My young sons Henry and Philip used to want some kind of performance from me at bedtime. For many years it was enough to read to them, but at some point they tired of picture books. I then tried telling anecdotes, but the ones the boys longed to hear again and again wore on me a bit. Frankly, there are only so many times I like to recount how my mother tricked me into drinking a raw egg by concealing it in a delicious chocolate milkshake.

Telling the boys historical tales worked well for a little while, but my knowledge of history is mostly confined to the effects of the plague upon medieval Europe, the machinations of Henry the Eighth, and the misdeeds of Caligula. Having a seven-year-old who can recite the differences between, say, the septicemic and pneumonic forms of plague is not viewed by most people as proof of thoughtful parenting. Moreover, children may express a surprising tolerance for some of Caligula’s demands, such as his edict that the people of Rome refrain from bathing for a year. There is something about throwing a spotlight onto a person that makes the credulous feel that individual is someone to emulate. Sadly, my taste in history has tended only toward the study of villains and disasters, and thus is unsuited to be shared overmuch with children.

Joke books helped for a while. There’s probably some kind of bad karma I had to work off by having to read hundreds of “Yo mama” jokes to my own children. I like to think I have thus atoned for some small portion of what I made my mother endure.

But finally Henry and Philip grew bored with riddles and knock-knock jokes. I decided to try poetry. I figured, “Hey, they’re ten now. We don’t have to read about daisies and butterflies. They can hear the real stuff.”

I pulled from a bookshelf my copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems, and I felt quite cleverly parental as I skipped all the poems about suicide and about how the brains of men are eaten by maggots. I decided to read to the boys “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.” My mother had loved this poem, and she’d read it aloud to her sister over the phone when they were both in their eighties, living thousands of miles away from each other, and neither of them far from death. So in choosing this poem I thought, in my own foolish way, that it was a way to bring my own mother back into the room and back to the grandsons she’d adored.

Not that my sons would know that.

But I would know that.

“The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” is a long poem about the devotion between a mother and her son. Both of them are poor and hungry and freezing to death during the winter. The mother burns up most of the furniture to keep them warm, and the boy can’t go outside because he has no clothes. Then, on Christmas Eve, the son awakens to find his mother magically making clothes for him by playing the harp. The son falls asleep again and wakes up in the morning to witness a transformation.

Henry and Philip seemed tranquil enough until I got to the end of the poem:

There sat my mother
With the harp against her shoulder,
Looking nineteen,
And not a day older,
A smile about her lips,
And a light about her head,
And her hands in the harp-strings
Frozen dead.
And piled up beside her
And toppling to the skies,
Were the clothes of a king’s son,
Just my size.

I now know what my kids look like when they are truly stunned.

“She’s DEAD?” Henry asked.

“She’s DEAD?” Philip repeated.

“Yeah,” I said, feeling a trifle defensive. “It’s not a kid’s poem. It’s for grown-ups.”

“I can see why,” said Philip.

“I’m waking you up tonight,” said Henry.

My mother’s spirit, no doubt laughing merrily, fled the room.

The next evening found me opening up the old book of knock-knock jokes.


Photo: BedTime Stories by Renee