Saturday, July 10, 2010

Enough to make us even

Recently, my Mom did me a favor. It was the kind of favor I can't repay, so I did the only thing I could do: I bought her one big bar of peony-scented soap from the gift shop of Robert Todd Lincoln's summer house in Vermont, and a small bag of sugared pecans from a vendor at an art fair in the Berkshires. My husband and I were on a bike trip and these were the things I stumbled upon along the way. These gifts were tiny and insignificant and would be used up within two weeks, but I couldn't think of anything that would make her happier, except for a nice box of writing paper and a promise for the very distant future that I would visit her in the nursing home a couple of times a week, as she did for her mother, assuming I don't kick off first.

This lopsided exchange of gifts made me think of two poems, "The Lanyard" and "The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb." Both poems are about mothers, sons and camp. "The Lanyard" is by Billy Collins and was sent to me this week by an old friend from college. This friend introduced me to the poet Marge Piercy so whenever she sends me a poem, I pay attention. Collins was Poet Laureate in 2001. The "Camp Bus" poem is by Sharon Olds, who was New York State Poet Laureate from 1998-2000. That poem was sent to me by my sister-in-law's sister, J., many years ago, when her kids first went to sleep-away camp.

I sent a copy of "The Lanyard" to my mother-in-law and she said it brought back a wonderful memory about picking up one of her sons (now 40something) from Boy Scout camp: "When we arrived to pick him up I saw him clutching something in his hand. It was a leather key ring with my name on it that I used and treasured until a few years ago. I am using something else now but still keep it as a treasured memory. I doubt he was thinking all the thoughts expressed in the poem but I will never forget the look on his face as he ran down the path and presented it to me."

My kids are away at camp for four weeks, which is why I have time to read and think about poetry. In his most recent letter, our older son tried to explain the biggest differences between last summer and this summer---effectively describing how sleep-away camp is ushering him into manhood. This summer, it's all about "constantly being with the girls" and counselors who "are more open about things in front of the campers, they're willing to curse openly, etc." How reassuring.

As a mother, I've often thought that parenting is a lot like making a stew: Whatever you put into your kids now, you're sure to taste later. My favorite line from the Olds poem is, "Everything that's been done to him, he will now do." On the flip side, as an adult child (or you could argue, as a childish adult) of one living parent, I don't think enough about all the good my parents did. Mostly, I've focused on all the mistakes they made and recycled it into my fiction. You could argue that they gave me a lot of material, and I should be thanking them for that. (If my father were alive, he'd be laughing and saying, "You're welcome!") I always tell my students not to share their fiction with their family members before it's published. If my kids write about my husband and me some day, I guess we'll have to congratulate them for trying to make sense of it all and laugh about it too. Ha ha.

Weekends like this, I should be filling in in my kids' baby books, compiling my older son's bar mitzvah album (ten months after the actual event) and tackling that big pile of bills and medical claims. But on this rainy Saturday afternoon, it's actually more fun to be typing out poems, writing about my mother-in-law and thanking my mother. Thank you, both.

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.

The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb
by Sharon Olds

Whatever he needs, he has or doesn't
have by now.
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do. With a pencil and two
Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and
grapes he is on his way, there is nothing
more we can do for him. Whatever is
stored in his heart, he can use, now.
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on. What he does not have
he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself until
only a triangle wedge remains.
Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now.
Whatever his arrogance can do
it is doing to him. Everything
that's been done to him, he will now do.
Everything that's been placed in him will
come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.

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