BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
Each of us can relate somehow, some way, to a cold winter morning. Well, perhaps most of us. Yet a few of us have such a gift they can relate to others their own experiences with cold and winter mornings (poets and storytellers especially).
I have read of soldiers in Alaska, in Moscow, in the Ardennes, in Afghanistan: cold winter mornings that I have no concept of or experiences with. War is not kind. . . .
My cold life in Chicago had me in -18 degrees one winter night. My cold life in Minnesota had me at -16 degrees one Christmas: “way below zero.” The nose hairs froze. Not fun for sledding or the toboggan. Dressed for school? Watch A Christmas Story: see Ralphie’s brother waddle off to school. (And don’t forget that tongue frozen to the flag pole.)
House cats do not have to go out for a walk on cold winter mornings. Most dogs are accustomed to morning walks, cold winter morning or not. I had to walk the dog: “Hurry up! I am freezing out here (in a Chicago alley in the early grey cold winter morning)!”
On some cold winter mornings, Jim Miller, my friend and high school classmate, and I arrived early a few times a week during our senior year at our seminary. We were chosen to sing the liturgical responses for morning Mass, at seven. Cold, stone-walled chapel, cold vocal cords, and a chapel organ that was temperamental when the bellows were cold.
On cold winter mornings, along city streets, steam could be seen coming from that small hole in manhole covers–or steamy exhaust from city buses, and from cars.
So, those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere will soon have those cold winter mornings–or already have had a taste of winter. As sure as the sun rises and the sun sets, winter arrives. And cold-weather records will, no doubt, be set in the U.S. and in Europe–again).
One April, with spring approaching, April 4-6, 1968, some teaching colleagues and I were attending a conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A guest speaker was a poet named Robert Hayden. He received a gracious introduction and a warm audience-reception. I was there; I knew little of him, about his work.
He read a poem. He began another–but could not continue. He said, “. . . ,” then began to cry. He left the stage.
April 4 Martin Luther King, Jr. is shot dead at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupt in major American cities, lasting for several days afterwards. Minneapolis was not spared.
We were dismissed. Our conference was over, cut short.
(In 1940, Hayden published poems that drew little attention. Yet by 1976 he was well respected enough to be Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the U.S. Poet Laureate. He died in 1980, age 66.)
Although I had little acquaintance with the works of that poet, I would forever always have that memory of him in Minneapolis. So that was that.
Until about ten years ago. In an introduction to literature program. There was a poem of his, about cold Sunday mornings, a poem about a son remembering his father.
My memories of a time–or times–came across to me in such a personal way, as I am certain other readers could recollect similar remembrances. Those memories of a love and actions are not always known nor understood by us when we are young-er. That is all.
“What did I know, what did I know…?” So I took out the dog. So I walked my brother to school. So I got groceries for the invalid woman down the street. So I shoveled the neighbor’s walk. So my dad made oatmeal for us on cold mornings. So my dad walked miles in the deep snow to get a bus or a train to get to work. And me?
“What did I know, what did I know // of love’s austere and lonely offices?” – Robert Hayden: “Those Winter Sundays” 
“Those Winter Sundays” is a not-too-simplistic poem of age-brought discovery of what others do for us. But we don’t appreciate. However, this little “masterpiece” is about doing-in and remembering-about the cold. Those cold winter mornings.
© James F. O’Neil 2014
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Collected Poems: Robert Hayden. Ed. F. Glaysher. New York: Liveright, 1985; rpt. 1996.
Words in the Mourning Time: Poems by Robert Hayden. London: October House, 1970.