Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
“Love’s austere and lonely offices” is a phrase I’ve carried around for years. It pops up whenever I see a person quietly doing drudge work for someone else. If I see an older man shoveling the driveway—well looky there, love’s austere and lonely offices. Mothers schlumping through grocery stores—aisle 4, love’s austere and lonely offices. People who work jobs they dislike to support their families–l.a. & l.o’s, of course.
While the poem is about Robert Hayden’s foster father, it could describe a whole generation of fathers who have all but disappeared: the strong silent types who shut themselves off from the emotional life of their families, men trained to show love through work and sacrifice. They thought little of their own comforts, they never bought things for themselves, they patched up the house with duct tape and saved money for education. There’s much to admire in those men and much to grieve for. All the affection they missed, giving and getting.
My own father died this past January. He was a complicated, difficult and amazing person. I find it’s hard to write about him. But Robert Hayden, who never met my father, who grew up in a slum, who lived through traumas far removed from my suburban upbringing, somehow captures my feelings about my father in a way I can’t. I loved this poem the first time I read it, and now I love it even more.
I hid “Those Winter Sundays” on a Friday morning under the sun visor of my sister’s car a few months after Dad passed away. She didn’t find it till the weekend was almost over, which made every ride in her car an exercise in laughter suppression. I gave this poem to her in particular, because as a nurse she administers love’s offices everyday; but more because she was kind and sweet and necessary to my father in his decline. Cheers, M.K.