Posted on Leave a comment

Mothers and Sons

Today, as I’m writing, is Mother’s Day. I’m thinking of motherhood and childhood, of course–being a mother and having a mother. For this, I direct you to a favorite Billy Collins poem called “The Lanyard.” I’ve been handing out copies of it all over the place. Yesterday a woman eagerly asked, “Are you Billy?” Ah, no. Anyway, I’m going to copy it below for you to read, if you like, but also, if you click here, you can listen to Billy Collins himself reading it. I send this to my sons every Mother’s Day. If you don’t read it or listen to it, I’m sorry for you. If you do, I guarantee it will make you smile.

I expected to have daughters. I have three baby girl outfits still packed away in a trunk. Yet I have three sons. I have come to believe that once you have two boy babies and you get pregnant again, you’ll have another boy. It’s a given. And won’t you be lucky! At least, I have been. Although I never had confidence in myself as a mother, I must have done at least some little thing right, because I have three loving sons. Loving, irreverent, whip smart, creative, adventurous, smart aleck, inventive, generous, handsome sons. They have made me feel lucky, loved, and happy.

So then, related but not closely, I said last week that I had offered poems to anyone not dangerous looking. The very day that I sent that letter out, I saw a youngish guy approaching on the path around the lake. Tattoos all over, even on his face, a rough look, combat boots and shorts, a big backpack with things hanging off of it. We said hello and I thought, well, why not? “Hey,” I called out as he passed, “would you like a poem?” He turned and said, “I would love a poem. Thank you, ma’am.” He began reading it immediately, so I gave him another one (Alice Walker’s “Expect Nothing”) and we parted ways.

I walked away a little bit dumbstruck, not sure what I had expected. But again, the power of poetry! Of words. He still looked rough around the edges, and he didn’t really ever smile or look me in the eyes, but he was polite and thankful. I wondered about his situation, what his mother was like, how he grew up, and whether or not he was in trouble. What’s his story? Is he homeless? I hope he has a mother that he’ll contact today. I hope he is okay, happy enough, safe.

I’m immensely grateful that my sons are healthy, happy, safe and sound, and living good lives. And that we all love each other. Isn’t that what we all want for each other?

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 lightand 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 truththat 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 Lanyard” from The Trouble With Poetry: and Other Poems by Billy Collins, copyright © 2005 by Billy Collins. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
If you’re looking for my cards or art, you’ll find all of that on my website. If you enjoy these letters, feel free to forward this one to anyone you think might like it. And if someone forwarded this one to you, you can sign up here to receive the letters right in your Inbox. Finally, you’ll find past letters and poems here.

Thanks for listening,

P.S. MerryThoughts is the name of my first book, out of print at the moment. The word is a British one, referring both to a wishbone and to the ritual of breaking the wishbone with the intention of either having a wish granted or being the one who marries first, thus the “merry thoughts.”
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *