Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Five Short Stories Featuring Mothers and Sons

Title: Donal Webster
Author: Colm Tóibín
Where I Read It: The Book of Other People

This is a meditative and melancholy story, where the narrator shares his thoughts with someone off-screen. He reflects on the time his mother was dying. They had been distant from each other, and he wonders if he'd made the right choice to move so far from home, to a different continent. Then again, the distance between them was never only physical.

Of the three children (two boys and a girl), he's the less preferred son. It always seemed to him that way. It's possible his mother loved him, but he isn't certain of her love or its strength. Maybe, had he remained close to her side throughout his adult life, they would have enjoyed a more loving relationship, but there's no guarantee it would have made any difference. He's considering what a second chance between them might have meant, knowing it might not have changed anything important. Maybe circumstances were set against him from the start, and he was never meant to receive his mother's closeness or love.

There's much that's left unresolved in this story. The narrator shares it not because he's cleared up a mystery or made a last-minute connection to his distant mother, but because the story seemed to have been echoing in him until he needed to let it out.

Title: Everything That Rises Must Converge
Author: Flannery O'Connor
Where I Read It: The Oxford Book of the American South

Julian and his mother are the remnants of a formerly well-positioned white family in the American South. His mother seems oblivious to their diminished social status and the changing times; she's cheerful, patronizing, racist, and self-important. Julian, who is college-educated and considers himself vastly superior to his mother, spends much of the story seething at her.

Other authors might have left it at that - the mother's outdated views, and the righteous anger of the son. But the story is more interesting than that. Julian is consumed with bitterness toward his mother, and not only because she embarrasses him with her behavior. His motives are more selfish, and O'Connor shines a harsh light on them.

Through his mother, Julian has gotten a taste of what his life might have been like in the Old South (for instance, in a childhood visit to the mansion his family used to live in). Julian knows he would have been at the top, commanding wealth and black servants, and enjoying elegance and refinement. He might scorn his mother's ignorance, but a significant part of his scorn stems from resentment and the longing for a life he can no longer have. He isn't as principled as he likes to imagine; he might be obsessed with his mother's pettiness, but he doesn't understand his own unworthy feelings. On a bus ride with his mother, when he attempts to befriend a black man, his efforts aren't sincere. He cares less about the friendship or about changing his mother's views on race than he does about needling her and feeling superior.

Title: Fenstad's Mother
Author: Charles Baxter
Where I Read It: American Voices

In Baxter's story, there's a grown-up son who's low-key and staid, and there's his spirited, socially-conscious rebel of a mother. Mother and son don't engage with the world in the same way. They get frustrated with each other. But there's a genuine affection between them too.

There's a scene where the son is teaching a night school class, and his mother sits in as a guest. Her comments attract more interest than her son's lecture. In another scene, he's ice-skating with his girlfriend at night and notices his mother watching them - not in a creepy, over-involved way, but with simple wonder. It's a moment where an old woman wants to watch people who are happy. She is always looking for new experiences and new things to learn.

The story's quiet beauty comes in large part from the mother-son bond that endures even when they disagree fundamentally. Fenstad might feel that his mother doesn't approve of his choices or beliefs, but he doesn't feel unloved. Likewise, Clara Fenstad's approach to life puts her at odds with her son, but she can count on him not to abandon her in her old age. With insight and understated humor, the author has given these characters complexity and portrayed their uneasy but lasting relationship.

Title: The Sky is Gray
Author: Ernest J. Gaines
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

In "The Sky is Gray," the main character is a young boy getting pressured to become a little man. James is black, lives in the American South, and his father is away in the army. He lives with his siblings, mother and aunt - and while his aunt is against beating him, his mother, Octavia, believes that thrashing him when he doesn't do what she expects him to will get him to grow up more quickly and assume the role of man of the house.

Octavia's life is an unending fight. She thinks her son needs to get used to pain in order to survive. Though even in the story, ignoring pain doesn't work as a strategy - James, for instance, disregards a pain in his tooth because he knows the family can't afford going to the dentist, but the pain worsens, and he winds up needing to visit the dentist anyway. There's no way to push on with a rotten tooth.

James pays close attention to all the lessons his mother teaches him about being a proper man, including not accepting handouts. It's also clear that she hasn't forgotten that her son is still a child. There's one scene where they've been walking in the cold for a long time. Octavia then abruptly goes into a shop to inspect axe handles. James meantime sneaks over to the stove to warm his hands. He doesn't realize his mother went into that shop just to give him a chance to warm up, and not because she was interested in buying anything. (Later, when a white woman, Helena, takes them in briefly out of the cold, Octavia insists on earning the time they spend indoors in Helena's house - to avoid being child-like in accepting this kind of comfort for nothing.)

Octavia can express her love for her son only obliquely. Something could happen to her any day, and he'd need to fend for himself and take charge of his siblings. Had the father been at home, what would have changed in James's childhood? At one point, in a dentist's office, James watches an altercation between a preacher and a well-educated young man, both black. (I got the feeling that the young man is possibly who James will become, and also a stand-in for the author.) The young man insists that it's important to question everything, to not just accept suffering the way the preacher advocates. What will James question as he gets older? Becoming a man to him so far means plowing ahead, pushing down feelings, and holding his head up with pride. But questions and feelings can keep up a racket in the mind and demand a response.

Title: Territory
Author: David Leavitt
Where I Read It: The Granta Book of the American Short Story

Barbara's only child, Neil, is gay. She's always considered herself a progressive person, and she's shown support for her son - for instance, by turning up to a gay pride parade and, in the story's central events, by hosting Neil and his boyfriend, Wayne, at her home. But her outward show of acceptance isn't unequivocal. Neil senses the mixed message she projects, her words of acceptance vs. the body language and facial expressions showing ambivalence and rejection.

In a way, he's trapped by these mixed signals; he doesn't know where he stands, and both he and his mother feel guilt over how their relationship and their lives currently stand. Maybe by giving him a firm, final answer ("no, I can't fully accept this" or "I can go this far but no more") she can set her son free, even if it's not by giving him her blessing. I appreciate the story's exploration of this emotional territory - a mother who doesn't disown or hate her child for being gay, but struggles to accept it. Who tries but reaches a personal limit. And a grown son who has to make his way into adulthood without being dependent on his mother's blessing.