Ladies room in Milwaukee

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.

so rushed to avoid being seen, I took a rotten picture

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.

6 Comments

  1. Peter

    I have read this poem years ago in a book entitled “Oxford Anthology of Short Poems.” I never saw the Freudian or Oedipal overtones, just that of memory and loss. A mother and her son’s bond is i timate and special. One wher a son can tell things to his mom that he cannot so easily share with any other. A mother loves her son from birth as she knows, too, this role. A mom who will mold and shape his character and depth and washing him is an intimate bonding experience of love. Loss of her role is being finalized and she is now desperately aware.
    I see no jealousy of gaining a new daughter, but, numbness…
    I see the ring of shoes as a sign that she was once the center of attention and her son’s central need and caregiver.
    The ring embedded is visual showing the aging hand, a marriage that may not be perfect?, and this progenator’s age and fettility is gone. The clapping hand is the acceptance of these notions.. Love, loss, new family and mortality.

    It makes us think of our own mothers, new mothers of sons and of our acceptance. It is a powerful image, the clapping mother of the groom. We envision her as a young beautiful mother washing her slightly kicking child. An older mom that now remembers.

    1. poemelf

      Your reading led me back to the poem, which I also had not read for years, and all over again I am full of awe and admiration for Heaney’s sensitivity, understanding and deft use of language. Your reading and mine are not that far apart, but the fact that they are different and equally viable speaks to the strength of this small, wondrous poem.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      1. PM

        Read it again and see your insights. They’re better than mine. My reaction is more as a grateful son. It is the total awareness of the moment and transition that stays with me.

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