May 9, 2010

The Stapler

by Ron Padgett

When my mother died
she left very little: old clothes,
modest furniture, dishes, some
change, and that was about it.
Except for the stapler. I found it
in a drawer stuffed with old bills
and bank statements. Right off
I noticed how easily it penetrated
stacks of paper, leaving no bruise
on the heel of my hand.
It worked so well I brought it home,
along with a box of staples, from
which only a few of the original 5000
were missing. The trick is remembering
how to load it—it takes me several minutes
to figure it out each time, but I persist until
Oh yes, that's it! Somewhere in all this
my mother is spread out and floating
like a mist so fine it can't be seen,
an idea of wafting, the opposite of stapler.

"The Stapler" by Ron Padgett, from How to be Perfect. © Coffee House Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Mother's Day.

It was on this day in 1994 that Nelson Mandela (books by this author) was elected as the first president of a democratic South Africa. He had served 27 years in prison for his political opposition to apartheid government. Word of Mandela's win spread quickly, and across the country people poured out into the streets to dance the toyi-toyi [pronounced "dooey-dooey"], a dance of solidarity that originated in Kenya as an expression of defiance against the English colonists, and which had been used throughout the struggle to end apartheid. Mandela himself was at the Carlton Hotel in downtown Johannesburg, and he danced across the room with Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., and echoed his words by announcing that South Africa was "free at last!"

It's the birthday of a man who was deeply influenced by his mother, James Matthew Barrie, J.M. Barrie, (books by this author) born in Kirriemuir, Scotland (1860). His most famous story, Peter Pan, begins, "All children, except one, grow up."Barrie invented Peter as a small role in his novel The Little White Bird (1902), but he liked the character so much that he wrote a play based on him, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, which had its debut in 1904. He expanded the play and published it as the novel Peter and Wendy (1911), which was eventually called just Peter Pan. It's the story of a boy named Peter who lives in a kingdom called Neverland and never grows up. At night, he comes to London, to the district of Kensington, and listens in on the Darling family's bedtime stories. One day, Mrs. Darling catches him and takes his shadow, and Peter comes back to find it but in the process he wakes up young Wendy Darling. She sews it back on, and she and her brothers, Peter and Michael, go with Peter to Neverland. There, Wendy acts as a mother to the Lost Boys, abandoned boys Peter found in Kensington Gardens and brought home with him to his magical kingdom. They have all sorts of adventures — fighting the evil Captain Hook, playing with mermaids, meeting the Princess Tiger Lily and the fairy Tinkerbell.

J.M. Barrie had a strange childhood himself. He was the ninth of 10 children born to his parents — two died before he was born. His family, a bunch of fierce Scottish Calvinists, placed a heavy emphasis on education. He had two older brothers — the first had graduated at the top of his class and opened a school, and the other, David, was his mother's favorite, smart and handsome and athletic. But David died in a skating accident just before his 14th birthday, when James was six years old. His mother was devastated and wouldn't get out of bed. She just wanted to talk about David and hear about him, and when James would come into her room, she would ask if it was David. He dressed in David's clothes and tried to whistle exactly like him to make his mother feel better, but it was never enough. She fell asleep speaking to her dead son and was obsessed with thinking about him, day or night. Barrie said, "When I became a man and he was still a boy of 13, I wrote a little paper called 'Dead this Twenty Years,' which was about a similar tragedy," but it was the only thing he ever wrote that his mother refused to acknowledge.

So one way that Barrie's mother inspired Peter Pan was by creating in her own reality a boy who was always 13, who never grew up. But she also spent hours and hours telling James stories of her own girlhood. She was only eight years old when her mother died, at which point she became the mistress of the house, cooking and cleaning and acting as mother to her own little brother, even when she was really still a girl herself. So he took this version of his mother and made her into Wendy, who goes to Neverland in order to act as a mother for the Lost Boys, who can't remember their own.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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