Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
As in “The Lifting,” in “Once” Olds recalls a moment in which taboos are violated and she sees her father naked. In this case, she has opened the unlocked bathroom door to discover him sitting on the toilet where she sees that “all of him was skin.” The bathroom is blue, the color of sky and innocence, and innocence made her open the door, knowing that if it was unlocked the bathroom was empty. Her father has neglected to lock it, however, and she sees him, observes him carefully from toes to nape of neck. She seems surprised that he appears unprotected and shy, even girlish, and she recognizes a sort of common humanity between them and all creatures that go through the rituals of elimination. She calls it a “human peace.”
The speaker apologizes and backs out of the room, but she adds two surprising images for what she has seen. Her father was like a shorn lamb, she says, and like a cloud in the blue sky of the room, thus linking him to ideas of innocence. Now she adds that he is like a mountain road, and her eye has traveled all “hairpin mountain road of the naked male.” She has seen his “unguarded flank,” a phrase that reminds the reader that he is a man who shields himself against his own emotions and those of others, and she has seen the “border of the pelvic cradle,” suggesting the link between his sex and her own existence. She is a product of that cradle, grown in the pelvic cradle of her mother, and, in that moment of vision, she seems to recognize her relationship to both of her parents.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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