I hope you are well.
In this month's installment of Metaphor and More, I'd like to take a look at Grace Paley's very short story "Mother." You can find it at this URL:
Before reading my commentary below, please read this story and gather your thoughts/make some notes. Here are some questions for you to think about: What kind of emotional situation does this story present? Think about how the story is written; what effect does this create for you? Where do you think you identify some metaphor-like effects?
Here are my thoughts…
This piece strikes me, overall, as a portrait of the speaker's remembering her mother – and to some extent, both parents. She recalls particular memories and details, but it's the way the piece is written that creates an impressionistic portrait of the daughter remembering and having feelings about those memories. The author creates this portrait of memory through metaphor-like effects.
The speaker goes into some detail about individual anecdotes/memories, but also paints with broader strokes in some places. For instance, the first paragraph recalls some details of a particular memory, but the paragraph ends with what I consider the "broader strokes" in a portrait of the mother: "She had begun her worried preparations for death." I also like how the first paragraph sets up a motif for many of the memories – with the mother standing in various doorways. And this is an interesting image – almost like a photograph, in that a doorway is like a frame.
In the second paragraph, the speaker describes a memory jogged by the image of her mother standing in the doorway of a different room than the one described in the first paragraph. One could speculate that this memory might be from the speaker's adolescence or young adulthood since she is still living at home but is involved in politics.
We can note some metaphor-like effects in the way there are diminishing transitional elements between paragraphs. After the final sentence of the second paragraph, "We guessed it all," the third paragraph begins with "At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch." We don't know how much later this statement was spoken or what took place between it and the event described in the previous paragraph. This abrupt transition replicates, in a metaphor-like way, the shifting memories of the speaker and the way memory works, generally – memories can reflect various time periods, and things can be juxtaposed and related in unusual, not always obvious, ways (though they may make perfect sense to our below-the-surface consciousness).
Transitions seem to disappear altogether as we move to the fourth paragraph: “Then she died”; the juxtaposition of paragraphs is now felt even more strongly. For me, this is a portrait of the daughter's impression of how it feels, at least in retrospect, like things happened so quickly, underscoring the sense of a longing to see her mother again. The movement between the last sentence of the third paragraph "What will become of you?" And the fourth paragraph, "Then she died," works very much like a metaphor (and like strong enjambment in poetry) in that the movement between these paragraphs compares a certain aspect of the mother's presence with a sense of her absence.
The fifth paragraph begins with a sentence that feels like a natural transition, after expressing the loss of the mother: "Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places…" And the rest of that sentence shifts into continual present with the participle "looking" – "at the window looking up and down the block, in the country garden among zinnias and marigolds, in the living room with my father." And even though we get a bit of a transition with that participle, the abrupt shift from the fifth paragraph to the sixth creates a metaphor-like effect, comparing that juxtaposition to the abrupt shifts of memory itself: "They sat in comfortable leather chairs. They were listening to Mozart…" and on through the rest of the paragraph. This transition from talking about remembering to an actual memory, and the way it is put in present tense as if it is just unfolding, works in a metaphor-like way for the speaker's moments of remembering and her state of mind. It does strike me as a portrait of memory, with these verbal structures on the page replicating the way one may reflect on time and remembering and then go into another specific memory. For the daughter in the story, it is almost as if she is there with her parents. She can see the chairs, hear the music, see the expressions on their faces.
She pulls back from that specific memory and reflects on past and present again in the seventh paragraph, which is a single sentence: "I wish I could see her in the doorway of the living room."
Then there is another abrupt shift from that paragraph to the eighth, giving us a specific memory again: "She stood there a minute. Then she sat beside him. They owned an expensive record player. They were listening to Bach. She said to him, Talk to me a little. We don't talk so much anymore." Perhaps the short sentences are employed to reflect her mother's speech, and/or reflects the way memory comes in.
The ninth paragraph is remembered speech from the speaker's father, or what she imagined he would have said, even if she doesn't remember exact words. Note the abrupt shifts, the non sequiturs, between some of the things the father says in that paragraph: "Listen to the music, he said. I believe you once had perfect pitch. I'm tired, he said." I think this likely reflects how she is stitching together remembered bits.
And then we have a final shift – from that paragraph to the last paragraph of the piece: "Then she died." Again, for me, this shift creates an impressionistic, metaphor-like effect for how little time the speaker feels she had with her mother, how she misses her, and perhaps how she feels her mother chafed against some of the things that happened in the family – how she worried about her daughter, how she longed to talk to a husband who didn't always want to talk. These shifts and juxtapositions create emotion without spelling it out.
I find this to be a powerful portrait of remembering, and I hope you find it interesting. If you have some thoughts about it that you'd like to share, feel free to e-mail me, and you could also let me know if you would like to share them with the whole group.
All best wishes for your reading and writing and everything else!
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Jennifer Burd teaches "Mastering Metaphor" through the Loft Literary center and writes a monthly blog, "Metaphor and More."