The speaker remembers spending a morning in his school's infirmary, counting as the school bells announced the end of classes before being taken home by his family's neighbors. On the porch, the speaker says, his father was crying, though he usually didn't express strong emotion at funerals. A man named Jim Evans, meanwhile, expressed sympathy by saying that the death being mourned was a difficult one. As the speaker entered his home, a baby rocked and cooed in its cradle. The speaker felt embarrassed by the old men who wanted to shake hands with him and express condolences, and by the people whispering to one another, informing each other that the speaker was the oldest child and had been away at school. The speaker's mother held his hand.
This poem is written in a steady, regimented form that belies the emotionally intense experience being described: a death in the family. The poem's characters are torn between deep, momentous feeling and stoicism. The speaker's father cries, in a contrast with his typical reaction at funerals. The speaker's mother holds the speaker's hand, but doesn't speak. Guests allude to a loss, but they avoid naming the loss, or speak about it in whispers to one another. Even the poem's title suggests a balance between uninhibited feeling and regulated control, recalling the momentary freedom of a break between school terms: after this visit, the poem implies, the speaker will return to school and normal life.
In fact, even while letting us know that something terrible has happened with details about the scene, the speaker holds the reader at a certain distance, never offering them any backstory. Meanwhile, he feels uncomfortable with the emotional intimacy of the gathering. When the guests line up to shake his hand, itself a rather formal and removed gesture, he feels embarrassed. The poem describes the tension between the need to mourn openly and the desire for privacy. That tension extends to the speaker/reader relationship. Even while the speaker tells us about our experience, he holds us at arm's length.
Meanwhile, the poem's form gives it an underlying structure, mimicking the interplay and tension between free feeling and limitation. It is made up of tercets, or three-line stanzas. Each line consists of ten syllables, though without a specific or consistent meter and rhyme scheme. These short stanzas and unchanging line lengths give the poem a clipped, inhibited feeling. This creates a sense that the speaker is withholding information or trying not to lose control. The poem suggests that the speaker may be trying to provide stability for his grieving family. We know that he is their oldest child—a fact that his community evidently finds important, since they whisper about it to one another. We also know that he holds his mother's hand, seemingly as much for her comfort as for his. Therefore, the speaker mourns his own loss, but in addition, seems to feel some responsibility for helping hold his family together as their oldest child.