by Naomi Shihab Nye
Once on a plane
a woman asked me to hold her baby
I figured it was safe,
our being on a plane and all.
How far could she go?
She returned one hour later,
having changed her clothes
and washed her hair.
I didn’t recognize her.
By this time the baby
and I had examined
each other’s necks.
We had cried a little.
I had a silver bracelet
and a watch.
Gold studs glittered
in the baby’s ears.
She wore a tiny white dress
leafed with layers
like a wedding cake.
I did not want
to give her back.
The baby’s curls coiled tightly
against her scalp,
I read new new new.
My mother gets tired.
I’ll chew your hand.
The baby left my skirt crumpled,
my lap aching.
Now I’m her secret guardian,
the little nub of dream
that rises slightly
but won’t come clear.
As she grows,
as she feels ill at ease,
I’ll bob my knee.
What will she forget?
Whom will she marry?
He’d better check with me.
I’ll say once she flew
dressed like a cake
between two doilies of cloud.
She could slip the card into a pocket,
pull it out.
Already she knew the small finger
was funnier than the whole arm.
I was flying to Fort Lauderdale to meet my mother and some of my sisters. My plan was to leave “Wedding Cake” in the seat pocket, sandwiched between the in-flight magazine and the sky mall catalogue. But we passengers were sandwiched too, packed so tight that every sniffle and stomach gurgle seemed to originate from a communal body of seatmates, and I didn’t feel like making a spectacle of myself leaning away from the seat pocket to get a decent picture.
’m glad I held on to the poem because I found a better spot for it later in the trip.
One day we heard that the owner of the hotel/condo we were staying in was having a huge birthday bash at the tiki bar downstairs, with a DJ and “Drink Girls.” The “Drink Girls,” our tiki bar waitress explained, were hookers. None of us middle-aged suburbanites see prostitutes on a regular basis, and we wanted to watch them in action.
The tiki bar, being the last of its kind in Ft. Lauderdale, grandfathered in after beachfront tiki bars were outlawed, was crowded with a young and hormonally fired-up crowd. We had trouble distinguishing between the hookers and the bar patrons. Young women in fishnet stockings and unzipped Daisy Dukes sauntered around selling shots, delivered with flair and in unusual serving positions. But other young women, dressed almost as provocatively, touched themselves as if they were showering and shook their body parts with an earnest determination to attract the attention of men far less attractive than they. To us it was all Sodom and Gomorrah, but to everyone else, we were the spectacle. We must have looked like the summer stock cast of The Crucible.
After a while we got tired of the scene. We got up to go just as my mother was served a full beer she couldn’t drink. No wanting to waste the beer, we brought it to a rowdy table of women at a bachelorette party.
I offered the beer to the bride on behalf of my mother. “She’s 88,” I told her, “and she was married for over sixty years and had 11 children. So this is good luck to you from her.” The table cheered and the bride greeted my mother warmly, albeit drunkenly. As people do at those kinds of milestone parties, the group absorbed the moment into the story of their evening, and my mother became to them what my sisters and I call “Friends Along the Way.” Friends Along the Way are strangers you meet on group outings who bond with you on some deep or joyful level. Friends Along the Way love connecting with your group and in turn are loved and petted.
My mom is pretty cute and no doubt her beer offering was adorable just because she’s 88 and they were young and wild. But the moment was more than that. Maybe seeing the bride in that atmosphere of hookers and hooking up made us feel protective towards her. Like the speaker in the poem to the stranger’s baby, we each became the bride’s “secret guardian.” Knowing my sisters and mother as I do, I‘m pretty certain that many silent prayers were said for her, asking she be blessed with a long and happy marriage. She’ll never know that, which is part of the beauty of the encounter to me.
As luck would have it, on the next day we were seated for lunch at the very same table. Which is where I left the poem.
That’s a long story to show how Naomi Shahib Nye’s “Wedding Cake” is suited to its site. The protective feeling the speaker has towards the baby and the unexpected connection between two strangers are exactly what we experienced with our bride on her “Final Fling.”
On to the poem itself.
Being left with a stranger’s baby on a plane for an hour is a Billy Collins kind of moment. Like Collins, Nye has a light touch, a droll perspective. But Billy Collins couldn’t have written this poem. Such situations rarely happen to men, and if they do, it’s all Three Men and a Baby and Do I Really Have to Change This Diaper?! Mothers, on the other hand, often ask other women to hold their babies—probably not for an hour, but still, mothers need a free hand now and then and sometimes have to rely on the kindness of strangers. But the absurd situation is not at the heart of the poem. “I did not want/to give her back,” the speaker says. A connection has been forged, a connection that goes beyond the physical pleasures of holding a beautiful baby.
Dressed so fancy in her white dress with little gold earrings, the baby seems to me Hispanic. I mention this because cultural exchange is central to Nye’s work. In an interview with the online journal Cerise, she offers her recipe for increasing tolerance:
Spend more time with people not your own age. With people from backgrounds which do not mirror your own. With anyone you might consider an “other” — even urban people need to spend more time with small-town or rural people, etc.
The speaker and the baby are traveling in a plane, above borders, free to connect across cultures, age difference, time, language or the lack of it. Spending time with the baby, the speaker begins to identify with her. They both cry. They both wear jewelry. The baby even wears what looks like a wedding dress, a signature dress in a grown woman’s life. Even without a common language—the baby presumably doesn’t speak—the speaker bonds so deeply with the baby that she can “read” the baby’s curls. They will become part of each others’ future lives.
The poem leaves me with some questions, as poems usually do. Does anyone have idea about these lines:
She could slip the card into a pocket,
and pull it out.
What’s the card? Did the speaker write this poem on a card and imagine the baby keeping it as she grows up?
I’m also mulling over the end. I’m interested in how other people understand this:
Already she knew the small finger
was funnier than the whole arm.
I can picture the speaker tickling and teasing the baby with her little finger, or the baby examining her own pinkie. This is presented as a lesson the speaker has imparted to the baby. How else do the lines work in the poem? Why do they end the poem?
Naomi Shahib Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis and identifies as an Arab-American. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother American. During high school she lived for some time with her grandmother in Jerusalem and in San Antonio.
She’s written several books of poetry, children’s books, songs and novels. She has traveled for the U.S. Information Agency on goodwill tours. Her anthology for teens, The Space Between Our Footsteps, is a beautiful collection of paintings and poems from the Middle East. After 9/11, she spoke out against terrorism and against prejudice, and in 2002 she published a book of new and old poems she had written about the Middle East.
In 2009, PeacebyPeace named her a Peace Hero. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but it’s a wonderful appellation and something we can all aspire to be.
She’s won multiple literary awards, including four Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Antonio with her photographer husband and son.
You can hear her read here, a “found” poem. Her voice surprised me. I had expected a voice soft and gentle like her face, but she sounds more like your best pal in high school talking too loud the morning after you got drunk together. Gravelly and fun.
I assumed that the speaker had made the baby laugh by wiggling her finger. She inferred that the baby had never before been shown the “trick” and so would remember it…and her.
The baby’s not knowing about the wiggling finger was symbolic to me of the mother’s lack of attention toward her–in spite of dressing her in a fancy dress, as if she were a doll, not a living being. She was given to a complete stranger by the mother so she could go off and “primp” herself. The baby’s feelings were unimportant; it was all about the mother and what she wanted.
You address something I didn’t. Great point about the disappearing mother. The speaker’s good care of the baby highlights the mother’s neglect. There’s also the feeling that the future groom won’t treat the baby right either. Thanks for your insight!
Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favorite poets, so wonderful at taking ordinary moments and showing us how extraordinary they are, how they are unique and never return. She has a great way of showing things we see every day in a new light “dressed like a cake/ between two doilies of cloud”. I have an idea about the card in her pocket, but it’s only my idea. Anyone can have an idea about a poet’s work, it’s put out there to give you ideas . I think she meant the poem on a card, this poem that she wrote, that the baby could use to question her suitor, or like a snapshot of herself as a baby, something to give the man who loves her so he could know her better. And the line about the small finger being funnier than the whole arm, the way a baby’s fingers move makes them watch their own hands, and often giggle over them, play with them, stuff them into their mouths to see how they taste, poke them into things, grab noses, all the wonderful, creative, exploring things done by all human hands. . . You need the arm but who notices that? Babies notice what fingers do, they have all the fun!
I like how you connected yourself and your family as “secret guardians” of the bride. Heaven knows, we would all like to have a secret guardian who prays for us to have a wonderful life, even if we never know they are doing it. It’s the power of prayerful thoughts that they don’t have to be known to be powerful. And, I think I would like to meet your mom . . . she seems like such a good sport and a great lady!
I think the people who find your poem will consider themselves blessed by it, like the card in the pocket, they might pull out the experience and share it.
I love Naomi Shihab Nye too. You describe the appeal of her work so well. Makes me wonder why she hasn’t reached the superstar status of Billy Collins. There’s a lot of similarity in their work, at least in the “accessibility” (to me, a good word, a great word) of their poems.
I was thinking the same thing about the card….it’s the poem itself.
Yes to the power of secret prayers!
Naomi’s found poem is certainly inspiration for parents everywhere to write down those amazing things that that their kids say when they are so little.
Great Post, Poem Elf…..I love Friends along the Way —every trip/encounter is an adventure waiting to unfold!
Inspire to write down but also to enjoy the wee ones. I miss them.
Thanks for your comments!
What a great post to read on this blustery cold cold winter day (Mr Winter doesn’t want to leave. He keeps saying: “Why on earth–hah! That’s funny! Why on earth!!–anyway, why on earth should I leave? I’m on the news every night! I’m more popular than one of Angelina Jolie’s adopted kids! I’m more of a celebrity than…than…Justin Bieber! Why should I turn things over to boring Mrs Spring, whose idea of “fun” is popping blossoms out of the ground with her ancient dirty fingers?”)
I didn’t know Naomi Shahib Nye but am so glad to meet her and read her wonderful poem. Thanks, Poem Elf.
I took the card as a metaphor for the unique wisdom, insight, sensitivity,and awareness that guardian angels are famous for, who see their child in the corner at the party, toes turned inwards, hands wedged between legs, feeling un-belonging and unconnected and alone (as it once briefly felt when it was hefted by her hard arms from mom’s fidgety lap and hung panicky in midair for two seconds before being set into a new but surprisingly warmer, solid-er lap) certain that, even though it’s the size of a mountain there in the middle of the room, no one else can see the Misery Monster who’s joined the child’s own personal party. But although mom’s too preoccupied with keeping the bouncy fairy castle she rented from collapsing to see the uninvited guest, the good guardian angel does see it. I think the poet wishes she could provide a “card” –she is, after all, a writer–that would live in the child’s pocket for such a moment, that would read once the child had plucked it out–
“I see the Monster. I see it, too. You’re not alone.”
To me the little finger ending is about finding joy in what’s often overlooked or unseen but nonethelss right in front of us–the ant crawling up the blade of grass; the snow flakes sliding down the window pane, melting as they go; the unassuming, unassertive little finger that never gets the attention, never gets the ring, never hitches a ride, never points the way…. The woman with the obliging lap to me is saying that the joys in living don’t have to be dependent on earrings and complicated fancy dresses and hours spent transforming in airplane bathrooms but sometimes can be found in things like discovering the anarchic tendencies inherent in little fingers . . .
Thanks for weighing in here, Trish! I particularly love this: “unassertive little finger that never gets the attention, never gets the ring, never hitches a ride, never points the way”–kind of goes along with what Sherry was saying above….that Nye shows how ordinary things are extraordinary.
All these comments have really helped me delve into the poem more. Much obliged to all!
Such a sweet poem – I can relate to that connection to a baby which makes you long for the days when you had your own.
Hasn’t everyone felt that you are somehow very special to a baby after having a ‘close encounter’? Babies are so wise and knowing and will remember us forever!
Perhaps the last four lines are about the author’s whimsical thought that they will keep in touch in the future. After all she has established this connection – Mom and baby – she has a mother’s heart now and she will want to approve of her future spouse. I think she may have slipped the real Mom her card – in case they could cross paths again and she could continue her love affair (perhaps she is a wedding planner or cake-maker – ha). She imagines that when the baby is ready to be married – she slips out this card of the author’s out of her pocket and gives to the young man. When he contacts her – she will tell him what she was like as a baby. But how can this be after such a short encounter? Well the baby knows that the intense fascination of a pinky finger is much more satisfying than the ‘whole arm’. The author was a refreshing change from the baby’s ‘tired mom’. The baby will remember this encounter with the author (though she wonders how long. . ) – it will stay with her – it will have meaning to her as they connected face to face in a sea of others. The wisdom of a baby to zero in and examine details surely show that she will remember this personal connection as she grows up. All – just a fleeting longing of the author’s imagination. But just in case – she slips the Mom her card.
Great job, Poem Elf!