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The Writer

September 26, 2011

We’re back from “Family Weekend” at Grinnell, where we met the family of the friend who has read many of the same books as Eleanor and discovered what we have in common with people who live in Manhattan and don’t drive (the story of how they got to the middle of Iowa involves an expensive cab ride). There was an interesting moment where the other mom mentioned “line marriage” and everyone present knew immediately what book she was referencing (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).

We saw how our daughter lives, and who she knows. She has a whole life there now, which is reassuring and made us not at all wistful, except for remembering how much fun it is to live with all your friends around.

Eleanor is thinking with trepidation that she might turn out to be an English major; she’s always been a writer. Now she’s writing in a far-away room, having sailed off like the daughter in Richard Wilbur’s poem:

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

It was not as hard to leave this time. She is clearing the sill and there’s really not much we can do except make sure the window is open.


35 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2011 8:22 am

    I like this poem and even more, I like how Eleanor is doing.

  2. Karen D permalink
    September 26, 2011 8:45 am

    I have loved this poem for a decade at least.

    cheers to Eleanor. I know that the year I attended reunion, I surprised people by saying that I realized that I would give up a lot, to have all my best friends in a half-mile radius again. Living in a single room isn’t so bad, when the rooms next door are full of friends, and there’s a quad with Adirondack chairs, and a TV room somewhere on the floor. I hope that she enjoys herself, English major or not.

    • September 27, 2011 8:14 am

      This many years out of college, we still try to share a house and a vacation spot with that group of friends at least every other summer, to have them all “in a half-mile radius again.”

  3. September 26, 2011 8:50 am

    @ Karen – amen.

    • September 27, 2011 8:16 am

      Of course, you and Karen show that some friends come along after that initial bunch!

  4. September 26, 2011 9:12 am

    I love that poem and I’d forgotten it so thanks for reintroducing us. I remember my mother telling me something very similar to what you say about seeing me on the first parents weekend. Hooray for Eleanor.

    • September 27, 2011 8:17 am

      I feel a little bit the same way about this poem–I used to love it and had sort of forgotten it, until this last weekend. If Eleanor turns out anything like you, we will be very proud parents indeed.

  5. September 26, 2011 9:16 am


  6. September 26, 2011 10:34 am

    What a good mother you are, Jeanne. You’ve nurtured a daughter who can do the most difficult thing of all: turn away from the safe and familiar, and try her wings on unfamiliar currents. Loved the poem.

    • September 27, 2011 8:19 am

      You know how mothers like reassurance! And yes, I did think of what Jenny says below when I first read this–that you’ve also managed to do this. And very well, from what I hear.

  7. September 26, 2011 1:30 pm

    This is wonderful —

    • September 27, 2011 8:19 am

      A bit of fellow-feeling, if we substitute “artist” for “writer”?

      • September 27, 2011 2:19 pm

        Yes, she’s painting now, which is hard and which she loves. But how lucky for Eleanor to have found a kindred spirit so quickly. That is the part that took a while for M. (But we are a family of introverts.)

  8. freshhell permalink
    September 26, 2011 2:11 pm

    Lovely. I should dredge it back out in a couple years when I’m really gonna need it.

    • September 27, 2011 8:20 am

      As the museum director says at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “Follow me! I know the way!”

  9. Carol Schu permalink
    September 26, 2011 4:37 pm

    This was wonderful. I am reminded, from my own experience, of the other side leaving her again for the second time. I remember going back to College for my second year and realizing. “Oh, THIS is home now. I am home.” (I had the same reaction, to a lesser extent, after the first Christmas break, but it was really clear the fall of my sophomore year. I had a “whole life there” by that point. When I went to my family’s home I was just visiting.)

    I also love the way that you brought together the two parts of the poem; listening to Eleanor write from afar (behind a door, across the miles, whatever) and the idea that you have now opened the window to let her fly out. Lovely metaphors from a lovely poem.

    Thanks, Jeanne.

    • September 27, 2011 8:22 am

      The in and out of this poem is what I like about it, the way they reverse. You could almost say it’s like visualizing Escher. But less migraine-inducing, at least for me.

  10. September 26, 2011 8:39 pm

    What a lovely poem, and yay for Eleanor! English majors are excellent!

    I hope you noticed the little self-compliment my mother sneaked in there. I moved to New York which was very, very unfamiliar. :p

    • September 27, 2011 8:25 am

      I did notice what your mother did; mothers can’t resist sharing the most difficult things they have to do that ultimately bring them joy; this is why the unimaginative ones tell labor stories over and over.
      English majors…she first told me about this possibility with this coda: #becomingmymother

      • September 27, 2011 8:36 am

        LOL! #becomingmymother — Is there anything else we both equally dread and cling to the hope?!

        • September 27, 2011 9:24 am

          I don’t think it’s equal for me or Eleanor–we weigh in more on the dread side, coming from a line of demanding and formidable women.

      • Carol Schumacher permalink
        September 28, 2011 9:50 pm

        Sarah told me the other day that she has been trying very hard to avoid becoming me, but that she is failing miserably.

  11. September 26, 2011 9:40 pm

    Sounds like she is settling into a lovely college life. Glad it was easier to leave her this time. And the poem … wow. You really do have a poem for every occasion in life. Wonderful.

    • September 27, 2011 8:26 am

      Well, I do look them up, but often I half-remember some poem that fits the feeling I’m having. It’s good to read through a lot of poetry early in your life, when you have time. Then it can last you.

  12. September 27, 2011 10:49 am

    What a beautiful post, and poem. Thank you.

  13. September 27, 2011 11:20 am

    Lovely poem! I’m glad you had a good trip to visit Eleanor. I always liked (and still like) when my parents come to visit and I can show them all the things I love to talk about.

    • September 28, 2011 10:24 am

      As she’s there longer, I hope she wants to show us more of it. At this point, I still felt like a bit of an intruder into her new life; she wouldn’t let us go to the drag karaoke show, and I think it’s because she’s afraid we’d try to sing. When of course we’re better behaved than that around our kids’ friends.

  14. September 27, 2011 2:48 pm

    I’m so glad it went well. What a wonderful feeling to be around other people that “get” you. I also love that after reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress earlier this year, I would understand the line marriage reference too.

    • September 28, 2011 10:25 am

      It is wonderful to be around people who have read all the same books; I liked that about college, and I like that about the internets!

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