This poem explores the nature of the relationship between mother and her children. “She” refers to the mother which is the first person voice of conscious, the “I” for the first three stanzas. However, it changes to the third person, “She” in the fourth and final stanza. The tone of the title is one of apathy as the children seem not to care about who their mother was. It reflects a lack of genuine understanding of the mother on the children part. The sense of distance between the mother and child is a recurring theme in this poem. From the very first line
They see me always as a flickering figure
on a shilling screen.
‘Flickering’ suggests something as insubstantial and weak as a flame that is about to be extinguished. ‘Shilling’ alludes to something defunct and archaic as it is a form of currency that is no longer in usage. The ‘f’ alliteration in ‘flickering figure’ and the ‘s’ alliteration in ‘shilling screen’ serves to reunite both descriptions of the relationship between the mother and children as distant. In addition to the first line, the penultimate line of the first stanza also refers to children as ghost. Again, ghosts are unearthly beings; the metaphor of ghosts suggests something distant from life and reality. The sense of distance is further enhanced by the medium of communication between mother and child, which is the telephone. The distance between the mother and children is remote to the extent that they communicate not face to face, but through an indirect medium. Also, an aspect of the distance between mother and child is also shown through their speech. From
Of magic words repeatedly
The ‘magic words’ meaning ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ characterized their relationship as something oddly formal. It seems as though the relationship between the mother and children is devoid of actual warmth. The mother is actually just a robot, a functionary machine that only knows how to do household chores. The poem is heavily suffused with imagery of household chores. This includes firstly, the washing of cloths, in which the hands of the mother ‘still wet sprouts wooden pegs’. Secondly, the olfactory imagery of “apple (pie)’ burning baked by the mother. Thirdly, folding paper dollies, cleaning the wounds of children who have hurt themselves, preparing food “ boiling eggs for soldiers.
The series of household chores seems to have entirely consumed the mother’s existence, as she lived not for herself, but for the children. The action of destruction by her children is fully realized as ‘six silly ladies (are) torn in half with baby fists. Perhaps, the dominance of her children made her lose her own identity as her maiden name sounds wrong and she turn over it with a clumsy tongue.
“She” ‘Whoever she was’ at the beginning of the fourth and final stanza reverting the first person voice of previous stanzas and brings us back to the title at the start. It represents a cycle of life, as the children grew up through the process of the poem, from the early ‘little voices’, ‘baby fists’ to the grown up children with their mother reminiscing about the past with the emphasis on the past tense ‘was’ in ‘This was the playroom’ and the mother ‘making masks from turnips in the candlelight’ in case they (the grown up children) comes. The wide eyes of the children suggest one of bewilderment and amazement as the children finally realized that their mother is something more than a dead machine, ironically when the mother is actually dead as the mother fashioned a church and steeple in the air and the children are left with a box of dusty presents to confirm her existence.
It is a tragedy as the mother they neglected and thought of only as a household chores robot in life is the very same mother they will miss and ‘remember the little things’ when she is gone. She is only acknowledged by her children with “Mummy’s never wrong’, when she is gone.
You open your dead eyes to look in the mirror which they are holding to your mouth.
The action of holding the mirror to one’s mouth is actually to check if the person is respiring, or whether she is dead by the condensation of water on the mirror by the warmth of one’s breath.
“you’ in this case could refer to the mother, who gains a rebirth in the minds of her children as she open her dead eyes or it might be the children who finally realized what a great and self sacrificial mother they have. It could be a optimistic ending, or the sad one, depending on one’s interpretation.