The Youngest Daughter

by Cathy Song

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What is the meaning of the poem "The Youngest Daughter" by Cathy Song?

Song’s poem, “The Youngest Daughter” portrays the struggle between a mother and daughter. The mother has a multitude of physical problems that cause her daughter to feel burdened with her care. The mother feels trapped in the home, unable to leave for fear of falling on the ground. The son is married and the oldest daughter lives far away from the mother and youngest daughter. The day begins in darkness and pain for the daughter who suffers from migraine headaches. Her skin is pale, damp and tingly. Often, her mother rubs her brow to ease the ache from the migraine.

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Cathy Song, a Chinese-Korean American poet, often writes about her family.   Song was the youngest of six children.  Her poem “The Youngest Daughter” refers to the Chinese concept of filial piety.  This custom means to take care of one's parents with respect and honor, sacrificing for them.  It is considered the most important virtue of a child for his parent.

Written in free verse, this poem employs first person point of view with the narration provided by the youngest daughter.  Through her eyes, the reader learns of the relationship between the mother and daughter. The narrator encapsulates a day in both of their lives.

The day begins in darkness and pain for the daughter who suffers from migraine headaches.  Her skin is pale, damp and tingly.  Often, her mother rubs her brow to ease the ache from the migraine. 

As she brings her mother in for her bath, the mother sounds in good humor, joking about her large breasts like two huge walruses.  As the daughter washes her, the mother sighs and closes her eyes with satisfaction.  After the bath, the mother prepares their daily tea and snack for them.  They eat without talking.  This is the mother’s version of the day.

The daughter’s day is somewhat different.  As she bathes her mother, she scrubs her mother’s breasts and thinks of the children that drank from them and the old man who took pleasure from them.  She has an acrid taste in her mouth. While scrubbing her mother, she is no longer as tender with her mother as she once was.  However, the daughter feels empathy for her because the bruises from her insulin injections.  It seems as though they have been in this gloomy room forever.

The mother prepares their tea ritual.  Each wrestles with her own thoughts.  The mother knows that the daughter wants  to be free from her burden; yet, the she  needs her.  Ironically, the daughter toasts the health of her mother just as a flock of birds soar into the clouds. 

As I toast to her health,

with the tea she has poured,

a thousand cranes curtain the window,

fly up in a sudden breeze.

The poem portrays a slice of two people’s lives who love each other.  Thematically, one needs the other; the other one wants not to be needed.

Song’s figurative language is both harsh and vivid.  Using similes to project the dramatic portrait of the bath scene, the reader senses the intensity of the emotional struggle of the youngest daughter.  The meaning is that the mother’s awareness of her daughter’s desire to be rid of the filial responsibility deepens the sadness of the daily vignette. 

We eat in the familiar silence.

She knows I am not to be trusted,

even now planning my escape.

The meaning is that the melancholy ceremonies will continue until the daughter can no longer bear her burden or the old woman dies. The meaning is that neither end brings contentment

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