I’m embarrassed to say that I had never read anything by Ellen Bass until last week, when one of my lovely students (thank you, Ann!) e-mailed me this poem after it had been featured on Writer’s Almanac. (I’m reprinting it here with the author’s permission.)
After Our Daughter’s Wedding
While the remnants of cake
and half-empty champagne glasses
lay on the lawn like sunbathers lingering
in the slanting light, we left the house guests
and drove to Antonelli’s pond.
On a log by the bank I sat in my flowered dress and cried.
A lone fisherman drifted by, casting his ribbon of light.
“Do you feel like you’ve given her away?” you asked.
But no, it was that she made it
to here, that she didn’t
drown in a well or die
of pneumonia or take the pills.
She wasn’t crushed
under the mammoth wheels of a semi
on highway 17, wasn’t found
lying in the alley
that night after rehearsal
when I got the time wrong.
It’s animal. The egg
not eaten by a weasel. Turtles
crossing the beach, exposed
in the moonlight. And we
have so few to start with.
And that long gestation—
like carrying your soul out in front of you.
All those years of feeding
and watching. The vulnerable hollow
at the back of the neck. Never knowing
what could pick them off—a seagull
swooping down for a clam.
Our most basic imperative:
for them to survive.
And there’s never been a moment
we could count on it.
Whoa. I love this: “The vulnerable hollow/ at the back of the neck. Never knowing/ what could pick them off—a seagull/ swooping down for a clam.”
I love when something falls into my lap (or inbox) that speaks to something else I’m reading and thinking about. When I read this last week, I had just finished talking about Julie Schumacher’s essay “A Support Group is My Higher Power” with my advanced Mother Words class. (I will review Julie’s first novel, The Body is Water, here at some point in the future. She has also written four wonderful young adult novels and a collection of short stories.)
“A Support Group is My Higher Power” is about faith and acknowledging how little we can do to protect our children. The essay describes where/how Schumacher found strength during her daughter’s struggle with serious depression. She writes:
Most of us, taking measure of that world, make a series of promises to our children when they’re very young: I will protect you. I will help you to make sense of your experience. You will not be alone.
As our children grow up and away from us, inheriting the world’s complications, we discover how poignant and futile those promises are. We begin to suspect that our love for our children, although essential, is also inadequate, because no matter how fervently we love them, we can’t keep them from harm.
Back to Bass: “Our most basic imperative:/ for them to survive./ And there’s never been a moment/ we could count on it.”
Back to Schumacher: “In banding together to tell the truth about our own and our children’s suffering, we have found resilience; and we have kept the terrible vacant loneliness at bay. Our belief in ourselves as parents has been compromised, but that’s probably all right. Most of us aren’t looking for certainty anymore so much as a complicated acknowledgment of what is.”
I think all parents have that realization at some point: we cannot protect our children forever; we cannot count on their survival. What we can do: hope and pray (if you are a person who prays) and do our best.
My family is not a family that prays. We say grace before dinner only if my dad has joined us, and only then because my dad is an ordained minister. But recently, I’ve felt the need to mark dinner, mark coming together at the end of a hectic day, with something, so before we eat, we now go around the table and name one thing for which we are thankful. The other night Stella said, sounding so grown up, “I am thankful for Zoë and our home and our family.” My heart nearly broke with love.
Today I am thankful for Ellen Bass and Julie Schumacher, for all the writers who write the difficult and beautiful and heartbreaking truth about motherhood.
I know that many of you who read this blog have had a very difficult year, have experienced intense losses: a child, a sister, an aunt, a mother. I know that some of you have lost your good health, that you have been in and out of the hospital, missing your children as you sleep in cold white rooms. I count you among the things and people for which I am thankful this year, and for you I hope for relief, for some kind of quiet.