Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” changed my life because it was the first poem I wanted to forget. It insinuated itself so deeply into my life that I tried to drown it out with mind-numbing pop music. I binged on Korean soap operas. But the sonnet assumed a life of its own. Wherever I walked, it traveled with me, foot by foot. The words had a liquid cadence, pulsing to the rhythm of my everyday routine—during lunch, while I did homework. I thought the poem had a heart.
I blamed the poem for reminding me of my uneventful life. When I encountered “Those Winter Sundays,” I was a sophomore at a high school in Long Island, New York. Weekdays were devoted to school, the weekends to my family’s grocery store. Every Saturday and Sunday, I worked the cash register, a skill I had learned at the age of ten. I took and filled orders, weighed out candy, served customers. The store closed promptly at eight o’clock. It opened the next morning, just as promptly, at eight-thirty. Customers shuffled in. I rang them up. More came. In between customers, I sat on a box, reading books. I read poetry about people and places so far removed from me that it was easy to forget the store. My favorites: Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” and Ovid’s
As a child I hated the store because of its effects on my parents. My mother’s hands grew so callused from handling roses that they scratched when she held me. (To this day, I loathe roses.) During holidays, she stood on her feet until her calves swelled like dough. By her side, my father lifted boxes of melons. He woke up every Monday at dawn to buy fish at the Fulton Fish Market. At home, hours later, he still smelled like fish. Often I heard one parent comfort the other because a customer had said “Chink.” I never understood how they could take it. Sometimes they could not. Like the house in Hayden’s poem, ours was filled with “chronic angers.”
In hindsight, I am grateful for my upbringing because it taught me to appreciate everyday labor as love. This is the truth that “Those Winter Sundays” speaks with humility and precision. As an impressionable teenager, I envied my wealthier classmates who went on family vacations in Europe; I thought that was love. But because of the poem, I realized that performing daily rituals is an act of love. Love manifested itself in those home-cooked dinners my mother made even after a hard day’s work, the pounds of salmon that my father bargained for at the fish market because he knew I loved it, and the family trips to the bookstore for books I wanted. We were never hungry. Our house was always warm. But I never thanked them. What did I know, what did I know?
I reread “Those Winter Sundays” in moments of self-doubt, especially recently. I am a twenty-five-year-old graduate student living away from the East Coast for the first time. My days in Madison, Wisconsin, are spent reading and writing—a privileged life—but I miss the store, which my parents have now owned for twenty-six years. The poem evokes its smells and sounds for me. More importantly, it reminds me of the courage that drives them back to the store day after day. They inspire me to pursue my dream, which is to become a writer and teacher back in New York. Every day, I sit at my desk and work. Beyond this, I expect nothing else.