Saturday, May 9, 2015

Five Short Stories Featuring Mothers and Daughters

Title: Ashputtle: Or, the Mother’s Ghost
Author: Angela Carter
Where I Read It: Mothers & Daughters

Carter writes three versions of the Cinderella story, not with the 'bibbity bobbity boo' Disney godmother, but with Cinderella's dead mother helping her in some way (usually in the form of a guiding animal spirit). The three versions vary in violence, in the desperate competitiveness between the girl & her mother vs. the tormenting stepmother and her brood, and the freedom the dead mother grants her daughter.

There's only one version where the mother gives her daughter some gifts and then sets her free to embark on life, where it may take her. In others, the vision she has for her daughter is more fixed; she controls her daughter and maneuvers her into a narrow role. It's for her daughter's own good, she would say, because why take chances? But taking chances makes that third version, the freer one, so compelling. The mother trusts her daughter most in that one.

Title: The Circling Hand
Author: Jamaica Kincaid
Where I Read It: The Granta Book of the American Short Story

The story starts with a mother and daughter's close relationship, but as the girl grows older, her mother begins to enforce a distance between them. The girl, wounded, breaks away. Her mother is no longer the center of her world, adored and followed everywhere; by the story's end, the girl has shifted her affections to a female classmate.

Even though the story ends there, it has a sense of a continuation. Because simultaneous with the girl's unfolding rapture, heartbreak and transference of affection, there's a window into the mother's life. The mother has no female friends; her husband appears to be her one companion, after she's won him from other women. Is this the girl's fate as well? To lose her female friends at some point - compete with them over a man - and then wind up married but without female companionship? Until a daughter comes along, and the cycle continues?

The story gets carried along by a rhythm of closeness and loss. Whether the daughter will lead a more unpredictable adulthood, and enjoy a different kind of relationship pattern, isn't known.

Title: I Stand Here Ironing
Author: Tillie Olsen
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

"She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur."
While at her ironing board, the story's narrating mother considers her oldest child, Emily. Emily was born during the Great Depression, when the mother was young, broke and unprepared to be a mother. Emily's father abandoned them, and though the mother later remarried, Emily never enjoyed a stable home in the early part of her childhood, unlike her half-siblings.

Now the mother thinks about how her daughter turned out - not happy, but with comedic talent and a sensitive, artistic nature. With secrets and dark thoughts heavy in her. Even now, the mother is busy at her ironing and not talking to her oldest child. There are barriers between them, and Emily is a teenager. Is it too late for understanding? Maybe the mother has given up prematurely, writing off the possibility of closeness between her and the child she had when times were rough. She has given up on trying to directly reach her child. (But, as she shares her story, she seems to hope that Emily will overhear her, or in some other way find out what she's said - and then maybe Emily will understand her, forgive her, and live well.)

Title: The Last Crop
Author: Elizabeth Jolley
Where I Read It: Mothers & Daughters

"The Last Crop" has a breezy feeling, the words flowing by on a light wind. At any moment, the characters can get flicked away as if by a gust of wind and tumble into jail or homelessness or death. But the narrator's mother, however much she struggles to hold herself together, is also determined to keep taking risks that will bring people some happiness.

The narrator lives with her mother and brother. The mother cleans wealthy people's apartments, and often lets her own neighbors come by to sit around and enjoy the luxurious surroundings for a bit, just for pure pleasure (she's fighting against the possibility that in their lives there's "nothing to look forward to and no tastes of the pleasures she felt sure we were on this earth to enjoy.")

The narrator's brother is angry and aimless; they all feel trapped, but he acts out his frustration the most. Maybe their lives will improve after they inherit a farm that belonged to the narrator's grandfather; he had hoped to live on it, but had to rent it out and move to a nursing home. The land is in terrible condition, but it does promise the chance of a new kind of life.

The mother in this story is so mom-like (there's a mom quality to her that comes out in all circumstances). Even though her life is teetering towards chaos, she tries, she really does, to be a mom to her kids and even to her neighbors. It isn't surprising that the daughter sticks by her without apparent resentment.

Title: Rose-Coloured Teacups
Author: A.S. Byatt (Antonia Susan Duffy)
Where I Read It: Where I Read It: Sugar and Other Stories

What were our parents like before they became our parents?

The middle-aged narrator, Veronica, tries to picture what her mother was like at a young age. Her mind returns to an imagined scene, beautiful in its clarity and uneasy in its foreshadowing: her mother as a college student, enjoying casual tea with friends, just before she meets her future husband, Veronica's father. Veronica can image her mother as happy then, safe in the past among her teacups and with her life ahead of her. She isn't yet the woman who wound up feeling trapped by her marriage and by motherhood.

Her attempts to understand the past help Veronica hold her anger in check when it comes to her own daughter (she doesn't repeat familiar behaviors and become, unthinkingly, like her mother). I loved the story's layers, sensual details and psychological exploration. There are fractures between generations, and Veronica will never fully understand her mother, just as her own daughter might not understand her. But she can imagine and mourn and learn, regardless.