Sunday, May 08, 2005

Happy Mother's Day! (quotes, or lack thereof)

By now you may have noticed that I like quotations. So far, I've done Orwell, Churchill, and war (hmmm, is there a theme emerging here?) So, in honor of Mother's Day (and a break with that theme), I thought I'd compile a list of great quotations about mothers and motherhood.

I did some searching, and found a bunch of websites (here, and here , for example) that initially looked promising. But when I actually read the quotes, one by one, I discovered something interesting--or, rather, I discovered something uninteresting. It turns out there are very few quotes about motherhood worth calling anyone's attention to.

That may seem a bit curmudgeonly to say, especially on Mother's Day. I'm not dissing mothers (after all, I'm one myself). That's far from my intent. But somehow the subject hasn't inspired much in the way of trenchant thought or pithy statements. I don't know why, since motherhood is an important (I might even say, vital and absolutely necessary) part of life, and people ordinarily have great intensity of feeling about their mothers.

But quotes about mothers tend to run to the banal--or, even worse, the anti-maternal claptrap of the idealogue. Of the former variety, nearly every site offers us Abraham Lincoln and his "angel mother." The following, by someone named Alice Hawthorne, is also typical: What is home without a mother? Of the latter type, a representative example is Emma Goldman's: Morality and its victim, the mother – what a terrible picture! Is there indeed anything more terrible, more criminal, than our glorified sacred function of motherhood? Yeah, Emma, I can come up with quite a few things, and I don't even have to think really really hard.

Somehow, the topic of motherhood seems to banish wit and the felicitious turn of phrase. There is something so deep about the topic that almost anything one can say about it immediately turns into a cliche. And the poetry, the poetry (at least, the stuff online)! Yikes! Surely, I think, there must be some good poems about motherhood.

But the only one that comes to mind is rather sad, which seems inappropriate for Mother's Day. I include it here, though, because I really like it, and because it so wonderfully describes the process by which a mother (or any parent) must let go as a child grows up. It also has the distinction of being one of the very few poems written by a man that is utterly and totally successful in capturing a woman's voice.

THE LOST CHILDREN (by Randall Jarrell)

Two little girls, one fair, one dark,
One alive, one dead, are running hand in hand
Through a sunny house. The two are dressed
In red and white gingham, with puffed sleeves and sashes.
They run away with me. . . But I am happy;
When I wake I feel no sadness, only delight.
That, somewhere, they still are.

It is strange
To carry inside you someone else's body;
To know it before it's born;
To see at last that it's a boy or a girl, and perfect;
To bathe it and dress it; to watch it
Nurse at your breast, till you almost know it
Better than you know yourself---better than it knows itself.
You own it as you made it.
You are the authority upon it.

But as the child learns
To take care of herself, you know her less.
Her accidents, adventures are her own,
You lose track of them. Still, you know more
About her than anyone except her.

Little by little the child in her dies.
You say, " I have lost a child, but gained a friend."
You feel youself gradually discarded.
She argues with you or ignores you
Or is kind to you. She who begged to follow you
Anywhere, just so long as it was you,
Finds follow the leader no more fun.
She makes few demands; you are grateful for the few.

The young person who writes once a week
Is the authority upon herself.
She sits in my living room and shows her husband
My albums of her as a child. He enjoys them
And makes fun of them. I look too
And I realize that girl in the matching blue
Mother-and-daughter dress, the fair one carrying
The tin lunch box with the half-pint thermos bottle
Or training her pet duck to go down the slide
Is lost just as the dark one, who is dead, is lost.
But the world in which the two wear their flared coats
And the hats that match, exists so uncannily
That, after I've seen its pictures for an hour,
I believe in it: the bandage coming loose
One has in the picture of the other's birthday
The castles they are building, at the beach for asthma.

I look at them and all the old sure knowledge
Floods over me, when I put the album down
I keep saying inside: "I did know those children.
I braided those braids. I was driving the car
The day that she stepped in the can of grease
We were taking to the butcher for our ration points.
I know those children. I know all about them.
Where are they?"

I stare at her and try to see some sign
Of the child she was. I can’t believe there isn’t any.
I tell her foolishly, pointing at the picture,
That I keep wondering where she is.
She tells me, “Here I am”
Yes, and the other
Isn’t dead, but has everlasting life. . .

The girl from next door, the borrowed child,
Said to me the other day, “ You like children so much,
Don’t you want to have some of your own?”
I couldn’t believe that she could say it.
I thought: “Surely you can look at me and see them.”

When I see them in my dreams I feel such joy.
If I could dream of them every night!

When I sit and think of my dream of the little girls
It’s as if we were playing hide-and-seek.
The dark one
Looks at me longingly, and disappears;
The fair one stays in sight, just out of reach
No matter where I reach. I am tired
As a mother who’s played all day, some rainy day.
I don’t want to play it anymore, I don’t want to,
But the child keeps on playing, so I play.


At 12:48 AM, May 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A quote not for mothers, but it should have been.

How do I feel about my mother?
The way grass feels the sun.

At 6:54 AM, May 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps the production of pithy quotations about parenthood, in all its complexity and ambivalence, is a job best suited to poets -- or perhaps to poets who are themselves parents. The speaker's voice in the following poem could be that of a mother or a father. Regardless of gender, the poem's evocation of the feelings of a parent who is about to lose a beloved child to adulthood makes it a worthy companion to the lovely Jarrell poem on your blog.

The Writer
by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where the 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.

At 7:25 AM, December 31, 2005, Blogger rogel dias said...

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