but I remember sitting alone on the brown couch in my grandmother’s living room, couch whose cushion covers were of velvet and the color of dark rust, or dried blood —and sewn by the tailor from up the block, the same one who made me my first light blue suit two years earlier And I sat there running my hands back and forth over the short smooth hairs of the fabric and understanding what touch meant for the first time—not touch, the word, as in don’t touch the hot stove or don’t touch your grandfather’s hats but touch like Tom Jones was singing it right then on the television, with a magic that began in his hips, swiveled the word and pushed it out through his throat into some concert hall somewhere as a two-syllabled sprite, so that women moaned syllables back in return. And I knew I wanted to touch like that because Tom Jones stooped down at the edge of the stage and a woman from the audience in a leopard-print jumpsuit unfurled from her front row seat, walked like a promise of what I couldn’t quite discern up to him and pushed her mouth soft and fast up against his mouth and they both cooed into his microphone mouths still move-moaning together like that for an eternity. And then Tom Jones unlocks his mouth from hers while my breath is still caught in my throat, and moves to the other end of the stage, and squats there, and kisses another woman from the audience in a black jumpsuit, while the first woman looks on, swaying so slightly I almost can’t tell—to the band which is still vamping the chorus line— mesmerized and taut with expectation as I am, palms down on the velvet-haired cushions and Tom pauses, sensing the first woman’s impatient almost-mewling and says Easy Tiger while he moves his mouth against this woman’s, his cheeks working like tiny bellows, before returning to the first one and then the bridge or the chorus or whatever—at that point the song is an afterthought, and I knew there was a mission to be fulfilled—Tom Jones pointed to the women and said touch and the new color TV made everything shimmer with promise so my eight year old body preened and stretched itself against the ecstatic couch and dreamed of what tomorrow could be like if I could make touch mean so many things, if I could make a building or a body coo like this.
Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.
Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.
And cats die. They lie on the floor and lash their tails,
And their reticent fur is suddenly all in motion
With fleas that one never knew were there,
Polished and brown, knowing all there is to know,
Trekking off into the living world.
You fetch a shoe-box, but it's much too small, because she won't curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
—mothers and fathers don't die.
And if you have said, "For heaven's sake, must you always be kissing a person?"
Or, "I do wish to gracious you'd stop tapping on the window with your thimble!"
Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you're busy having fun,
Is plenty of time to say, "I'm sorry, mother."
To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died,
who neither listen nor speak;
Who do not drink their tea, though they always said
Tea was such a comfort.
Run down into the cellar and bring up the last jar of raspberries;
they are not tempted.
Flatter them, ask them what was it they said exactly
That time, to the bishop, or to the overseer, or to Mrs. Mason;
They are not taken in.
Shout at them, get red in the face, rise,
Drag them up out of their chairs by their stiff shoulders and shake
them and yell at them;
They are not startled, they are not even embarrassed; they slide
back into their chairs.
Your tea is cold now.
You drink it standing up,
And leave the house.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies," from Collected Poems. Copyright 1931, 1934, 1939, © 1958 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Holly Peppe, Literary Executor, The Millay Society. www.millay.org.
The sea’s own children
Do not understand.
But that the sea is strong
Like God’s hand.
But that sea wind is sweet
Like God’s breath,
And that the sea holds
A wide, deep death.
From The Weary Blues (Alfred A. Knopf, 1926) by Langston Hughes. This poem is in the public domain.