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-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air 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-toned 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.
In a touching and funny way, Collins identifies one thing I’m sure all children thought at some point, that we can “repay” our mothers in some sense for all that they do for us. Of course, that’s impossible, but that is, as Collins correctly notes, a “worn truth.” It seems blindingly obvious that we can never repay our mothers. The comic relief in which Collins throws this is wonderful. All the selfless, loving acts of motherhood answered with, “yes, I know, here’s a lanyard.” It’s often said that parenting is a thankless job, and the naivete of children when it comes to gratitude probably does not help.
While I am not a parent, I still think that most mothers (or fathers) would accept that lanyard with thankfulness and joy. I hope you think about selfless love, reader, and enjoy the humor of the poem. We can never repay our mothers, but that’s not important. Love is boundless, and knows no time frame. It makes the world go round, and even when our loved ones are gone, is still as present as that lanyard buried somewhere in a drawer in the house.