Today’s poem is another childhood memory, related by a fellow teacher to my friend, poet Kathleen Kummer. I find much to admire and like here: the first line which places it so precisely, the questions in the first stanza, that use of the word ‘goosestep’ in the second stanza, the sensory details – sounds, images, smells. The end rhyme is often subtle, and I particularly like the ending. How our view of a person can suddenly shift through something we learn about them.
At the age of two or three in wartime London,
under the table she played alone to the hum
of the sewing machine. Did she ignore the coil,
pastel-coloured, which lengthened with the shadows to fall
over the edge, soon reaching the floor? Or was it
her job to alert her mother when the pink or blue fabric
touched down and risked getting dirty? That this was a lifeline,
she understood: with carrier bags, they arrived
and departed, the strangers who counted out with care
the sixpences, pennies, halfpennies, so much a pair.
Until the table was needed, she built, then demolished,
towers of silver and nasty-smelling copper.
Her mother worked late. She would hear from her bed
the goosestep of scissors through felt or satin, the thread
as it snapped at the end of the long line of shoes, soft shoes
for babies, for feet in mint condition, unused.
Had it seemed like magic the first time the puckered cord
which dangled over the table’s edge was transformed
and became tiny shoes, some with pearl buttons, some
with rosebuds, perfectly paired? That the strangers would come
and take them away, was what she remembered, and her mother
dividing the money, putting some of it in tins for another
rainier day – which is more or less what she told me,
the colleague I hadn’t warmed to previously.