Abandoned farm house. (All photos by Marylin Warner)

Abandoned farm house. (All photos by Marylin Warner)

detroit house

log cabins

Dear Mom,

During a trip to Colorado Springs many years ago, you visited my high school English classes.  In one class we were beginning Transcendentalism, and I wrote this quote on the board: “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” ~ Henry David Thoreau 

I displayed pictures of houses—very old, decrepit houses—and told the students to choose one and write for ten minutes about what they saw and what might have happened there.  Sitting in the back of the room, you lifted a little notebook from your purse, closed your eyes and thought for a moment, then took a breath and began to write.

When the students shared what they’d written, the usual responses ranged from eerily sad tales to creepy horror scenes.  Much later you showed me the beginning of the free verse you’d written that day. Eventually it became a full narrative poem, but here’s what you wrote in the early draft:

Gone from the warped and bare front porch

The soft weary voices of evening—

And the steady creak of the porch swing

As weary ones rest from their labors,

Relax from the plow and the washboard.


Great are the secrets you hold there,

And the love that was whispered in evening.

But gone are your voices forever,

As the broken glass of the windows,

And the rusted spring at the screen door.

                   From “Lonely House” by Mary E. Shepherd 

I post this for your friends and family, Mom, and especially for your great-grandchildren who would otherwise never know your feelings about farm life in the 1920-30’s, and the beauty you found in simple daily events.  What you wrote is a reminder of your gentle and hopeful spirit.


“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  ~Confucius

“What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.”  ~C.S. Lewis

“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”  ~ Sir John Lubbock, English writer and archaeologist

pink tree blossoms

pink house



Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, Henry David Thoreau, lessons about life, Mary Shepherd's poetry, memories for great-grandchildren, special quotations, writing exercises

62 responses to “WHAT WE SEE

  1. What simplicity and beauty one can find in this poem. Love it.

    • I’d love the poem, too. Where the others saw darkness and evil, she saw the remnants of a hardworking family who were glad to sit and rest each evening. It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

  2. Dear Marylin, So beautiful. Happy Mother’s Day weekend, Ellen

  3. Beautiful post. Lovely lines from your mother and great quotes

    • Thanks, Rod. Two of my favorites for quotes are Thoreau (and Emerson), but I really like how the same thoughts about “seeing” come from Confucius and Lubbock and many others, too.

  4. Thanks, Ellen, and Happy Mother’s Day to you, too.

  5. This is a really lovely post. It brought tears to my eyes. I saw a house that I wanted to fix up 🙂 Your mother’s poem was beautiful. And I loved the quotes. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Francis.
      As I drove around the countryside and small towns in Kansas, so many of the abandoned houses looked like they were waiting, hoping for someone to discover them and give them another chance. Others, though, gave off the vibes of something very dark, and I couldn’t imagine anyone living happily there ever again.

  6. This is lovely! And doesn’t it just prove that everyone sees things differently; that there can always be more than one correct answer to a creative question. Your Mum’s few words paint a vivid picture for me and I love the quotation from Thoreau.

    • We really do, Jenny. I remember a college psychology professor who made us all think we hadn’t seen the same pictures at all; he was proving that eye-witnesses at a crime are rarely reliable.

  7. Marylin, even before I read her poem, I had an inkling of what it could be. Do I know this poet or is it that I have come to know more about her through your pieces?

    Your blog is a blessing to her grandchildren.

  8. Marylin, I love your mother’s poem! What a dear daughter you are.

    Blessings ~ Wendy

    • Thank you, Wendy. She was a realist, too, and there were houses she would have stayed away from because they didn’t “feel” right. But with many old houses, she was more likely to feel that families had once been very happy and content there.

  9. it’s a beautiful poem! i love the photos and see positive ghosts of the people who once lived there.. and flowers blooming and yes the porch swing at the end of a hard day of work – ahhhh.

  10. Hammock memories….Mmmm…That would be a great name for a relaxing B&B!

  11. Oh wow, Marylin – this is so gorgeous – both the sentiment and the poem. I can’t say enough good about your posts and your mother.

  12. You bring back memories of an era whose people were truly connected to the land. The poem and quotes are beautiful and perfect for this Mother’s Day. Thanks for sharing your mother’s poetic thoughts.

    • They really were connected to the land, Lynne, their need for it and the responsibility to care for it. My mother never lost that connection, and she valued the couples and families who lived their lives in the farm houses.
      Happy Mother’s Day.

  13. What a beautiful poem, Marylin. I love the pictures of the old farm houses; they make wonderful writing prompts. Happy Mother’s Day!

  14. As I sit here reading your mother’s poem from this Midwestern farmhouse that has stood for 150 years, and is ready to don a new layer of roofing and siding, materials my Mom and I sought yesterday, I smile at this beautiful piece.
    I see the people on the porch when I read it, recall those who are still part of Mom’s life. Farmers, fields, friends, beauty.Time is different here. Your mother’s piece is perfectly balanced between what we remember and what we have yet to learn from it all.
    Lined faces, house dresses, old machinery, hands calloused from work, harnesses and collars of work horses hanging in the barn from my grandparents years behind the plow come alive again reading her piece.
    One of the things I see as fantastic in my niece’s current photographic work (she will soon move to Austin to follow that talent at the Art Institute there) is based on such revealing and dreamlike images from our pasts.
    Thanks so much for sharing. Loved this blog. Let’s keep making beautiful history in this marvelous nation!

    • The memories in your parents’ farm house–and the details in my mother’s poem, inspired by her years on a farm–do present a unique perspective on farm life during a very different time. And what better time to consider it than Mother’s Day!

  15. I have always been drawn to the pathos of a fading farmhouse so I really enjoyed your mom’s work. Thanks for posting it as I am in such a dry spell of writing that your mom’s sight has nudged me a wee bit to try something of my own again. Wishing you and your mom a lovely Mother’s Day weekend.

    • The dry spells have been contagious lately, Claudia, so I’m glad if this inspired you to get back into another writing project. After a lovely Mother’s Day weekend to you, too, we can both get back to our writing!

  16. jakesprinter

    Happy Mothers Day Marylin ,Thanks for sharing your stunning photography I love it 🙂

  17. molly

    I love this! Grandma always had such an honest and practical way of looking at things. I love her (and you) so much!

  18. And we love you so much, Mookie! You were always Grandma’s pride and joy, from the first moment she held you, and I know that the first time she held Grace she was amazed how much like you she was. You and your precious Grace and Gannon bring so much joy to our lives.

  19. Your beautiful mother, thrilling us again with her wonderful way of looking at life.

  20. dianabletter

    Thank you Marylin for sharing your mother’s poetry. I loved the last line especially. And that is a fabulous writing prompt for students. In the Talmud it states, “The world is a reflection of our souls.” That is so true and you expressed it beautifully. Diana

    • “The world is a reflection or our souls.” I like that, Diana. I’m amazed that generations of writers, philosophers and poets, and in the Bible and the Talmud there is so much agreement about what we have within us being what we see and how we see the world.

    • Thanks. When she finished the entire narrative poem some time later, it included the windmills and the the tracks where the animals had been. But this was her first draft, the one she began that day in my classroom.

  21. Once, long ago, I sat on a swing seat on a farm house porch in Virginia. It was a wonderful evening, never to be forgotten. I love that your mother senses that a house can be lonely.

    • I know. She doesn’t describe the house as grim or creepy or forgotten, but lonely. When we used to drive to my grandmother’s in Missouri, we’d take side roads, and when Mom saw one overgrown and falling down, she’d tell me about the family who lived there many years ago, and how the house must miss them.

  22. Pingback: Celebrating ALL Mothers – Guardians, Step-Parents, Grandmothers, Aunts, Foster Parents, and Dad’s too! | Impower You

  23. How beautiful–both your mother’s poem and the way you write about it, contrasting her vision, her ability to see what the students couldn’t have seen. It makes me want to know her (in a way I do–from reading about her through your blog, I’m getting to “know” her).

    Interesting that you feel something of a “dry spell” in your writing, and yet your blog posts are so fertile and rich.

  24. Once again Marylin, your mother through you, inspires the readers of your posts into eloquence.

    She is right of course that looking at something that may be old and at first sight, a bit decrepit, that you have to think about what might have been… to appreciate what you are seeing

    A beautiful poem and you celebrate her life and yourself on this Mothers Day with these insights

    • Thanks, Tom. On my visit with Mom last week, I took cards and drawings from Molly and the great-grandkids and a big flowering plant and cupcakes. She smiled at them all and enjoyed the cupcakes, but I don’t think it ever dawned on Mom who I was or what we celebrated. But she does know we enjoy being together (whoever I am) and I know I’m saving memories of her to be shared with her great-grandchildren. So you’re right; that is how I celebrate her life and my own.

  25. Your Mom’s poem is beautiful, Marilyn. She is very perceptive. A house is not a home. But it can contain many stories if we just look beyond the superficial.
    Thank you for sharing.

  26. Such a beautiful poem Marylin. I love the memories you are sharing with us. 🙂

  27. Diana Stevan

    How lovely of you to share your mother’s rich and thoughtful poem. Mother’s Day should be every day.

    • When I was growing up, Hallmark Mother’s Day cards hadn’t caught on. I’d make Mom a card and I’d pick a bouquet of flowers in bloom (including dandelions). She said that hugs and “I love you” made every day Mother’s Day.

  28. These are some of my favorite quotes. There are some many wonderful things surrounding us and most people just walk by without ever noticing them. Sometimes you really have to stop and smell the roses.

  29. Such eloquent words. Your mom’s poem stirred me once again.
    Thank you, Marylin for sharing. 🙂

  30. You’re very welcome, Tracy; I’m glad you enjoy it. This shorter rough-draft version of the poem actually is more touching than the long narrative final version. There’s something simple, basic and heartfelt about this version, I think.

  31. Your mother’s poem is so laden with mental and emotional images I can actually see her old farmlife as clearly as looking at a photo.
    I love my time at your blog. Every entry is VERY special. 🙂

    • Thank you SO much. This post seems to connect with many readers, especially those with some farm experience. I think I got my love of old houses–and sympathy for neglected houses–from my mother.

  32. Janet Armstrong

    Our parents were from the generation that loved the simple things in life. I wished my grandchildren could have the same simple pleasures in their life’s. Loved your mom’s poem.

  33. Thanks, Janet, it’s also one of my favorite poems of hers.
    Occasionally, Grace and Gannon will “get it” about the simple things that were so important to my mom and dad, and then they go back to their computer games. There has to be a balance somehow, and sometimes when they’re reading through the blog posts they’ll comment about how different, but “pretty interesting” things were when their grandparents and great-grandparents were growing up.

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