Day 119: 10/22/13: On Mothers & Shipwrecks

English: Illustration for "The Wreck of t...

English: Illustration for “The Wreck of the Hesperus” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. From Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People, edited by Mrs. [L.D.] Sale Barker. Published 1885. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another blurred batch of sea poems today. That none of the students chose “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” that morbid Longfellow melodrama that my mother used to recite, left me vaguely disappointed and relieved. No one could have owned “Hesperus” like my mother with her thick Salem Mass. accent. I cannot read it without hearing her voice. The skipper of the Hesperus binds his daughter to the mast during a violent storm. She, being  a rather chatty child, keeps asking the beleaguered old salt questions that he patiently answers until the twelfth stanza:

O father! I see a gleaming light,

Oh say, what may it be?”

But the father answered never a word,

A frozen corpse was he.

In Ma’s dialect, corpse became a very earnest “caawpse” and I had to suppress my delighted laughter or she would not continue to my favorite part:

Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark,

With his face turned to the skies,

The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow

On his fixed and glassy eyes.

I loved the lantern. I loved the snow. I loved the odd repetition of “gleamed” and “gleaming” and I loved death’s glassy stare.

I woke this morning and decided to wear a ring my mother gave me when I was a teenager, a ring I have not worn in years.  Later at my writing workshop, I stared at a pattern on a plate. A Chinese man looked down from an open window to a garden where two women seemed to be gossiping. A road disappeared into the red porcelain distance. I thought of  patterned tea pots and plates and keepsake boxes patterned with gardens, swings, and scenes of muted romance. I thought of a thousand thrift stores and yard sales and auctions, of my mother’s difficult life and her simple joys. I indulged in pre-emptive grieving as if it could shave off a fraction of future dread. I thought of her hands and how every time I see her at the nursing home in Peterborough, New Hampshire, I slip some kind of ring on her finger, a ring with a cloudy green stone or plain silver.

In her confusion, my mother cannot always remember who is alive and who is dead. She can’t write her name. But she can still solve difficult crossword puzzles if you read her the clues. I bet she could remember nearly all of Longfellow’s poem. I remember once she recited it during a power failure on a Christmas night. The falling snow outside seemed to match the snow in the poem. The shadowy candle-lit room felt as cavernous as a ship. I don’t remember how far my mother had gone into the journey of the Hesperus, to the “cruel rocks” or the “bleak sea beach,” only how startled I felt when the lights came on, how lost.

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19 thoughts on “Day 119: 10/22/13: On Mothers & Shipwrecks

  1. Somewhat sad but serene.. I’d say more of the “serene memories”, we could never control life that’s how it is but we can always have that moment of chance to choose to be grateful.
    >>>I love your writing style

    • Yes—serene is an interesting word—some memories do have that calm feeling when we’re recalling them, they seem to unfold that way in the act of remembering. Thanks for reading…

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