The poem is about a boy making his mother a lanyard at summer camp and realizing that his meager gift could never come close to compensation for all his mother did for him. But, at the same time, he knows that because she is his mother, it isn’t only enough, it makes them even.
Even though I’m a mother three times over, I still read the poem from the young boy’s perspective, knowing I can never repay or thank my own mom adequately for all she did for me. But also knowing that anything I do is somehow enough. Something about that parent/child relationship makes the inequity fair. With Mother’s Day tomorrow the poem feels especially poignant.
"The Lanyard” by Billy Collins
...I sat at a workbench at 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.