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Mother’s Day 2009 — A Billy Collins Poem

Written By Administrator On May 9, 2009

Last November I had the pleasure of hearing former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins read some of his work. He was visiting Rollins College as part of its Scholars In Residence program. It was an enjoyable evening of poetry, and if you’re the type who thinks that’s a contradiction in terms, I promise you Billy Collins could change your mind. He has a dry wit and a light but probing style of writing.

One of the poems he read that night was titled The Lanyard. It’s about a boy’s camp-craft gift to his mother, and it resonated with me, I suppose, because I had lost my mother only a few months earlier.

Here’s the poem:

The Lanyard – Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Included in the book “The Trouble with Poetry”.

I have memories of weaving lanyards. I don’t know if I ever gave my mom one, but I know I gave her things equally as useless, like the time I gave her a french fry cutter. It was an oblong square-shaped device with a levered handle. You pulled the handle up, put a peeled potato into the slot, press down hard on the handle and the potato would be pushed through criss-crossed cutters that would shape them instantly into hot-oil-ready sticks. I thought she’d be thrilled. It would be a time-saver for her. I hadn’t stopped to consider that it meant she still had to cook the damn things herself. We kids would sit quietly over at the table and wait for her to finish.

This is my first Mother’s Day with no one to call, or visit, or even give a lousy lanyard to. If you’re still lucky to have your mom, be sure to treat her special Sunday. You can start by taking her to a nice brunch, but remember, no matter how nice it might be, it can never make you even.

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