Labor of Love

Winter house. Free image via Pixabay.
Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden

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?

The unglamorous side of love is often talked about with an immediate recognition of its rewards. Thing is, it doesn't help in making us love better.

What is love anyway? I say the word love with the least amount of confidence. Often I would use the word to mean "like a lot", but we know that it's more than that. There definitely is more weight to it. More layers.

I will leave out the obvious and let you enjoy the poem on your own. What I like to focus on is the word austere. "What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?" It's rare that I see or hear the word in relation to love and loving.

A synonym is simple. But simple has a nice sheen to it. While austere is rather rough, sad, a bit pitiful also, for me. Say austere and I imagine an old man not so pleased to see you because you're not part of the day's plans.

Love, when depicted in art, even in the stories in our own imagination, is fabulous. Dramatic, poetic, or with an expected fanfare. But there is an aspect of love that is not only unglamorous, but austere and, frankly, administrative. Like an office devoid or romance, not even intrigue or the slightest malice. Just this consistent task that you have to commit to day in and day out.

Like watering a plant. Wiping the floor at 5PM. Polishing someone else's shoes. Unlike an office, though, there's no sense of a free time, or there is no free time. It’s a 24-hour thankless job.

If you've seen the series, The Haunting of Bly Manor, there's a beautiful quote in there and I'm sure if you've seen it, you'll know what I'm talking about. But let me repeat it here, because it's worth repeating: "To truly love another person is to accept the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them."

Too much work. No gratitude, the possibility of loss, the assurance of pain. Let's just avoid love altogether, shall we?

As if we can. Going back to my introduction, I can't even recognize love, so how can I stay away from it?

Perhaps another word, actually a phrase that I would like to draw our attention to is in the middle stanza. Fearing the chronic angers of that house. Edward Thomas, whose poem we discussed in a previous episode, has said elsewhere that love is not one emotion, or something to that effect. How I understand it, or how I would like to remember it is that there are many emotional ingredients that make up love, and love isn't always the same at all times. It is malleable. I know, big turn from the word austere.

The father in the poem has driven out the winter cold from the house, but it appears that the relationship with his, let's say, son remains cold. There seems to be a lot of tension in that house.

The poem is in the past tense and the child, the speaker, we can assume has already grown up, speaking from an adult, if more mature and knowledgeable perspective. He says, What did I know, what did I know...?

Maybe he's also coming from a point of regret and realization of what was really happening in that house during those winter Sundays. What his father was really doing for him. Maybe he's experiencing it now with his own son or child.

Now this is the part where I make a disclaimer. I am not a parent. The effect of the poem for me is that it makes me ask, How do we recognize love? And once in its presence, how do we respond to it? If we're on the receiving end, how do we accept it? If we're on the giving end, how do we express it?

Yet another question comes up. How do we ask for it from the people we have come to expect to be our sources of love?


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