Not long ago I was gifted with the pleasure of hearing Billy Collins wryly read his poem about fashioning a plastic lanyard to present to his mother:
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. . . .
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.
At camp and at elementary school my brothers and I were instructed to use our fingers to form lumpy low-grade clay into ashtrays for parents who did not smoke. Had that particular craft project persisted into my children’s generation, as a mom I no doubt would have held on to the ashtrays, too.
At school we dutifully used our Crayola crayons to make Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards.
I wondered even then how these exercises made children feel if they had no mother or father.
“You could make one for your grandmother,” I heard Miss Marsh tell one small classmate who had approached her desk. I mentally filled in the rest of the conversation.
Billy Collins’ poem noted “the worn truth that you can never repay your mother,” but of course it’s never truly a question of repayment: whatever the connection that makes true mothering possible, it doesn’t create a debt–though we moms treasure those tokens because of the hearts which created them.
Magically, though, mothering as it is meant to be done creates bottomless love. It’s the classic win-win.
Three of my friends, all mothers themselves now, have lost their mothers in the last two weeks. I believe with all my heart that they are not motherless, that their mothers will continue to be with them as surely as my children will always have their father.