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What is the meaning of lines 10 and 11 in "The Old Woman's Message" by Kumalau Tawali?

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Madeleine Wells eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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To answer this question, let's take a look at the whole stanza:

Let them keep the price of their labor [10] / but their eyes are mine. [11] / I have little breath left [12] / to wait for them. [13] / I am returning to childhood. [14]

Line 10 refers to what the old woman's sons do for a living. She acknowledges the importance of her sons' labors; however, she isn't interested in monetary considerations for herself ("price of their labor"). All she desires is to see her sons before she dies. Now, line 11 is interesting. We can interpret this in one of two ways. The sons have their mother's eyes, both as a hereditary trait and in a symbolic way. If we want to be technical about it, the mother's chromosomes are directly responsible for the eyes her sons use in their labor; therefore, those eyes "belong" to her at this juncture of her life when she needs them. In some religions, the eye is the seat of wisdom, knowledge, and conscience. Therefore, in all good conscience, the sons' eyes must "lead" them back to their mother in her time of need if they are to perform their filial duty.

The mother has little time left on earth. She is reverting to childhood, where she must be taken care of instead of being the one to provide care. The poem suggests that the sons are not accustomed to taking on the role of caretakers, as their mother has never needed them to fulfill this role until now. Taken in this light, the old woman's words become significant in their poignant appeal. Hope this helps!

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