poems about mothers

2 posts

Poems of Sickness and Hope


At a time when the whole world seems sick, at a time when no one seems able to solve the puzzle and shout, “I’ve got it! The answer!”, at a time when various quacks are offering up various remedies for pandemics, it’s good to know that prayer is always there, stockpiled and plentiful.

Prayer, of course, has religious connotations, but the word is big-tent and willing to accommodate any plea to any higher force. Prayer can simply be a wish in hope’s clothing. Why not?

In the poem “Prayer,” Keetje Kuipers uses the second-person point of view with the pronoun “you.” Some readers object to this because “you” can mean an actual someone else and “you” can also mean a narrator addressing herself.

Me, I have no problem with it because, in my opinion, it works the way the reader wants it to work. That is, it gives the sense that a speaker may be referring to me personally, to everyone in the world, or to herself only. All good.

As for “Prayer,” it could be categorized as a sickness poem or a mother poem. But really, the two can be interpreted as one. Memories of mothers caring for us in childhood run strong and deep as a tap root — so strong and deep that many people, delirious on their deathbeds late in a long life, call out for their mothers, even if that mother has been dead for too many decades to recall.

Both sad and beautiful, that. But for now, let us pray:


Keetje Kuipers

Perhaps as a child you had the chicken pox
and your mother, to soothe you in your fever
or to help you fall asleep, came into your room
and read to you from some favorite book,
Charlotte’s Web or Little House on the Prairie,
a long story that she quietly took you through
until your eyes became magnets for your shuttering
lids and she saw your breathing go slow. And then
she read on, this time silently and to herself,
not because she didn’t know the story,
it seemed to her that there had never been a time
when she didn’t know this story—the young girl
and her benevolence, the young girl in her sod house—
but because she did not yet want to leave your side
though she knew there was nothing more
she could do for you. And you, not asleep but simply weak,
listened to her turn the pages, still feeling
the lamp warm against one cheek, knowing the shape
of the rocking chair’s shadow as it slid across
your chest. So that now, these many years later,
when you are clenched in the damp fist of a hospital bed,
or signing the papers that say you won’t love him anymore,
when you are bent at your son’s gravesite or haunted
by a war that makes you wake with the gun
cocked in your hand, you would like to believe
that such generosity comes from God, too,
who now, when you have the strength to ask, might begin
the story again, just as your mother would,
from the place where you have both left off.

Regrets About Mom


What is the best thing you can do? Like all questions that lack a single answer, it’s worth some thought. Worth some poetry, too, as Ron Padgett found out when he embarked on writing “The Best Thing I Did,” which at least afforded him the luxury of hindsight and the audacity of choosing.

His choice wasn’t bad, either. Nor would yours be, if the word “love” were involved. It seems to be the constant among prophets in all major religions. Love. Against all odds. Despite the easier, more bitter fruits of hate and resentment.

But for Padgett, the love is elemental, reaching back to childhood. The love of a mother. The sacrifice. The willingness to give and not expect anything in return. Let’s see how he expresses it in stanzas:


The Best Thing I Did
by Ron Padgett

The best thing I did
for my mother
was to outlive her

for which I deserve
no credit

though it makes me glad
that she didn’t have
to see me die

Like most people
(I suppose)
I feel I should
have done more
for her

Like what?
I wasn’t such a bad son

I would have wanted
to have loved her as much
as she loved me
but I couldn’t
I had a life a son of my own

a wife and my youth that kept going on
maybe too long

And now I love her more
and more

so that perhaps
when I die
our love will be the same

though I seriously doubt
my heart can ever be
as big as hers


Some people object to a poem’s title also being in the poem itself. This school of thought bridles, especially, at the sight of the title in the first line.

Of course, you can always play the trick of treating the title like it’s the first line, but some people object to that even more.

As a poet, you’re not thinking about objections, though. You’re just trying to wrestle wild and disparate thoughts into a sack—no easy feat.

This poem works because it reflects the tortured mind of its narrator. It is all at once both homage and regret. At least the narrator had the decency to outlive his mother, for no parent ever wants to witness the loss of a child. But really, how much effort did that require?

Then come the wishes, the regrets, the rationalizations: I should have loved her more; I wasn’t so bad, really; I was busy with a wife and son of my own; and, the clincher, “my youth that kept going on / maybe too long.”

Still, now that his mother is gone, the love has only become greater, with the hope that it might actually match hers some day. But that’s all it is: hope. The premise of the poem establishes that it never can. The nobility of the poem professes that it wants so badly to try.

As for Mom, were she alive, she would have cherished this poem above all else. Secretly or not, I think the poet knows as much. It takes a while for meditations to evolve into poetry, after all, and though the poet-narrator’s love may never be a match for his mother’s, surely this is the best “second best” a son can muster.