The speaker is looking back nostalgically at a time when he did something for his mother. Although this woven lanyard was a camp crafts project, the memory of that minor achievement propels him back into the innocent era when one concrete task could be filled with boundless love. The later, more abstract emotional connection that the adult feels for his mother seems like both a burden and a privilege.
In the present, the speaker can see that the lanyard was merely “a useless, worthless thing” because boredom had been his motivation for weaving it. It symbolizes the lighthearted time in life when gratitude for life—the very breath and heartbeat of his existence—was taken for granted. Although the speaker spurns the lanyard for being worthless, he also appreciates it for providing the entry point into the weight of his emotional attachment. As a child, the speaker was allowed to live a carefree existence; his mother took care of him and did not prompt him into an emotional burden that he was not ready to assume. His mother’s gifts to him included “two clear eyes to read the world,” with which she could be confident that he would later understand how much she had provided and the proper type of repayment.