June 25, 2016


Grateful for all who serve in ‘love’s austere and lonely offices’

By JOHN GLADDEN | Staff Columnist

Our old farmhouse has few luxuries. It has extravagant woodwork, for one, and good airflow through the gaps in its doors and windows — providing a level of ventilation airtight new homes can only envy.

Its big luxury is a woodstove. It’s a luxury because we don’t really need it. We have a furnace to keep us warm — although the stove does help with the heating bills. Making time to cut and split and carry wood is a luxury for me. When you have an office job, it feels good to get outside and do honest work.

Wood heat itself is luxurious. It radiates through the skin, restores weary muscles and soaks into tired bones. The sight of the fire through the glass door and the light smell of wood smoke in the house heals the spirit. I seem to get more out of staring into the fire than I ever do from staring at the television. It’s at these times an English major’s thoughts often turn to poetry.

When I wake in the night or in the early morning dark to add wood to the fire, I open the stove door, take the poker, and stir the hot orange coals. Half asleep as I am, it almost never fails to remind me of a poem I learned in college, “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden:

Sundays too my father got up early / and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, / then with cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather made / banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. / When the rooms were warm, he’d call / and slowly I would rise and dress, / fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him, / who had driven out the cold / and polished my good shoes as well. / What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?

I think about those last words — “love’s austere and lonely offices” — all the time. Some who study “Those Winter Sundays” hang on the line, “fearing the chronic angers of that house,” and read darker meaning into the family relationships at the center of the poem. All I can say is it is complex and multi-layered, as all good poems should be. It can mean whatever you would like it to mean.

Me, as I am stirring the burned-down fire back to life, feeling the warmth on my face, while everyone in the house is still asleep, I think of all those who serve in love’s austere and lonely offices for me and for us all.

I think of my wife, who folds laundry and does the supper dishes each night — without being asked and usually without being thanked. All the unremembered times when I was a baby that caring hands fed me and gave me a bath. The paychecks brought home so I could have shoes, food and a bicycle. My Sunday school teachers, vacation Bible school volunteers, youth baseball coaches and Scout leaders.

Once you start thinking about “love’s austere and lonely offices,” it’s not hard to come up with a long list of them.

The retiree who trims the shrubs at the church and weeds the garden. The woman who can no longer drive but sits at home and faithfully mails birthday cards to everyone she knows. The single parent who bears up under a heavy load. The ladies who cook the funeral dinners.

The wife who patiently dresses her husband, who has been felled by a stroke. The husband who carefully does his wife’s hair and make-up for her, when she no longer can do it for herself.

The daughter who lays out her elderly mother’s meals and medicine. The mom who lies awake, thinking of her son in Iraq. The dad who sits up, waiting for his daughter to arrive safely home. The driver who takes her frail neighbor to the grocery and doctor appointments. Hospice volunteers.

The VFW and American Legion honor guards who make sure every veteran is honored with one final salute. Those who put flowers on the graves, go to the nursing homes and visit the jails. Those who give, those who do their duty, those who go above and beyond the call.

Love’s austere and lonely offices. What do we know of them? Enough to be grateful, enough to be inspired, enough to say thank you.

Gladden may be contacted at gladden@ohio.net or 330-721-4052.