Forgotten Warmth from a Frosty Childhood

Parenthood and Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”

Larry Parsley / 12.7.22

Can we really love our children unconditionally?” That question provides the title of Ruth Whippman’s autobiographical reflection in last week’s New York Times. The author remembers her mother enrolling her in childhood music lessons, even as she now does the same with her children. Whippman’s American mother, living in London, struggled for acceptance in the “snippy, fraught world of British intellectual society,” and apparently compensated by finding “a tiny smidge of cultural capital” in her daughter’s musical achievements:

As much as anything could, music made me into the person my mother needed me to be, so that she could be the person she needed to be, in order to escape who she actually was.

While she “never truly believed her mother’s love was conditional,” Whippman nevertheless possessed “the nagging suspicion that there was a performance-related bonus in there.” Ouch. Yes, the author is self-reflective about her own parenting, but it still left me feeling sorry for her mom.

My children were quite young at the time when someone posed a hypothetical: I was asked to imagine a time in the distant future when one of my newly married sons, returning from a honeymoon, would chat enthusiastically with his new bride about all the things they would do differently from the homes they grew up in. My home, for example. At the time, that thought experiment sent a shudder through me.

Still, surely, at some point in the halcyon days of our newly-minted marriage, my wife and I had similar conversations. I feel certain I analyzed my childhood with the harshest eye and dreamed of the new home we would jointly create with undiminished optimism. Even if I never vocalized it, the thought bubble was clear: “I will not replicate the mistakes of the sinners who raised me.” Reader, I did. I copied some failures while improvising new ones.

Perhaps this is why I find myself returning to what is, for me, a new find — a poem called “Those Winter Sundays.” First published when I was an infant, it has been hiding in plain sight in poetry anthologies all these years. As an adult son, Robert Hayden’s difficult relationship with his father cannot be completely obscured, and yet he somehow disciplines himself to retrieve his father’s quiet virtues.

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.

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,

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?

On “those winter Sundays” in that angry house of his childhood, the poet’s father woke up early “in the blueblack cold” to start the fire that would eventually warm the whole house. Never mind that his dad’s freezing hands and worn body hurt from the previous six days’ labor.

The poet remembers climbing out of bed and dressing in the now-warm room and sliding on his newly-polished Sunday shoes his dad had made ready for him. At the time, his child’s mind was consumed with all the things that were wrong with that house, the “chronic angers” from the dad who tended the home’s emotional thermostat. Back then, the child was indifferent to the regular sacrifices of that difficult man: “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Perhaps the piercing question of Jesus — “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3) — applies equally to childhood memories of parental failures (many of them painful and much larger than “specks,” to be sure). How often we can spot the minute faults of family members from forty yards, all the while blind to our own blemishes. What a gracious thing to peer, not forty yards but forty years, to see those hidden, priestly offices an imperfect love once performed for us.

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5 responses to “Forgotten Warmth from a Frosty Childhood”

  1. Debra Serio says:

    Oh! Such a complex poem. I have had students grapple with it for years. Many blame the father for the “emotional temperature” of the house. They argue that the thanks do not come because he is feared. Some students say that the father would be softened if gratitude was given. I have had a hard time extending grace to the father. I have taught the fearful child. I know the damage that has been inflicted. I also know the father may carry his own burden. This is why we continue to wrestle with great poetry! So much of life in its meshes!

    • Larry Parsley says:

      These are really great insights, Debra. Glad to hear your students have had such rich and varied experiences with the poem!

  2. Joey Goodall says:

    Thanks for this post, Larry. This has been one of my favorite poems since reading it in college 15+ years ago.

    “What did I know, what did I know
    of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

    Gets me every time.

  3. Vivian says:

    Thank you for your piece. And I love this poem.

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