Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Three Short Stories About Daughters and Their Not-So-Maternal Mothers

Title: The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor
Author: Deborah Eisenberg
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

“Fading smells of bodies clung to the air like plaintive ghosts, their last friendly overtures vanquished by the stronger smells of disinfectants. An indecipherable muttering came from other ghosts, sequestered in a TV suspended from the ceiling.”
Francie is at school on a scholarship when her mother dies. The girl is burdened by a sense that she has been unloved and disapproved of; her mother gave her care that didn't feel caring, as it came with a heap of anger and bitterness. Francie may also have been kept from important truths about her life.
The hospital floated in the middle of a vast ocean of construction, or maybe it was demolition; a nation in itself, of which all humans were, at every moment, potential citizens. The inevitable false move, and it was wham, onto the gurney, with workers grabbing smocks and gloves to plunge into the cavity of you, and the lights that burned all night. Outside this building you lived as though nothing were happening to you that you didn't know about. But here, there was simply no pretending.
Francie confronts the inescapable. There's her mother's sudden death. There's the aloneness, and being left in the dark to fumble towards a new life and deal with questions that can't be ignored. Adults look at Francie like they don't know where to put her or how to get her out of the way, and Francie herself doesn't really know where she belongs, only that she can't escape her life. The legacy of mother to daughter is one of a dark, cutting, and uncomfortable weight, the burden of a fury that never abated. The question is if Francie will ever find a place in her life where she can live at greater ease with herself.

Title: Her Mother's Daughter
Author: William Trevor
Where I Read It: Mothers & Daughters

Helena's father, who dies when she's still a young child, has barely noticed her. Her mother only notices to criticize. After the father's death, the mother takes up his work in lexicography and labors to complete it. Helena's childhood is characterized by a blend of neglect, dismissal, and moments of cold, microscopic scrutiny.

As an adult Helena escapes the physical environs of her home, but the lack of love has poisoned her. Her parents' legacy isn't the lexicography text, which meets an unsurprising fate given how they have shaped their only child.

Title: A Mother in India
Author: Sara Jeannette Duncan
Where I Read It: Mothers & Daughters

I had never heard of this author before, and wouldn't have guessed that she was born in the 1860s; I initially thought her birth date was sometime in the 20th century. She writes with frankness and without moralizing about a mother who doesn't love her daughter. The situation is this: the mother and father are English colonials stationed in India, and their daughter is born at a time when they don't have much money. To spare her from possible illness, they ship her off to be raised with family back in England: a grandma and two maiden aunts. These women dote on her and raise her to be a model of themselves. The mother sees her maybe twice in 21 years and doesn't feel a need to see her more. The daughter has become attached to her other female relatives anyway, so it doesn't seem a great loss. In any case, she becomes a self-sufficient, cheerful young woman raised within the strict bounds of correctness and with a limited imagination.

On becoming an adult, she rejoins her parents. She and her mother are courteous to each other but they don't fundamentally relate, not mentally or emotionally. When a suitor comes along, the mother is more concerned that he'll be unhappy in a marriage to her daughter than she is about her daughter's prospects in life. Maybe the mother comes across as cold the way I'm describing her actions, but she isn't exactly cold. It's more like there's a blankness where her feelings for her daughter would normally be. The author doesn't make a real villain of anyone. There's a sadness to the story, with its missed opportunities, but it's also humorous and wry. The author picks at the complex motives and feelings of the mother, and I think raises the possibility that she's exaggerating her daughter's flatness of character. The story is brutally honest about the difference between what people think they should feel and what they actually feel - particularly mothers, who are expected to experience an intense love and attachment. It's also interesting to consider what might have happened had the parents never sent their daughter to England, because estrangement doesn't always require physical distance; to what extent, and in what ways, would they have shaped her character?