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. — "The Lanyard" by Billy Collins

I rarely watch television, so it was by chance one afternoon that I happened to have the pleasure of catching Billy Collins reading his touching and funny poem "The Lanyard." His name, I found out, is really William James Collins, and among his many accomplishments, he served two terms as poet laureate of the United States.

If you haven't read his poem, you really should. You can watch him read it on YouTube.com.

The poem conveys such depth of feeling regarding the mother-child relationship that I decided it would be the perfect poem to read as a tribute to my mother on her 88th birthday last week.

In reality I never made her a lanyard and I didn't go to camp until I was an adult.

Still, that poem expresses the profound appreciation I feel as I think about this now-fragile but dedicated mother of mine who will soon be in her 90s. Always a comely woman with her beautiful silver hair, she is fortunate to still be clear-eyed and conversational.

The past few years have taken their toll, and her body is beginning to be a bit shaky and crooked.

This is hard to watch happen because she always stood straight and tall, having been trained on the drill team at Davis High School in Kaysville. She tells the story of how each year they traveled to Provo for the state competition, worried that Tooele would outperform them, but each year they won state.

I have a photo of her in her drill team outfit with my dad, his arm around her shoulders, leaning against a then new model-T Ford.

She was born into the Adams family that settled Layton.

The family fortunes ebbed and flowed.

By the time my mother, Mary Ann, arrived as the ninth child in a family that would be 13, times were getting harder.

She grew to womanhood during the worst part of the Great Depression.

As a farm child she knew hard work and has memories of riding their horse, Old Birdie, and pulling the plow so her brothers could plant seeds.

She tried so hard and cringed when her father would call to her, "Straighter rows, Mary." She longed not to be sun-browned and roughened from the labor that was necessary, but there was always love and basic sustenance, which was more than many families had.

There was also the canal in which they could go swimming every summer — as good as a fancy pool.

When I was growing up she would sing us happy songs, sad songs and silly songs — we were always singing. When she wasn't singing, she would hum — totally unaware she was doing it.

I inherited this trait that amuses my children and grandchildren as much as it used to amuse me to watch her staring into space a million miles away, unaware she was humming.

In April 2000 she lost her best friend, my father, Gorin Steed.

That is the worst part of growing older, the loneliness that comes from losing one by one the companionship of your peers who know the "real you," the one you carry in your head.

After raising her family she went back to her art, a talent she tucked away for later.

Teaching others to paint both in her home and at Parkinson Studios in Ogden, her talent was finally shared.

She has two paintings hanging in the Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City, and many more hanging in banks and mortuaries because her beautiful flowers give a serene and comforting feeling to the observer.

The closing lines of Collins' poem capture a universal truth that makes the listener nod his head in recognition:

"And here, I wish to say to her now, is a smaller gift — not the archaic truth that you can never repay your mother, but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands, 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."

And so, with this column instead of a lanyard, I do the same.


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