Sunday, 18 March 2012

'When All the Others Were Away at Mass', by Seamus Heaney

It is Mothering Sunday and a time for us to reflect on those who have cared and nurtured us through childhood and beyond.  My thoughts on this subject are best captured by Seamus Heaney in his wonderful poem, 'Clearances III' dedicated to his mother, Mary Heaney, who died in 1984.  Here the poet considers the moment when he was left alone in the house with his hard-working mother, preparing the Sunday lunch 'while the others were all away at mass.'  He says, 'I was all hers', but we can tell that what he really means is, that she was all his.  In the silence, their knives dip in and out of the water, the two doing a sort of dance together.  In this small, everyday activity, the boy and the mother come together and share a mutual love.  This is the time that Heaney remembers when he thinks of his now deceased mother, the silent moment that he felt closest to her:
'Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives--
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.'
Heaney gives us such little detail, he leaves so much unsaid, but that is the beauty of the poem: the silences.   Everything you need to know about their relationship is there in these few lines:  she is the provider of food, the giver of life, he the adoring son, coming to aid her.  We wonder why they did not have to get mass.  Had she already been, having gone at the crack of dawn, or was she or he at home sick?  Had she been nursing him back to health?  This might be why, later in the poem as his mother is dying, with some sickness of her own, that he returns to this memory.  While the priest beats out the prayers of the dying, it is the silence of that lost moment that he most recalls, that active, vital mother that he most yearns for.
I love that it is that most Irish of vegetables, the humble potato, that binds this silent Irish boy and his mother so closely together; the 'potato' and the 'water' being so symbolic of domestic Irish life.
So, for those of us who have sons and who know too well the beauty of those quiet moments and the simple joy of doing things together, Heaney's words echo like a truth always known.  So, for all those women everywhere, mothers (sisters, daughters, carers, nurses) who keep the world in hot dinners, clean linen, warm hugs, long conversations, bright smiles, empathetic tears, and future generations... this poem is for you.  Happy Mother's Day!

Clearances III  
Taken from 'In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984' by Seamus Heaney.
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives--
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

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