I posted this on my blog on the Red Room writers' website, but I thought I'd post here too, so those who read it (both of you) might see it too. Red Room had a weekly writing challenge/contest to write about your favorite poem - why it has been important in your life, etc.
Here's my entry:
As a teenager and young college student, I couldn’t have been much more alienated from my father. He was the personification of everything that was anathema to me at the time: a crew-cut gun enthusiast, hunter and NRA member with a strict hand and conservative views. Our relationship for many years was chilly at best. Of course, we both mellowed with age, and things thawed out somewhat. It wasn’t till the last years of his life, when heavy smoking took its toll and he lost a leg to circulatory disease, that I realized he wouldn’t be around forever, and it was time to mend fences. I came to recognize that the estrangement we had developed wasn’t entirely his fault. I don’t know if I completely succeeded in reconciling with him, and I wasn’t with him at the end, so I was left with an unsettling feeling of unfinished business. Maybe that’s why Robert Hayden’s gently magnificent poem, “Those Winter Sundays”, speaks to me. Here the narrator recalls his father who, after working all week, got up early on Sunday to make sure his family was comfortable:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
That last sentence, stated so matter-of-factly, is the whole gist of the poem. It made me reflect on my relationship with my own father, and how little I thanked him for providing for my mother, my sisters and me, and the little things that were all but invisible to me at the time.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house…
Boy, did I know about chronic angers of a house! My father was a strict disciplinarian, and that was perhaps one aspect of him that drove me away as I matured. My parents’ marriage was strained, and they separated and divorced after I went away to college. I was elated to leave, and I reveled in my newfound independence.
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?
"Speaking indifferently” so concisely encapsulates the average teenager’s emotional detachment from his or her parents at that time of life, and I was no exception. But then we’re back to the little things the father did for the narrator – warming the house and polishing his shoes. The last two lines are an emotional wallop – what, indeed, did I know about all that went into parenthood, and how much thankless work and drudgery is a part of that? And most importantly, how much of it was driven by love? My father was not a demonstrative man, so I never really factored “love” into the equation. But now, as the parent of four boys myself, it makes so much sense. “Those Winter Sundays” is one of the most moving poems ever written, yet it moves quietly, like a Sunday morning. All that I have left to say is: Thank you, Mr. Hayden. And thank you, Dad.