This letter was written five days after my mother died. At her memorial service, I read a poem written by Wallace Stevens.
My mother was always very careful not to criticize me, saying nothing even when she might have wanted to say something. Yet I heard her tell me I had on too much jewelry or the wrong shoes or that a sentence ran 0n or that I parked too close to the wall in the garage or that she did not like one of my friends. With what ears do we hear what people are thinking?
18 April 2004
When I should have been composing the lines of a poem to you,
I was stuck on a word
And the big idea got away from me while I chased down the little thought.
Instead of twenty lines of measured prose readied in a file,
Or ingredients and cooking technique jotted on an index card,
Or a ledger whose columns sum you up,
I have no formula or calculations to sum you up.
I might have made a song with it, the words set to a stolen old folk tune we already knew.
And I didn’t.
I don’t finish things.
I think we drove you nuts when we were little,
But you liked us,
And you liked that we were funny and smart and good at things.
When we grew up,
You found we were interesting, which was worth something,
And maybe even a revelation.
I learned some good curse words from you.
I know you wouldn’t want people to know that.
I also know that you knew I would tell, because that’s what I’m like.
A remarkable specimen of improbable endurance.
The day your mother dies you are unchained from the shackles of your cruelest critic
And you will hear her criticisms in your mind
Until you yourself die.
I can now chew my food
Like the surf chewing rocks.