Tag Archives: The Writer by Richard Wilbur

What My Mother Left Me When She Died

flowers in a vase

flowers in a vaseI lost my mother recently. It wasn’t to Covid19, thank goodness. But it was very sudden. Because of the virus, I was not able to make a planned trip to spend Easter with her this year. Indeed, and like so many other families who have lost a parent in the last few months, none of her four children were able to see her during the last few months of her life.

What I Notice

When you lose someone you love, memories of them resurface when you least expect it. Some friends here in London sent me some beautiful flowers when they heard of my mother’s death. As I went to change the water one day, I found myself reaching for the sugar bowl. My mother always told me that if you changed the water on flowers every day – and added a teaspoon of sugar – the flowers would live longer. She was full of practical, everyday wisdom like that.

Then my husband opened our pantry and noticed a jar of instant decaffeinated coffee lurking in one of the back corners. The bottle was a holdover from my mother’s last visit some two and a half years ago, the last time she was able to travel alone. I don’t think either one of us ever actually clocked that jar before. It had blended into the obscure architecture of the back cupboard, along with other, long-neglected items like a bottle of yeast extract and a can of Brunswick Canadian Style sardines.

Suddenly, that jar was all we could see. Neither one of us could bring ourselves to throw it out, even though there is no way on God’s earth that either one of us will ever drink instant coffee in this lifetime.

Rituals and Values

Another thing that happens when a parent dies is that you begin to appreciate all the myriad ways you’ve begun adopting their idiosyncratic habits. Ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about five ways I was turning into my mother. These included things like carrying a large library book with me everywhere I go, lest things get dull…doing extensive back exercises every morning, much to the chagrin of my teenaged children…and re-purposing everything I possibly can to save money, including – yes – tea bags.

That list of shared behaviors has grown. When my mother moved from the last house she owned into a small apartment in an independent living facility, she could only bring one bookshelf. A voracious reader (see library books, above), she had amassed an impressive collection of novels, history and plays over the course of a lifetime. But she chose to bring only poetry with her to her new home. I’ve never read poetry in my life. A few months ago, I started reading it too.

I’ve also begun replicating her values. My mother became active in the League of Women Voters when, as a young mother with four children, she moved to a new town where she didn’t know anyone. That political commitment carried on for the next 50 years. Right up into her mid-80’s, she was still making phone calls for her local congressional candidate of choice.

I’ve never been particularly politically active, save attending the odd protest here and there and supporting causes I believe in on social media. This year, I joined a team of virtual volunteers leading the charge to get out the vote among Americans living overseas.

The Gift of Writing

The greatest gift my mother gave me – and certainly the one with the longest staying power – was teaching me how to write. My mother wrote plays, children’s stories and a terrific family history I’ve had occasion to re-read in the wake of her death. When I was in high school, she would sit with me for hours and go over my essays, advising me on structure, wording and tone. Everything I know about writing I learned from her.

When I took some time off years ago to work on a novel, she sent me a poem about writing, which I posted on my blog. It was partly a poem about resilience: about falling down and getting back up, which is, of course, what writing is all about. It was also about how much we feel is riding on those words. But it was also about mothers and daughters, and how we connect through the shared struggle of writing…and life.

I end this post with the closing verse of that poem, called The Writer by Richard Wilbur:

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

Image: Dahlias in a vase via Pxfuel

This post originally ran on Sixty and Me.

 

In Honor Of Mothers, Daughters, and Writers: A Poem

My post last week about the birth control pill performed double-duty as a Mother’s Day tribute. I hadn’t intended it to do so, that’s just how things worked out given the 50th anniversary of the pill and all of the hullabaloo around that.

The Mother’s Day post that I intended to put up is the one I’m going to post today – a few day’s late, to be sure – but I’m going to blame my move (and the British government…or lack thereof.*)

From time to time I post poetry on this blog. Usually it’s not my own (except my recent ode to a mews house.) Instead, I look to the more inspired words of others to express what I wish I was eloquent enough to say on my own. I did it on my father’s birthday last year, I did it when some friends were going through some rocky times, and today, I’m going to do it again, with a poem that celebrates mothers, daughters and writers.

It was actually my mother who sent me this poem. She did it back in November when I took a self-imposed vacation in order to spend some time sending my novel out to agents.

My mother is a writer. She’s written plays, children’s stories and – most recently – a terrific family history. She’s also become a tireless commenter on this blog, for which I am most grateful.  Most of what I know about writing I learned from her.

As writers (and daughters), we all need support like that. So today’s poem goes out to mothers, daughters and writers everywhere in equal measure.

The Writer

by Richard Wilbur


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.

Happy Mother’s Day.

*For those of you who haven’t – by some miracle of modern science – been following the British elections, I’ve had my hands full with that roller coaster of events over the past few days. You can read some of my thoughts here (written the day after election day), here (written when it looked like the Lib Dems and the Tories would form an alliance) and here (when it looked like the Lib Dems might ally with Labour.) By the time you read this, we’ll probably be on Plan C…stay tuned.

Image: Red-winged Starling by Ifijay via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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