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.
Robert Hayden’s poem about “love’s austere and lonely offices” reminded me of a scene from childhood. (Actually I wasn’t a child at the time but a 13 or 14-year old, but it lives in my mind’s Childhood file.)
I was trudging up our long hill to get the school bus with my brothers Dick and Skip one winter morning. We could see that my father’s Dodge was sitting at the top, its tailpipe breathing plumes of white exhaust. He’d left for work before we headed out to catch the bus and shouldn’t have been there. What was up?
Dick and Skip ran ahead, thinking Dadda was sitting in his car for some reason, but I was trailing behind and looked over into where the cleared hillside met the woods and saw my father bending over, doing something.
He was picking up things. He had a trashcan in one hand and it was tipped to receive whatever he was gathering. Something white splashed with dark red. Then I knew–saw it in a flash of head cinema: he was gathering spilled sanitary napkins.
Sometimes in the night a stray dog would go after the trash cans we set at the top of our hill for the trash collectors and it usually resulted in a tip-over that sent one or two cans rolling down into the woods. This was back in the day of metal cans with no locking lid devices. And that’s what had happened: the tipped can had rolled, spewing its myriad contents, including a bag of my mother’s used Modess pads.
My father looked up and over–Skip and Dick were up at the car, oblivious–and smiled at me and waved a hand and I could read by how his mouth moved that he was saying Don’t miss the bus, girlie!
I ran up the hill, my cheeks hot and burning with embarrassment. For me. For him. For my mom, back at the house, who had no idea any of this was going on.
All the way to school that morning I kept seeing that scene: the colorless woods, my father bent over, the dark-red-splotched pads going into a bag. I hadn’t started menstruating and had never even seen a used pad, although I knew about the general concept and had often tried to imagine what one might look like…
But what lingered longest in my mind was the image of my father going about the business of a husband. Humbly, unceremoniously, quietly. I doubt that he even mentioned the incident to my mother.
Ever since, every guy I’ve had a serious relationship with has automatically drawn from me this litmus test question (although each would probably have been horrified to learn of it!): how would he have handled such a moment? Laughed and cleaned it up? Groaned and walked away from it? Cursed all the dogs in the world? Cleaned it up but made a big deal of it for the next six months?
My father said that the measure of goodness is doing something good while no one is watching and that no one will ever know about. That winter day I saw just how that works.
Love this poem, the post, and your story Trish. Our world desperately needs more quiet garbage picker uppers. I’m proud to say my hubby would pass the test, and my father did too. –Judy