Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Today the poem on "The Writer's Almanac" on the radio made me laugh and cry while I was getting dressed. Here it is:

The Lanyard
By Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly
- a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift-not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

I'm tearing up as I read it again, because it plays to one of my favorite subjects since I first became pregnant with Nutmeg: the unrequited nature of a parent's love. Sure, we love our mothers a lot, maybe more than we love anyone else, until we have our own babies. I realized with a guilty shock on the day I first heard Nutmeg's heartbeat inside me that I could never love mine as much as she loved me. It just couldn't be done.

The thing that gets me about this poem is that I want to tell the writer -- and I imagine his mother told him this when she read it -- that they were already even. Mothers aren't looking for a payback, not because we're martyrs, but because we already received it. I mean, I asked Nutmeg for a kiss today, and making silly kissing noises with my lips about 60 times, I got a big open-mouthed kiss from her. She practically frenched me!

And if Nutmeg should someday find it in her heart to make me a lanyard (I didn't know there was a word for those braided plastic things!), I would treasure it. Wouldn't you?

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