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The Lanyard

February 6, 2013

It’s been an interesting winter with my sixteen-year-old son. He directed a play, fell in love, applied to colleges, took over the scheduling of the chess lessons he teaches to younger children (most of them in the city an hour away) and progressed from showing active scorn of everything I say to quietly retreating from it.

I love the way I can still make his eyes light up by saying I’m glad to see him when we arrive home at the end of one of these long days in which it snows and everyone ignores it, so it’s extra-hard to get around in and we’re all in danger of our lives driving up and down the driveway that no one has made time to shovel in the dark. I love the way he will still allow himself to be a little cheered up after adult disappointments by the old traditions of cheering up, like having two desserts.

I don’t want a grateful child; that usually means the child has been unlucky enough to know when things are good. Every once in a while, though, when the bedroom door is shut against me, I miss the hand that was so often searching for mine, usually full of little, squashed flowers. Every once in a while, when we’re eating supper, just the three of us, I call it “eating with Mr. Spock,” because the conversation has to be based on logic and about things that can be proved with science, and the teenager gets very stern with me about it; he and his father know a lot and the idea that a non-scientist might know anything worth repeating has been dismissed, for the moment.

This is why a mother drifts off into memory.

The Lanyard, by Billy Collins

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of my room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
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 more suddenly into the past—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid 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 teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set 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 archaic truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

As a mother, I try to stay even, rather than get even. Some days, though, it’s hard to be told “it’s my life, mom” and have to be the adult, and not try to clutch that life to my chest (suddenly and comically bigger than I am) and run back to my own bedroom with it shouting “no, mine, MINE!”

Keeping an even keel. How do you stay even with the ones you love?

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. Debra permalink
    February 6, 2013 9:50 am

    Thank you so much for this great post. It touched me deeply.

  2. February 6, 2013 10:05 am

    That was beautiful. Good luck. (and thanks for the kitten stomped postcard)

    • February 7, 2013 8:55 am

      Anytime…I need more luck, and I have an endless supply of cat footprints!

  3. Karen D permalink
    February 6, 2013 10:34 am

    A view from the future, for me. And, a little, from the past, as I recall making my own choices and becoming independent, regardless of whether my parents (or I) were ready.

    The little hand is still searching for mine. And I get lots of scribbled cards in the winter, and crushed flowers in the summer. I try to remember to be grateful for them, always, but this is a useful reminder. Actually, it’s a timely reminder. The last 2 mornings I have been groggy with sleep and sleep-deprivation as D2 has come home from the hospital and now needs all the standard newborn-type care and feeding. D1 has been climbing into my bed to “cuddle” in the morning, and I have had a hard time staying awake enough to respond to his conversation. It’s good to remember that he climbs into bed to talk with me because he loves me….even if what I really want right then is 20 minutes of uninterrupted sleep.

    It’s hard, I suppose, to *give* life, to relinquish the combination of control and responsibility that we begin with as parents. So far this mostly requires me to let D1 wear mismatched socks when he wants to, and to let him pick what he wants to take for show-and-share (even when I think an Apron is a better A-letter choice than an “action figure” is), and to let him paint his Christmas trees whatever psychedelic colors he wants to. (Great-grandma got a painting of a blue stocking this year; the preschool teachers got red Christmas trees with…green? gingerbread men underneath.) I still control who we arrange playdates with outside of school, and what afternoon snacks are acceptable (raisins, apples, yogurt, hummus, celery/carrots, toast and jam) and when he wears long pants vs shorts. For that matter, I set out outfits for the week, and he can choose which to wear each day…but I’ve already put shirts with trousers and undies and socks.

    This ramble is just to say that I know parenting, when done ideally, makes the parents somewhat superfluous. We are the original example of planned obsolescence. The process of moving from total control and total responsibility for a helpless being to moderate influence over an independent person….can’t be easy.

    • February 7, 2013 9:00 am

      To “give” life. That’s a nice way to think of it.
      I remember realizing that the climbing into bed with us had stopped, and noticing. And I remember one day when Walker had pressed a moist handful of crushed dandelion into my hand that Ben said to me “these are your dandelion days.” Taking a moment to notice can make you more patient, and that’s the main thing having kids can teach–more patience.
      I wish you joy in your sleep deprivation.

  4. Karen D permalink
    February 6, 2013 12:11 pm

    By the by,

    • February 7, 2013 9:05 am

      I like the way he read the Proust reference, and how he shows that it’s his mother’s reaction to receiving this thing he made that made him feel so proud.

      • Karen D permalink
        February 7, 2013 10:41 am

        I hadn’t particularly noticed that in his reading until you mentioned it. Lovely!

        (Also, you might enjoy his reading of his poem Litany, which is one of the “you might be interested” video options that shows up at the end of this clip. I enjoy that poem, and I enjoy hearing the audience laugh as he reads it.)

  5. February 6, 2013 12:17 pm

    I have an opinion here, and it is this: parenting an adult is far more dicey than parenting a kid. You can’t just say, oh, that’s it, I’m done – but all the terms have to be renegotiated. Renegotiated SUBTLY (not my strong suit.)! I went into parenting with a lot of ideas and a fair amount of confidence, and I am pretty sure I was a very good mother. I forgot (or maybe just never thought at all) about parenting post-18, even though family-of-origin events in my 20s, 30s and 40s should have made me think it all out more clearly. It is a sea change, and I say, let’s get some how-to books for that critical phase of parenting! The hardest thing for me is knowing when to be involved (because lack of involvement can look like lack of support to an adult child) and when to stay out of their business (conveying the equally important message that you see them as competent adults.) Which I do, I swear! Oh, it is such an eggshell walk! I miss the days when I felt absolutely competent and confident.

    Also “The Lanyard” is maybe my favorite poem ever about mother/child relationships. Thanks for posting it today.

    • February 7, 2013 9:07 am

      Ah, you make me laugh and feel less alone. Subtle is not my strong suit either.
      You know, I looked up how-to books about parenting adult children after you mentioned it, and there are a few. I’ve ordered one that looks less medical and more anecdotal and will tell you how it is.

    • February 13, 2013 7:05 pm

      Aw, you do a wonderful job parenting adult us, Mumsy! You are the champion of adult parenting! You and Daddy both. Y’all are really supportive and give advice but don’t push your opinions too hard. And I’ve only once ever had to say “Quit doing that, I’m an adult.” Pretty good!

  6. February 6, 2013 12:40 pm

    I love this poem. And boy, NWK is right.

    • February 7, 2013 9:08 am

      She usually is. Want to go in with us and write the definitive how-to book for parenting adult children?

  7. February 7, 2013 9:13 am

    Ah, I know we’re in similar places here. I ended up having a long conversation with my son in the middle of the night this week – I’d woken and found him downstairs, very upset after a row with his girlfriend. It was a good conversation, a long one. And unfortunately I was fighting down the anxiety that’s been dogging me lately throughout it. He didn’t know. I was so glad to be there for him, and at the same time, I realised that I was also more than ready not to have to do the intensive parenting any more. This is a tough transition that requires so much negotiation. You’re doing just fine. Biting one’s tongue is an act of heroic virtue, you know.

    • February 7, 2013 10:08 am

      So true, about biting one’s tongue! And that’s a good way to think about it–we don’t have to do much of the intensive parenting any more. I admit that I’ve thought about this with my daughter being 11 hours away by road (or a day’s worth of connecting flights). It’s worrying, but it can also be a tiny bit of a relief, that she has to find other ways to deal with some of her own issues.
      Those long middle-of-the-night (or, more usually with us, in-the-car) conversations are good. Sometimes you both find out that there are still things you know that he doesn’t, but most of it is that teenage boys keep a lot inside and need someone very safe to tell it to every now and then.

  8. February 7, 2013 7:28 pm

    I love-and-hate when I stop by your blog for a nice read before bed, and end up weeping and running to my childrens bedrooms to touch their round cheeks and keep them from growing up by keeping my eyes on them (thats how it works, you know) and then I know I’ll have to blink sometime and they’ll be grown and gone by the time I open my eyes again. But mothering doesn’t stop, does it, even if the shape of it adapts?

    • February 10, 2013 8:53 am

      Some of it stops. Certainly the part where I can watch a child while he or she is sleeping has stopped for many reasons, not the least of which is that I need more sleep than they do now.
      So it’s good to have reminders to touch their round cheeks while you can.
      Don’t blink.

  9. February 7, 2013 8:15 pm

    Oh my goodness … I am IN LOVE with this poem. IN LOVE with it. I love BIlly Collins and he is the type of poet that I understand and can relate to. It says so much but it is funny too. Sigh. THanks for sharing.

    • February 10, 2013 8:54 am

      That’s my favorite kind of poem, the one that is serious and funny at the same time.

  10. February 10, 2013 2:34 am

    I love this poem. We had a get together for my husband’s birthday today, and I found myself watching my very grown kids, as they all laughed, joked, & teased, with a kind of double vision – seeing them as kids at the same time. So much changes, and so little. Granted, mine are well past adolescence, but they are still my little ones. Yes, things change, but the magic never leaves. I just have to remember to step back now and then to appreciate it.

    • February 10, 2013 8:57 am

      The double vision of seeing some of the past in the present–that’s a reversal of what the speaker is doing in the poem, seeing some of the present in the past.

  11. February 12, 2013 9:39 am

    My son is only three and I can’t even imagine a world where he’s not my baby. Must be so amazing, but so hard not to cling.

    • February 12, 2013 9:57 am

      Three…that’s the stage where parenthood seems unrelenting and older people tell you “it goes so fast.”
      I have Snowball’s “double vision” about what that was like, and how it seemed to take forever, and yet, it’s gone already.

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