Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Those Winter Tuesdays

    "It's six below out," I told the back of my younger son's head, as he sat at the computer in the darkened living room, eating a bowl of cereal.
     He mumbled wetly in reply.
     "I'm going to take this recycling to the curb," I continued. "You want me to start the car for you? Warm it up?"
     It was about 6:30 a.m. He'd leave for school in a few minutes.
    "If it can be warmed up," he said, turning. "The heater light hasn't been on." 
    He's been complaining about having to drive such an old car. "A 20 year old car is not a thing," he'll say, trying to explain to me, through logic and figures, that buying a slightly used car is much more economical than continuing to own a car that needs a minor repair every six months. He has not yet convinced me.
    "Or not," I said, moving toward the door. "Up to you."
     He handed me the keys.
     "Tell me if the heater works," he said. 
    It was dark, the moon cast shadows through the trees, the snow was grey and crunched. I ferried a few shopping bags of cans and cardboard to the recycling bin, then opened the garage, got in, started the car, which groaned to life. I backed the sedan up, set it in park, lights on, running. 
     There's a popular poem, "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden. Well, popular might be overstating the case. Popularity is relative, and you could argue that no poems are popular, not compared to, oh, video games. The Columbia University Press called "Those Winter Sundays" "the 266th most anthologized poem in English" which is either high praise or the worst kind of damnation. David Biespiel called it a "heart-wrenching domestic masterpiece" in his essay on the poem on the Poetry Foundation website. 
     The poem begins:

                 Sundays too my father got up early
                 and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold

     I won't reprint the entire 14-line poem—copyright law—but you can read it on the site of the Poetry Foundation, which did get permission, by clicking here. The father pokes the fire into life, calls his son into the warm room. "No one ever thanked him," Hayden notes.
     There is,  I realize, an element of self-justification in my quoting Hayden's poem, like those successful businessmen who love to quote Teddy Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" as an attempt to stifle valid criticisms against them. The Hayden poem is not a perfect fit. I am not a laborer whose hands ache. Our house does not seethe with unspoken anger, at least I hope it doesn't.
     No matter. As I backed the car out, I thought, justified or not, of the poem's great closing lines, as the son recalls his father long ago. I think I can get away with quoting them here.

                 Speaking indifferently to him,
                 who had driven out the cold
                 and polished my good shoes as well.
                 What did I know, what did I know
                 of love’s austere and lonely offices?

     I went back inside, stamped the snow off my shoes.

     "How is it out there?" he asked.
    "Not bad,"  I said. 
    "The car going?" he said.
     I looked at him. Handsome. Trim. Seventeen. 
     "You have a button half done on your sweater," I said, pointing to one big blue button not quite pushed through its buttonhole. He looked down, annoyed at first then. Then seeing that what had been said contained some grain of truth, apparently, despite being spoken by his father, pushed the button all the way through.
    We looked at each other.
     I thought of filling the silence with, "The phrase you're groping for is, 'Thank you.'" But that what good would that do? And, besides, it was unnecessary. No one raises a kid for the thanks. 


  1. A two-fer. What a welcome surprise!

    I knew you could find something funny in the flu and the telephone gag worked well. I've had the same experience enough times to suspect that people answering phones try not to get stuck with the caller who's seething from a long wait.


  2. A lot of parents don't get it. You do.
    Barbara Palmer
    P.S. What is John talking about? Did I miss something?

    1. Neil also wrote a separate piece that appeared in today's Sun-Times.

      Read it and weep...for the billions of minutes wasted on hold.


    2. I wrote this yesterday, thinking I would call in sick to the paper. But then I wrote a column while on hold to the doctor's office which is in today's paper. I thought I'd post it tomorrow.

    3. I misspoke: not all minutes on hold are wasted.


  3. A fine poem and application of it by our blog craftsman / wordsmith.

    "No one ever thanked him." Not being a father, myself, I read this from the son's perspective. And feel guilty.

  4. Beautiful. You should run this every Father's Day...

  5. YOu spoiled your kids. I would have demanded a Thank You or do less for them. Ask them where their manners are. Or not buy them a car and have them use a school bus. As for the flu shot column in the SunTimes, you should have gotten one in fall.

  6. When you get to docs office you should gripe about the long hold, not just to front desk but to the doctor too, and office manager.

  7. Lovely. Someday, thanks ....maybe. You have set a high bar for your men, and of course they need to push back and reject you to have the courage to fly away. My wish for you is that you are healthy long enough to see some of the cocksure arrogance fade as they deal with a broader world- of family, finances, and cruel chaos in the news. If you are, you will see a grudging thank you; you may never hear it.

  8. Thanks for re-posting!



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