Poetry by memory

Earlier this week my mum mentioned that it would have been her father’s 104th birthday. It shocked me to realise how long ago he passed away… more than a decade and a half. Despite not having many memories of my younger years (I’m told I had a happy childhood and the photos certainly support that!), I’ve retained strong impressions of my grampa. They’re mostly fleeting images or smells or a remembered turn of phrase or tone of voice; often comforting and rarely complete. And sometimes those memories arise at strange times.

I started a Creative Writing Postgraduate Diploma at the University of York last month and our first ‘creative’ assignment was to write a poem inspired by a memory. The first memory that struck me was grampa (my mum’s dad) coming in from his workshop (which was also our garage) for his morning tea. I remember the smells of sawdust, the teabags always used at least twice, the small interactions with me, my mum, my brother.

Writing this poem was a humbling experience. (Prior to this assignment, I cannot remember when I last tried my hand at poetry… high school maybe?) The words did not flow easily. I struggled with syllables. The metre was troublesome. I nearly abandoned any rhyme scheme when it started to seem forced. After about four hours, though, I settled on the lines below.

It felt both aggravating It took four damn hours to write a poem?!? and amazing Wow – I wrote a poem in four hours! Ultimately channeling memories of grampa into poetic form was remarkably satisfying—and I’m very pleased to share the end product.

Carpenter’s teatime

Mum’s put on the kettle, it must be half-past ten.
She’s laid out mugs, milk, spoons, the tea
—always Tetley, never Lipton.

Grampa smells of varnish, coveralls daubed with shellac.
His boots mark each sawdusty step
With wood crumbs on the front-hall mat.

He swirls the mildly burnished brew ‘round the mug and
Sets the wet teabag by the sink.
A second dunk is cash in hand,
I know that’s what he thinks.

Waste not want not, true for kitchen and in the ‘shop.
Wood scraps saved, stones turned into soup,
So careful with every last drop.

A brief pause for two weak cups and a hand-rolled smoke,
Then grampa’s back to the garage,
Creating magic out of oak.

An original poem by Laura Matheson © 2020

2 thoughts on “Poetry by memory”

  1. Hi Laura: I read this when you originally sent it out and again today. I think it captures your grandfather very well, I feel like I know him a little from your words. “Waste not, want not” was a saying from my parent’s generation too – survivors of the great depression. And now we will be survivors of the great pandemic of 2020 – I wonder what the sayings that endure from it will be? Food for thought for another poem.


    1. Thanks Phyllis! Interesting question about the linguistic legacy of coronazeit. I hope that ‘hamstering’ catches on in the English-speaking world 😉 although I’m not sure I’m motivated to write a poem about stocking up on dry pasta and toilet paper!

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