In "Mother to Son," Hughes uses a number of symbols. First of all, in lines four to six, the "splinters," torn-up boards, and floor without carpet are symbolic of the mother's hard and problematic life. This is further reinforced in the seventh line with the single word "bare," which emphasizes the difficulties she has encountered. The staircase itself has significance since it acts as a symbol of life's journey.
Later in the poem, the mother again uses symbolism when she talks about the course of her life. Reaching the landing, turning corners, and navigating in the dark, for example, are all symbols of the specific obstacles she has faced and overcome during the course of her life.
Finally, in the first and last lines of the poem, the word "crystal" has symbolic meaning. Specifically, the word suggests wealth, affluence, and luxury; it is used by the mother as a symbol of the life she hoped to have.