Breathing Lessons

by Anne Tyler

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Baltimore residents Maggie and Ira Moran are preparing to attend the funeral of Max Gill, husband of Maggie’s school friend, Serena, in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania. Before the interstate drive can begin, Maggie, a nursing home aide who had turned down an opportunity to attend college, must retrieve the family car from the body shop. Deeply distracted by a caller on a radio talk show (whom she believes to be Fiona, former wife of her son Jesse) who is discussing her upcoming remarriage, Maggie smashes the left front fender of the newly repaired car as she departs from the garage. This unfortunate encounter with a Pepsi delivery truck foreshadows the randomness and impulse that characterize the rest of the day for the Morans.

Obsessed with the notion that Jesse and Fiona belong together and will reconcile given the right circumstances and encouragement, Maggie suggests to Ira that they drive to Cartwheel, Pennsylvania, after the funeral to pay a visit to their former daughter-in-law, who lives in this small town with her mother and her daughter, Leroy. Ira, who is a reticent and cynical counterpoint to Maggie’s loquaciousness and unflinching optimism, is not at all in favor of adding this extra leg to the trip. His immediate concern as the drive begins is ascertaining the correct route to Deer Lick; a stop for directions at a diner provides Maggie with an opportunity to share her family foibles with the waitress behind the counter, yet another action upon which Ira frowns.

Max Gill’s funeral turns out to be part high school reunion and part oldies revival concert. Maggie and Serena connect with several former schoolmates, and the program for the service features performances of several popular songs from 1956 that were sung at Max and Serena’s wedding. Serena asks Maggie and Ira to reprise their duet of the tune “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”; Maggie is willing to do this, but Ira refuses. A former male classmate of Maggie is asked to sing Ira’s part. Despite being polar opposites in personality, sparks remain in the Moran marriage. Maggie and Ira become amorous in Serena’s bedroom during the gathering after the service, in Serena’s house; she catches them and asks them to leave.

On the road once again, Maggie pleads her case to make the trip to Cartwheel to see Fiona. Ira argues that whether or not Fiona is indeed remarrying, the notion of her getting back together with Jesse is a lost cause. The phrase “lost cause” constitutes Ira’s impression of Jesse as well. A high school dropout who dreams of becoming a rock star (even after being faced with fatherhood outside marriage) and who struggles to find steady employment, Jesse is a major disappointment to Ira, whose own youthful aspirations of attending medical school were dashed in large part by his dependent father and sisters. Daisy, Jesse’s younger sister, is more satisfactory to her parents. While it hurts Maggie that her daughter prefers the home of a better organized, more accomplished mother of a friend, Daisy is surpassing Jesse intellectually with her plans to attend college.

Back in the automobile, Ira and Maggie encounter a red Chevrolet that is weaving and stopping short in front of them. On impulse, Maggie shouts out to the driver, an elderly African American man, that the front left wheel of his car is falling off. Immediately after having done this, Maggie feels guilty and forces Ira to stop and assist the gentleman, Mr. Otis. Maggie awkwardly attempts to explain the comment, but Mr. Otis remains convinced that something is wrong with the wheel. With neither car...

(This entire section contains 981 words.)

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equipped to repair a damaged tire, the Morans drive Mr. Otis to the garage where his nephew Lamont, a young divorced man, is employed. The testy exchange between Mr. Otis and Lamont, who expresses his criticism of the constant bickering between his uncle and aunt, parallels the intergenerational value conflicts that Maggie and Ira experience in their encounters with Jesse and Fiona.

With the day more than half-expended, and Cartwheel not too far away, Ira officially capitulates on the visit to Fiona. Maggie and Ira learn that their granddaughter, Leroy, is named well after all. Originally given a masculine first name because Jesse and Fiona were hoping to have a boy (a pregnancy that would have been terminated had it not been for Maggie’s intercession), Leroy is now a tomboy, preferring a Frisbee and a baseball glove to girl’s playthings. Fiona, who lacks the voice Maggie heard on talk radio, is studying to be a licensed practitioner of electrolysis. Remaining hopeful of engineering a reconciliation between Fiona and Jesse, Maggie exaggerates Jesse’s response to their separation and divorce to the point that Fiona and Leroy agree to join Ira and Maggie on their return trip to Baltimore. At the right moment, Maggie phones Jesse to ensure his presence at dinner at 6:30 that evening.

Maggie’s hopes for Jesse’s family to be reunited come crashing down when her overstatement about Jesse is revealed as inaccurate. All chances of smoothing over this misstep are rendered impossible when the usually silent Ira speaks up and tells Fiona that Jesse has been having a physical relationship with a woman working at a nearby auto dealership. Jesse walks out, as do Fiona and Leroy, leaving their hastily packed suitcase behind.

Maggie finds some emotional and spiritual comfort in a nursing home resident’s perceptions of the afterworld. She also reestablishes contact and reconciles with her friend, Serena. One final scheme that borders on the inappropriate is the plan Maggie shares with Ira to see if Fiona will allow Leroy to live with them during the school year so that she can attend school in the larger, presumably better quality, Baltimore school system. The following day, Ira and Maggie plan to drive Daisy to college.