—for my children
by David Young
I see her doing something simple, paying bills,
or leafing through a magazine or book,
and wish that I could say, and she could hear,
that now I start to understand her love
for all of us, the fullness of it.
It burns there in the past, beyond my reach,
a modest lamp.
The available biographical information about poet David Young is pretty dry—birthplace, education, publications, awards—but one fact caught my attention, broke my heart in fact. His first wife died after twenty-two years of marriage. They had two children together. At the time of her death, her children would have been very young adults or possibly even still teenagers. With a bit of projection and imagination (having watched a few families endure the same early loss), the dry biographical facts burn like tinder. Those kids, what they missed. That single father, what he went through.
When I first read “Mother’s Day” I assumed that the woman he saw doing something simple, paying bills, was his own mother, and that he dedicated the poem to his children because he wanted them to know a grandmother they might have forgotten or never even known. That’s an assumption easily made by someone who lost her mom six years ago and would give anything to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with her once again on the worn end of her old couch, she doing crossword puzzles, me reading a book. (That’s my son with my mom in the top picture. She’s making fun of his hair, as I recall.)
I feel thick-headed for having misread “Mother’s Day”—now it seems so obvious Young is commemorating his wife—but my misreading holds truth nonetheless. Because it’s not just the children’s mother whose love burns there in the past—it’s their grandmother, and their great-grandmother and their great-great grandmother. Mothers learn to be mothers from their mothers. Mothering is passed down generation to generation like a dominant gene, modified a little here and there over time even as the essential remains—the burning love of family. The fullness of it, Young writes, a simple line that sounds as if emotions are about to overwhelm him, as if, to my ear, he is choking back tears.
I taped this poem above a shelf in my sister-in-law’s kitchen at a recent family gathering. Around the island a few of my sisters and two nieces admire our grand niece Mary Stella. Like my mother, we sisters delight in babies and often express our baby love with affectionate insults. I can just hear my mother calling a baby a fattycake.. . . we daughters have all done the same.
My three sisters-in-law, not pictured, each have their own wonderful way of mothering passed on from their own mothers. Sadly, all three of their mothers, delightful, amazing women, passed away within months of each other in 2021. Now we are a sisterhood ten strong of motherless mothers.
On this Mother’s Day, I send out this poem to all the motherless. May you remember well the glow of your mother’s love; may you know well that her love has formed you and will never be taken from you.
David Young was born in 1936 in Iowa. He went to Davenport University for undergrad and earned his PhD from Yale.
He’s published ten collections of poetry and has worked as a translator of Rilke, Neruda, and several Chinese poets. He’s edited various anthologies and FIELD magazine. He received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA, and won a Pushcart Prize. He is a professor of English at Oberlin College in Ohio where he lives.
Link here for a poem he wrote about the death of Chloe Hamilton, his first wife.