Mother’s Day is on its way. I know it’s a loaded weekend for many women, with layers of complicated emotions and expectations and reminders. I understand. Even so, I thought I’d tiptoe into the minefield to share one of my favorite pieces of writing on the subject. Enjoy:

The Lanyard

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

~Billy Collins, from his collection The Trouble with Poetry (you can watch him read this poem himself here)

Happy Mother’s Day, mothers and motherers. Here’s to us and our imperfect, sincere, and well-meaning mothering. And here’s to the imperfect, sincere, and well-meaning token offerings in return.

. . .

What do you understand about your mother now that you didn’t back when you were young?
What  are your favorite “lanyard” offerings you’ve either given or received?


  1. Jennifer

    May 10, 2012


  2. eliana

    May 10, 2012

    I have no deep response for you, though I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my mom when I had a baby and was supposed to take care of it FOREVER. Love this poem.

  3. Ana of the Nine Kids

    May 10, 2012

    I’m not sure WHY this poem is making me cry and cry this morning, but it is. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Sage

    May 10, 2012

    I should know that tears are probable reading Segullah. I’m at my daughter’s gymnastics lobby, tearing up.

    This was an amazing poem.

    My son gave me an ugly keychain with MOM on it. At first I didn’t use it. But then I accepted my calling and used it proudly unil my fourth daughter broke in.

    I recently posted a few things my mom did for me on my blog as I noticed a repeating pattern happening. I titled it Legacy.

    This will be a strange Mother’s Day for me because I won’t be with my 5 kids, instead I’ll be with my Mom. That will be the first time in at least 12 years.

    Thanks for sharing this poem. At least they have tissue boxes in the lobby!

  5. Sarita

    May 10, 2012

    Thanks for sharing this. I love it! This Mark Twain quote sums up how I felt (at times) about both my parents. Mom especially, since she grew up in a foreign country, English her third language, her accent never quite disappearing:

    “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

    What I know now about my mom that I never fully realized growing up, was how brave she is.

    Thanks for the post!

  6. Sarita

    May 10, 2012

    Or, how much more intelligent both my parents are than I was!

  7. annegb

    May 10, 2012

    My mother had hope when she married. She gave me the gift of enjoying music and books.

  8. Cheltz

    May 10, 2012

    I’m not sure that laughing was the proper reaction to this poem, but I did. Thanks!

  9. Annie

    May 10, 2012

    @Cheltz, I think laughing is entirely appropriate (in the link I included, the audience laughs several times). I think Collins wants us to laugh AND feel it deeply, too. Kind of like motherhood, really.

    @Sarita, I love that Mark Twain quote, too. Right now my kids are 18, 16, and 13 so I range from from ignorant to fairly smart right now.

  10. Sage

    May 10, 2012

    My husband laughed when I read it to him.

  11. christine

    May 10, 2012

    This is a hard mother’s day for me. I lost my mom from a sudden and deadly aneurysm 7 weeks ago. I am still grieving though it is getting bearable. We didn’t always get along and I have cried rivers of tears this Spring. I have learned more about her in death than I did in life. It is a bittersweet gift. One day I was crying in the car and I said outloud to Heavenly Father “I just hope she knew I loved her, I hurt her feelings, I know I did, I just hope she knew.” I had beautiful and surprising response when the thought came to me “Well, she hurt your feelings too. And you know she loved you.” I do. She did. She understands, and so does HE.

  12. Laurieann

    May 10, 2012

    Love Billy Collins. Love.

  13. mormonhermitmom

    May 10, 2012

    That’s a good one. Saw it a year ago I think. And I’ve helped young boys make lanyards too.

  14. Annie

    May 11, 2012

    @Christine, thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry to hear about you recent loss of your mom. What a tender epiphany. Wishing you an especially gentle Mother’s Day.

  15. Catherine A.

    May 11, 2012

    Oh Annie, I love this. Collins’ poem is precious. And ends with such a lovely twist. Not the “worn truth” but the “rueful admission” that he actually thought the lanyard would make them even? Hilarious. And yet, I see it in my own young children. They give what they know how to give right now. A piece of themselves, a part of the small world they live in. And I embrace their token offerings.

    I also love your tribute to “mothers” and “motherers.” Wonderfully appropriate on this day laden with complicated emotion for so many.

    I always enjoy your posts, and your wit. Happy Mother’s Day to you!

  16. sandra

    May 12, 2012

    This is one of my favorites as well. Thanks for sharing it.

  17. lanyards

    May 15, 2012

    I know I’m a little late, but this is a great idea for Mother’s Day. It’s a perfect combination of wit and sincerity. If you haven’t seen the youtube video of Billy Collins reading it, everyone should check it out.

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