown, 95, has published two books of her poetry, written over the course of her life, which has taken her all the way to the halls of the White House. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

SMYRNA — Purposeful words, one by one, written to rhythm and often by rhyme, that is how Smyrna resident Lawon Underdown has expressed many of her deepest feelings since growing up as a young girl in Washington

It turns out that those words — which she turned into a collection of poems — have proven to be timeless as Ms. Underdown had her first book of poetry, titled “Dry Tears,” published last year at the age of 95. He second book, “Shades of Love,” followed soon after.

Her story is remarkable, having worked under former Presidents Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, all when they were vice presidents, and playing in the halls of the White House as a youngster along with a childhood friend.

But it has always been poetry that has been her lifelong love.

“You know those big, green boxes that you pack stuff in?,” Ms. Underdown said. “Every time I’d write something, I’d throw it in the box … throw it in the box. I always said, ‘Please don’t throw this (box) away’ to my daughter if I die.

“So, when I became 95, I couldn’t help anybody, couldn’t do anything, so I decided let’s go into this great tub and see what’s in it. Then I said, ‘I’m going to make a book. I’m going to print all of this stuff up.’ I’ve got all these poems, I’ve got books, I’ve got plays, I’ve got everything. So, I got the credit card and each book cost me $30 and altogether I spent $9,000 on the credit card for these books.”

She added, “The reason I took it was I thought, ‘My children aren’t going to do anything with all of this stuff.’ So, I sat back and decided I was going to put it all together. But I have gotten half of it all together and there’s still half of it left in the big box.”

Most of Ms. Underdown’s poems are inspired by emotional, life-changing events, such as the death of her mother when she was just 15-years-old, Sept. 11 and other steps along the journey of her life.

The poem that set her life into motion, titled “Our Goal,” earned her a scholarship to Howard University at the age of 15 and ramped up her love for writing.

“We’ve been battered
and bruised in our day;
Pushed and kicked around.
We’ve seen real life
with no pretending,
That’s why we
won’t stay down.
We’ve been thrown out
of the cheapest places;
Pushed back in the cars.
We know what it is
to be embarrassed.
We’re Black that’s
why we’re barred.
We won’t let our
minds be contented.
We won’t let “Jim Crow”
keep us down.
We’ll work for
liberty and freedom;
Until we’ve won|
our ground.”

Ms. Underdown said that poem, which is now featured in “Dry Tears,” caught the attention of a white World War I veteran who made scholarships available for black children who wanted to go to college. It helped her gain entrance into Howard University.

She wrote her first book’s title poem “Dry Tears” at 15.

“Dry Tears’ is a documentary,” said Ms. Underdown. “It means dry tears … the tears we have that you can’t see. Dry tears are a part of us. ‘As I keep my pride inside, but when my heart fills up, I cry with dry tears.’ Me, you and all of us do that and keep it to ourselves.

“Poetry, to me, it’s a gift. I can’t write a story, it’s not me. Everybody has a special gift. My father used to recite poetry and my mother would recite a poem, ‘If,’ by Rudyard Kipling. It’s a gift.”

An unbelievable journey

A proud Washingtonian, Ms. Underdown grew up just blocks away from the White House. Over the years she has just about seen it all from her perch at the capital core of the United States.

“My first encounter with the White House was when I was 8 or 9 years old,” she said. “A girl in my class’ father was a chef (at the White House) so she’d pretend like she forgot her lunch and we’d walk to the White House at lunchtime and he’d fix us some food.

“Dry Tears” and “Shades of Love” are available for purchase by contacting Lawon Underdown at 653-9528 or by email at lawonunderdown21@gmail.com. Each book costs $30 and comes with a custom-made bookmark. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“I think (Calvin) Coolidge and (Herbert) Hoover were the presidents at the time when we would go there and get lunch. We’d go there and get lunch and they’d say, ‘Go around the White House,’ and we’d run all around the White House until we got our lunch fixed. That’s rare. That was a good experience. The presidents would pat us on the head. That was my first encounter with the White House.”

Ms. Underdown laughed and said they had black chefs at the White House back then that made real home-cooked food. She said they have French chefs now and “the food is nasty.”

She has certainly tasted her share of history.

“When Lyndon Johnson became president, he wanted me to work for him, which I did work one month but I didn’t like it,” said Ms. Underdown. “It was too much because I had a family, but he understood. I have been out to dinner with Lyndon and Lady Bird (Johnson), just with family. I’ve been through a lot of things.”

She is a lifelong civil rights activist. Her first demonstration was with the activist, writer and educator Mary Church Terrell, integrating the restaurants, playgrounds and pools in D.C., among several other causes.

Ms. Underdown also worked in Resurrection City, a vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to fight for more jobs, higher wages and housing for the poor, on the National Mall, where protesters occupied some 3,000 wooden tents and camped out there for 42 days.

She said she has pages upon pages of notes about that time just a month after Dr. King was assassinated in April 1968 and would love to eventually bring those together as another book — this one documenting history.

“I worked in Resurrection City and I have stuff all about the city and Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said.

“I just haven’t read those papers yet because I’ve gone half-blind. I’ve got to get somebody to read (the papers) back to me because half of it is blurred out. I’ve got about 400 pages about the city because I worked there. I know people are interested in this, but I’ve got to get it typed up and written.”

A lifelong giver

Lawon Johnson, Ms. Underdown’s daughter, helps to take care of her mother and has always been inspired by her talents — and the love she gives.

“It’s unbelievable how she can remember all of these poems,” Lawon Johnson said. “She wrote poems about special things like her mother’s passing when she was 15, so there was a poem about her mother’s passing, and some of her friends, and 9/11, she wrote a poem about that titled ‘Post Office Box Number — 911.’

“Something else she did which was very neat to me — rap stuff. She could do rapping. She put some of her poems to song and verse.”

Ms. Underdown insists that her talent for writing poems and verse is just a gift.

“Nowadays, they don’t have poetry like this,” she said. “Nowadays, they just write blank verse. It’s a different thing now. The main thing for me is I did it at 95 and that was a job getting all of that stuff together.”

Ms. Underdown even had a poetry reading and book signing at the historic Belmont Hall in Smyrna last Nov. 17.

When asked what her favorite poem that she wrote is, she said, “I like them all. The one I like the best is called ‘What is Love?’”

Usually, when she sees something memorable or interesting, she writes about it.

“I see a drug addict and he’s playing the piano and the gift comes to me,” Ms. Underdown said, of her writing technique.

That led to her writing of “The Plea.”

“Who can help me?
What can save me?
Where can it be?
What can it be?
I’m gasping, choking.
It’s hard to breathe.
I know there’s an answer.
I want to see.
Vices keep closing.
I can’t escape.
I’m living a death,
Seeking a place.
Save me! Please save me!
Somebody who
Has a heart that is magic,
A soul that is true.
Tie me and wipe.
The sweat from my brow.
Listen to agony
That torments me now.
Tender and patient
You’d have to be.
Tireless, endless
For eternity.
Giving your heart
’Till it seeps drops of blood.
Believing in me
Giving your all.
For I’m lost in my world
It’s all that I have.
I’m alone. I’m closed in.
I can’t get to air.
Who can pry open
The vice that control?
Where are you? Come help me.
Restore my soul.”

It is words such as those that brought an old friend, James Wright, back into her life a couple of years ago. She got him a job when he was 18 years old at Resurrection City and he stayed at her house.

“But he was so cheap,” Ms. Underdown said, with a laugh. “I didn’t charge him any rent and we worked so hard. If we had food, he might buy two bags of cornbread mix and cook cornbread. But as we grew up, he kept saying, ‘Lawon, you should get your books published, because every time he’d look at me, I was writing something.’

“When I got around 92 (years old) he called me up and said, ‘If you publish some of your books, I’ll give you $500’ — and that’s what made me do it. I said as cheap as he is and if he believes in me this much, then I’m going to get these poems done. He really made me do this.”

“Dry Tears” and “Shades of Love” are available for purchase by contacting Ms. Underdown at 653-9528 or by email at lawonunderdown21@gmail.com. Each book costs $30 and comes with a custom-made bookmark.

For Lawon Johnson, it’s worth every word and every memory seeing her mother’s work put into permanent form.

“She’s my mom and she has promoted me all of my life and given me what I have such as my independence, the love that she gives me all the time, no matter what,” she said. “She’s a giver. My mother is a giver and I’m so proud of her.

“For her at 95 years old to pick this up and to do it, she has such tenacity and a will to live. She’s legally blind and doing all of this — it truly is an amazing story and one unbelievable journey.”

 

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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