A daughter’s sun

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Waiting At The Window

by A. A. Milne

 

These are my two drops of rain

Waiting on the window-pane.

 

I am waiting here to see

Which the winning one will be.

 

Both of them have different names.

One is John and one is James.

 

All the best and all the worst

Comes from which of them is first.

 

James has just begun to ooze.

He’s the one I want to lose.

 

John is waiting to begin.

He’s the one I want to win.

 

James is going slowly on.

Something sort of sticks to John.

 

John is moving off at last.

James is going pretty fast.

 

John is rushing down the pane.

James is going slow again.

 

James has met a sort of smear.

John is getting very near.

 

Is he going fast enough?

(James has found a piece of fluff.)

 

John has quickly hurried by.

(James was talking to a fly.)

 

John is there, and John has won!

Look! I told you! Here’s the sun!

 

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It’s a compulsion for the grieving to speak of the dead. It’s a kindness to listen.

 

So thanks in advance for kindnesses given.

 

IMG_4229My mother died May 7, the day before Mother’s Day. She was ninety. As a reader of obituaries, I know that ninety is a long life. I know that a death at ninety is no tragedy. So many people get but a fraction of her years. So many live in misery for the years they have, struggling in poverty, physical debilitation, mental suffering, violence, refugee camps, open seas. I have no reason for bitterness over the length of her life or the circumstances of her death.

 

But still. It hurts. It feels sudden. She seemed so much younger than she was. Anyone who spent five minutes with her would come away from the visit hoping she’d get at least twenty more years to continue enjoying life on Planet Earth.

 

Until a few weeks before her death, she still drove herself, oxygen tank and all, to Sunday Mass and weekly hair appointments. She played bridge. She played jokes. She took interest. It’s hard for old people to do that, I know. Suffering in the hospital in her last week, she garnered the energy to weigh in on bridal shower invitations, ask questions about the college decision of one of her 38 grandchildren, delight in the announcement of a new great-grandchild scheduled to arrive in a month she must have known she wouldn’t be around for.

 

She had fluffy white hair that sproinged back when you touched it, a ready laugh, bright blue eyes that shined in the Irish way. She was mother to eleven, mother-in-law to ten, beloved by all. A Denver gal, a Navy wife. Redskin fan. A list-maker, a listener. A giggler. Penuche maker. Fan of British detective shows. Knitter for the Christ Child Society, her last project unfinished, a mint-green baby sweater.

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She was always game for silly posing
She was always game for silly posing

 

I could go on, and I would–I do, in my head all day–but I’ve made my point, I guess. I miss her. Often I ache for her. What I want to do is honor her. She was a faithful reader of this blog and sometimes featured in it, so here is where my tribute to her will go.

 

My two-month delay in posting about her has been over poem selection. A few tributary poems came to mind, but nothing seemed adequate. I thought about these lines from Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances” (from stanza 3, usually excerpted as a stand-alone):

 

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

 

This particular stanza is about a young Heaney skipping Sunday Mass with his mother to peel potatoes in the kitchen. I peeled many potatoes for my mother when I was young, lots of potatoes, potatoes for thirteen people, always flipping the peels on to waxed paper as she directed, but that image doesn’t carry her spirit for me. Still, the comforting sense of shared activity that Heaney describes is one I hold in my heart. One of my favorite memories of visiting my mother in Maryland over the last few years is sitting side-by-side with her on the couch, nearly touching shoulders, each of us reading our own books silently together.

 

Julia Kasdorf’s “What I Learned From My Mother” was also under consideration. A poem I’ve read dozens of times. But what Kasdorf learned from her mother–

 

have plenty of vases on hand

in case you have to rush to the hospital

with peonies cut from the lawn

 

is more in line with what I learned from my oldest sister Ceci. I learned lots of other things from my mother, not the least of which is that life is plenty hard but also plenty fun if you use your imagination.

 

Which brings me to the poem I did choose, “Waiting at the Window” by A.A. Milne, better known for his Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Here a little boy, stuck inside because of rain, makes a game out of watching raindrops roll down the glass. Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.29.44 PMThis is exactly the sort of thing my mother often did–create characters, make a race, not complain about situations you can’t change. (My two younger sisters remember fondly the many times she entertained them on boring errand runs. She’d have them duck down in the back seat of the brown Nova, hidden from view, while she called on her pretend CB radio, “Calling all cars, calling all cars. We have two missing girls, ages six and seven, both brunette, short hair. If found—” and so on, over and over because they found it side-splittingly funny.)

 

The poem is from one of two volumes she read to us: When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. All eleven of us can still recite from memory one poem or another from these collections, but the memory of her voice is what is most precious about these poems. Her reading voice was low and tuned to rhythm, and her wry delivery made every funny line even funnier and brought out humor not obvious to lesser readers. The musicality of Milne’s poems, the whimsy, and the sometimes subversive messages made these books perfectly suited to her.

 

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Over time, the poems and the characters in them have become old family friends—Binker, Mary Jane, King John who was not a good man, Nanny who let the beetle out. Now We Are Six and When We Were Young are ingrained in our imaginations and shaped us in ways we probably don’t realize, ways big or small, who knows. I don’t want to make too much of a point about this, but it strikes me as funny that these poems and the accompanying illustrations (simple, beautiful line drawings by E. H. Shephard), which we associate with our mother more than any other material she read out loud, paint a world opposite the one we grew up in. My mother, who could not unjustly be accused of reverse snobbism, didn’t know any patrician families with nannies and cooks and big houses in London and distracted mothers dressed to the nines, absent fathers, only children. And she probably wouldn’t have liked them much if she did. Milne’s world is not quite Downton Abbey, but as far as can be from our suburban split-level house held together with duct tape and credit.

 

That home is where I left the poem, in the front bay window where I spent many hours looking out into the street. I had come back to Maryland to help clear out the house for a sale. (Which we did sell one morning that week, after Sunday Mass, my sisters and me, out of the blue, without a realtor, to a lovely young couple who will surely re-fill the empty house with life and fun. I hope the house cleaners leave the poem for them. I left a few others too, but will include those in another post.)

 

IMG_1057The only other connection I want to make about “Waiting at the Window” and my mother is the last line:

 

Look! I told you! There’s the sun!

 

She was not a rose-colored glasses lady, never a Pollyanna or even a cheerleader. But she had grit, she had perspective, a sense of humor and a strong faith, and that’s how she carried on. It was her example more than her words that taught us that the sun always does come out, eventually.

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.33.09 PMAlan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) was born in London to a Scottish father and English mother. The family lived at the small private school his father ran, which Milne and his two older brothers attended, and where science-fiction writer H.G. Wells taught. Milne went to Trinity and Cambridge on scholarship. He studied math. At Cambridge he worked on the student magazine Granta and later worked for Punch, the famous British humor magazine.

 

He married in 1913, and served in World War I, although he was a pacifist. In 1920, after the war, he and his wife had a son, Christopher Robin, the inspiration for the boy in Winnie-the-Pooh and several of his poems. In 1934 he published an anti-war book, Peace With Honor, but later he served in World War II.

 

Milne played on a cricket team with J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame, and Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock. It’s hard to imagine three such different writers playing a sport together. (A challenge to readers: come up with your own unlikely writerly sports team.)

 

He wrote thirty-four plays, seven novels, including detective fiction, five books of nonfiction and the books of verse already mentioned. His most famous creation, Winnie the Pooh, has been translated into over fifty languages (in Russia he’s Vinne the Poohk) including Latin.

 

There’s an upcoming biopic of Milne, starring Domhall Gleeson (Bill Weasley in Harry Potter films, among other roles) and Margot Robbie as his wife. The film will examine the affect of international fame on the Milne family. Can’t say it sounds particularly gripping or interesting.

 

Milne had a stroke in 1952 and never recovered well. Brain surgery left him partially paralyzed, and being an invalid took a toll on his personality and his family relations. His lingered three more years and died in early 1956.

 

I dreaded writing this post and cried many times writing it. But I feel better having finished. If you’ve stuck with me through all these long paragraphs, many thanks again.

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15 Comments

  1. Ann Murray

    Maggie
    That was a beautiful tribute to your Mom. Take care, enjoy the memories and know that time does heal. ❤️☀️
    Love, Ann

  2. mabailey23@aol.com

    Maggie:

    I am so sorry to hear about your Mother’s passing. I can’t say that it ever gets easier but I imagine my Mom in my pocket. (She is with me always.)

    Just so you know…I plan on sticking with you through all the long paragraphs to come.

    Much love to you and your family, Monica

  3. Colleen Hittson

    Maggie,
    So beautifully written….a wonderful remembrance of your Mom. Your memories will continue to give you peace…until the sun comes out again.
    Colleen Hittson

  4. Theodora

    I’m so sorry for your loss <3 But thank you for this post. I found the poem funny and cute, and I had never heard of those books. Most of all though I loved how you phrased this about her personality: "She was not a rose-colored glasses lady, never a Pollyanna or even a cheerleader. But she had grit, she had perspective, a sense of humor and a strong faith, and that’s how she carried on. It was her example more than her words that taught us that the sun always does come out, eventually." That's a gift she had, and you were lucky to experience it, and talented to phrase it!
    Wishing you strength and patience xo

  5. Chotzi Van Bemmel

    I’m 90 & so very grateful for your expression of love for your mom it’s nice to know how much children care &
    you said thru poetry your love for your mom. Thank you for all your poems you post.
    A fledgling poet.

    1. poemelf

      Chotzi, to be 90 and a “fledgling” anything is a wonderful testament to your life spirit! Thank you for your comments, and keep on fledgling!

  6. Kelly

    Love, peace and prayers to you my friend! What a beautiful legacy, what a beautiful spirit, what a wonderful example for all of us, a reminder to live life with joy! Thank you for sharing. So sorry for your loss and heartache.

  7. Maureen Apap

    What a lovely tribute to your mom-she sounds like an amazing woman. I’m really sorry for your loss-love & prayers to you and your family

  8. Alice Gordon

    I am so happy that you remember your mother with joy. That is what will last. My mother died in 2000 when I was 60 and I still miss her. We are never old enough to lose our mothers. Peace to you and yours.

  9. Jan Porter

    What a beautiful, thoughtful and emotional tribute to your mother. As I am soon to be 70, I think more often now of how I will be remembered by my children. Although you are experiencing much grief, it is because she was such a source of comfort – a comfort that will follow you through the rest of your life. This is the way I wish to be remembered. Thank you for thinking so unselfishly of your reader by including your poem selection process and the background on A.A. Milne. Though I enjoy poetry, I’m not one to sit and read it, so I relish the lovely little snippets you send and the somewhat mischievous thought of passersby discovering your plants. Blessings!

  10. Amy

    What beautiful words about your mom, Maggie.. I really enjoyed your poem elf blog. Hang in there. I wish I would have met her– I love to laugh.

    Enjoy your weekend– please give Brooke and Renee my best. I’m sorry to miss it.

    Amy

  11. hunterk8kk@aol.com

    Maggie,
    What a lovely tribute to your mom! I know its been years since Ive seen you and your mothers smiling face, but I do remember her sweetness! What a beautiful woman, who raised a wonderful family. I’m so glad I found your blog! What great memories of the Hathaway family. I hope our paths will cross again someday, so we can reflect on the great memories of DeChantal days!

    Kate (Hunter) Kieffer

  12. Trish Rawlings

    Maggie, it was so nice reading about your mom. I knew she HAD to have been special to conjure such a great person as yourself–with a bit of help from your dad, of course!–and that big band of siblings and now grandchildren.

    They say we inherit ourselves; your mom’s spirit certainly seems to permeate the family she and your dad built and shaped and reflect who they were and, in a sense, continue to be.

    We grieve because we care so deeply. They feel, when the pains and pangs strike the hardest, to be no part of love or care but only of sadness and negativity. The thing is to grasp that they are related absolutely and embrace the one as we embrace the other.

    (I hope she knew how special she had to have been to have made you. I’m sure she did.)

    trish

  13. Sherry

    Sorry to hear about the death of your mother. Your writing brings her alive to many people who did not know her. I know how hard it is to write about something so intimate, but you really made her seem quite lovely, someone who would be a joy to know. There is too little joy in the world not to celebrate the life of someone who could increase it with their wonderful sense of how to make the ordinary things in life sparkle.

    I’m sending a poem to you that has brought me comfort many times since I lost my mother.

    Late Fragment

    And did you get what
    you wanted from this life, even so?
    I did.

    And what did you want?
    To call myself beloved, to feel myself
    beloved on the earth.

    Raymond Carver

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