Motherhood & Words

I’m embarrassed to say that I had never read anything by Ellen Bass until last week, when one of my lovely students (thank you, Ann!) e-mailed me this poem after it had been featured on Writer’s Almanac. (I’m reprinting it here with the author’s permission.)

After Our Daughter’s Wedding

While the remnants of cake
and half-empty champagne glasses
lay on the lawn like sunbathers lingering
in the slanting light, we left the house guests
and drove to Antonelli’s pond.
On a log by the bank I sat in my flowered dress and cried.
A lone fisherman drifted by, casting his ribbon of light.
“Do you feel like you’ve given her away?” you asked.
But no, it was that she made it
to here, that she didn’t
drown in a well or die
of pneumonia or take the pills.
She wasn’t crushed
under the mammoth wheels of a semi
on highway 17, wasn’t found
lying in the alley
that night after rehearsal
when I got the time wrong.
It’s animal. The egg
not eaten by a weasel. Turtles
crossing the beach, exposed
in the moonlight. And we
have so few to start with.
And that long gestation—
like carrying your soul out in front of you.
All those years of feeding
and watching. The vulnerable hollow
at the back of the neck. Never knowing
what could pick them off—a seagull
swooping down for a clam.
Our most basic imperative:
for them to survive.
And there’s never been a moment
we could count on it.

Whoa. I love this: “The vulnerable hollow/ at the back of the neck. Never knowing/ what could pick them off—a seagull/ swooping down for a clam.”

This poem is from Mules of Love, but her newest collection, The Human Line, looks wonderful, as well. I plan on getting both of them.

I love when something falls into my lap (or inbox) that speaks to something else I’m reading and thinking about. When I read this last week, I had just finished talking about Julie Schumacher’s essay “A Support Group is My Higher Power” with my advanced Mother Words class. (I will review Julie’s first novel, The Body is Water, here at some point in the future. She has also written four wonderful young adult novels and a collection of short stories.)

A Support Group is My Higher Power” is about faith and acknowledging how little we can do to protect our children. The essay describes where/how Schumacher found strength during her daughter’s struggle with serious depression. She writes:

Most of us, taking measure of that world, make a series of promises to our children when they’re very young: I will protect you. I will help you to make sense of your experience. You will not be alone.

As our children grow up and away from us, inheriting the world’s complications, we discover how poignant and futile those promises are. We begin to suspect that our love for our children, although essential, is also inadequate, because no matter how fervently we love them, we can’t keep them from harm.

Back to Bass: “Our most basic imperative:/ for them to survive./ And there’s never been a moment/ we could count on it.”

Back to Schumacher: “In banding together to tell the truth about our own and our children’s suffering, we have found resilience; and we have kept the terrible vacant loneliness at bay. Our belief in ourselves as parents has been compromised, but that’s probably all right. Most of us aren’t looking for certainty anymore so much as a complicated acknowledgment of what is.”

I think all parents have that realization at some point: we cannot protect our children forever; we cannot count on their survival. What we can do: hope and pray (if you are a person who prays) and do our best.

My family is not a family that prays. We say grace before dinner only if my dad has joined us, and only then because my dad is an ordained minister. But recently, I’ve felt the need to mark dinner, mark coming together at the end of a hectic day, with something, so before we eat, we now go around the table and name one thing for which we are thankful. The other night Stella said, sounding so grown up, “I am thankful for Zoë and our home and our family.” My heart nearly broke with love.

Today I am thankful for Ellen Bass and Julie Schumacher, for all the writers who write the difficult and beautiful and heartbreaking truth about motherhood.

I know that many of you who read this blog have had a very difficult year, have experienced intense losses: a child, a sister, an aunt, a mother. I know that some of you have lost your good health, that you have been in and out of the hospital, missing your children as you sleep in cold white rooms. I count you among the things and people for which I am thankful this year, and for you I hope for relief, for some kind of quiet.


I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Ines on November 26, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    These words, your words, are absolutely beautiful. I would get this book too. warmly, ia

  2. Andria on November 26, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    Kate, this was so beautiful. It addressed some of the things that have been on my mind, breaking my heart, and making me feel incredibly full of love, lately, too. Thank you for being a wonderful writer who can articulate these things for the rest of us!

    May I post a link to this on my blog?

  3. Elizabeth on November 27, 2008 at 12:13 am

    What a beautiful post, Kate. Thank you so very much. Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Jennifer on November 27, 2008 at 6:46 am

    I love serendipity. I just got my most recent issue of the Sun with an Ellen Bass poem in it. I would have read it anyway, but I’m sure I’ll read it with much more awareness now. Thanks!

  5. kate hopper on November 27, 2008 at 9:38 am

    Thanks, all.

    Andria, of course you can link to it. No need to ask.

    Jennifer, thank you for the reminder! I have my Sun subscription payment on the table! I need to mail it ASAP so I can read Ellen’s poem! Thank you!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. Shannon on November 29, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Hi Kate,

    I’m not sure what to say here, as I feel like I have a lot to say to you but I probably shouldn’t take up too much space. First, thank you for the comments you have left on my blog — I have really appreciated them. Second, I want to tell you that when I first saw my blog name on your sidebar, my heart skipped a beat. I was excited and scared all at once. I couldn’t understand how you had found me (I still don’t really know), as I had been reading blogs incognito (or so I thought). I admire your writing very much, so I was flattered that you would include a non-writer and infrequent poster to one of your blog lists. Thank you for that!

    As you know, I have been taking a course through the Loft, which I’ve been enjoying. I want you to know that I looked into taking your class but it didn’t work with my schedule. Your class sounds great!

    Thank you for the introduction to Ellen Bass — I enjoyed that poem very much. Also, I love your idea of going around your dinner table and saying what you feel grateful for. My husband, daughter and I just did this on Thanksgiving, but I like the idea of doing it more regularly.

    Sorry to be so long-winded. I’ll try to keep it shorter next time!


  7. kate hopper on December 3, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Thank you all. And thank you, Shannon, for posting and for your kind words. I’m happy to have you on my sidebar and I look forward to meeting you in person someday!