Mother of the Groom
by Seamus Heaney
What she remembers
Is his glistening back
In the bath, his small boots
in the ring of boots at her feet.
Hands in her voided lap,
she hears a daughter welcomed.
It’s as if he kicked when lifted
and slipped her soapy hold.
Once soap would ease off
the wedding ring
that’s bedded forever now
in her clapping hand.
The weekend of my oldest daughter’s college graduation, I was at a beautiful old hotel in Milwaukee (with a ceiling in the lobby like a Victorian Sistine Chapel) on the same night a friend from home was there for a wedding. Seamus Heaney’s “Mother of the Groom” seemed the right fit for both occasions. For most parents, forward-looking events like graduations and weddings carry the same whiff of loss and sorrow that the mother in the poem experiences. So I taped the poem to a planter in the ladies lounge. Within the hour it was gone. Among other wonders of the hotel, it had a very efficient cleaning crew.
How efficient this poem is too, how much it says in so few words. With a deft use of homonyms (flashback to 5th grade: words with multiple meanings), Heaney brings past, present and future together. The ring of boots at the mother’s feet connects to the wedding ring on her finger (which she used to take off from time to time for reasons Freudian or practical) and the unmentioned ring her son will give to the woman who supplants the mother. The ring is now “bedded” in her hand, which calls to mind the wedding bed. In fact there’s a series of words with sexual overtones—glistening, slipped, lap, bedded, ease off–which suggests that the mother knows that intimacy is behind her. She looks with some jealousy at her son’s wife, who will now enjoy all the pleasures of young married life that she once did—sex, babies, being at the center of the ring.
What strikes me most is what an outsider the mother is at the wedding. Of the four principle figures at a wedding—the bride, the groom, the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom—the last is the least important, the most invisible. She claps as a spectator and retreats into her thoughts. Her role is entirely passive. She doesn’t welcome her new daughter herself; she hears the daughter welcomed. She has not voided her lap; her lap is voided. The passive voice reinforces her feeling that something has been done to her which she did not desire. Her past is gone. Her life as a mother has slipped away.
“The wedding ring/that’s bedded forever now” is a phrase that haunts me. “Forever now” sounds so sad, so resigned. With just two words, Heaney ushers death into the wedding, so quietly that we don’t notice right away that the celebration has changed utterly.