Child of My Heart

by Alice Mcdermott
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1601

Child of My Heart is a middle-aged woman’s reminiscence of her fifteenth summer, when she was in charge of “four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight- year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist.” Theresa’s recollections of that momentous summer possess a dreamlike quality, as if life in early 1960’s East Hampton was slightly removed from reality. The youthful characters are clearly delineated, their daily rounds meticulously described, while the portrayal of the adult world is sketchy, vague, and short on names. Unfortunately, adult reality impinges upon the idyllic realm of childhood as the teenage Theresa bridges the gap between youth and adulthood.

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Theresa’s parents, in their mid-forties at her birth and knowing she would be their only child, moved from Brooklyn to East Hampton, Long Island, when Theresa was only two. Aware that their daughter possessed an unusual beauty in the mold of Jackie Kennedy or Elizabeth Taylor, they relocated to this summer enclave of the rich to maximize her opportunities for success. Being working-class Irish Americans of limited education, they could envision future success for their daughter only through an advantageous marriage. To maximize her contacts with the wealthy, they enrolled Theresa as a day student at a boarding school for the daughters of wealthy South Americans and Asians during the school year and in the summer encouraged her to hire herself out to the wealthy as baby-sitter, dog-walker, or mother’s helper. Proving equally popular with adults, kids, and dogs, Theresa became from the age of ten the most sought after baby- sitter in town. Her knack with children and animals was such that they often preferred her company to that of their own parents or owners.

This particular summer, Theresa is charged with the daily care of Flora, the two-year-old daughter of a famous seventy-year-old artist and his much younger fourth wife. She is also dog-walker for Dr. Kaufman, a recently divorced, lonely, middle-aged man, and an older couple, the Richardsons. By default, she often also tends to the severely neglected neighboring Moran children. Most importantly, however, she is companion to her eight-year-old cousin Daisy who, at Theresa’s invitation, has come to spend the summer with her, escaping Brooklyn and her seven siblings, strict father, and tired mother. Daisy accompanies her cousin on the daily round of baby-sitting and dog-walking while the two girls weave a wonderful private fantasy world around themselves as they perform their duties. Entering into this private domain, however, is the increasingly evident fact that something is seriously wrong with Daisy. She has bruises on her feet, back, and arm, suffers from fevers, and appears pale and weak. Theresa, sensing that Daisy’s summer idyll will be over once the adults notice her condition, tries to minister to the eight-year-old herself, feeding her liver and spinach and sneaking her children’s aspirin.

In Theresa’s world, adults appear to have abdicated responsibility for their children. Her own parents are barely a presence in her life, leaving for work early in the morning and returning home late. Even while at home, they seem to form a close bond which does not include Theresa. At breakfast, “when they saw me, my father would pull out the third chair and my mother would stand up to get an extra plate as if I were an unexpected guest.” Theresa realizes that she is destined to separate herself from them, as “the best assurance they would have that I had indeed moved into a better strata of society would be my scorn for the lesser one to which they belonged.” She notices that in “[t]urning away from me in anticipation of my turning away from them, they left me more alone that summer than perhaps I’d ever been.”

Daisy’s parents also form a close unit which tends to shut out their children. Theresa notes that in her aunt and uncle’s bedroom, rather than pictures of their children, they have only a wedding picture, as if believing that by closing the bedroom door they can deny the existence of their offspring. Theresa’s young charge Flora might as well be parentless, as her mother leaves for parts unknown, her father only fitfully notices her, and the housekeeper has no interest in her at all. The neighboring Moran children, as well, are the victims of extreme parental neglect.

Almost from the beginning the reader is privy to the fact of Daisy’s impending death, which is prefigured in many ways, casting an air of sadness over the otherwise joyous summer days. For example, when one of the cats she has been caring for dies, Theresa realizes that “It was not Curly anymore, that lifeless thing Debbie had cradled, not in my recollection of it. It was the worst thing. It was what I was up against.” In the sight of Daisy carrying a kite on her back one afternoon toward the end of their time together, Theresa cannot help but see “[a] modern art version, it seemed to me, of angel wings.” Also running throughout the novel is the metaphor of Daisy’s jeweled plastic shoes, the color of which seems to magically reflect her condition at the time. One day, toward the end of the summer, Theresa points out to Daisy that they have turned sky blue, which means she is about to fly.

Daisy’s impending death is emblematic of the death of Theresa’s childhood. The summer that Daisy begins to die is the summer Theresa leaves childhood behind for good and crosses over into adulthood. She passes all of her childhood stories and fantasies on to Daisy, along with her old clothes, still stored neatly in the attic. Little by little she gives over her childhood to Daisy, who is soon to die. Significantly, Theresa refers to Daisy as the “child of my heart.” As Theresa’s childhood dies with Daisy, her adult self begins to emerge, beginning with her sexual initiation.

Although the loss of a young girl’s virginity is usually accompanied by a loss of innocence, Theresa is already wise beyond her years and in control of her fate. She coolly admits that “my easy-to-admire childish beauty was quickly becoming something a little thinner, and sharper, and certainly more complicated . . . ” and she very deftly handles the clumsy behavior of the middle-aged men whose children and pets she tends to. Her sexual initiation with Flora’s seventy- year-old father is not so much a seduction by him as a simple experiment on her part. “My advantage was that I knew what he was trying to do—and I was better at it.” After sleeping with the artist, she feels that her separation from her parents, and thus her childhood, is complete: “I felt sweet, deep, sorrowful nostalgia for them, and for the days I had been in their care.”

McDermott is particularly adept at creating a childlike sense of wonder. Theresa has a special touch in creating magic for the children in her care. Instead of buying one sucker for Daisy at the corner store, she buys one hundred, which they giddily toss all over Daisy’s house to the delight and amazement of her siblings. On a day too cold to go to the beach, Theresa, Daisy, and Flora build an elaborate construction-paper city on the porch, in which Flora’s missing mother has wondrous adventures. On what is to become their last day together, the three girls attach lollipops and licorice strings to a tree in Flora’s yard, creating a marvelous candy tree.

McDermott also excels in depicting the Irish Catholic experience in America which, although only peripheral to this novel, she captures beautifully. She describes Theresa’s parents and their friends spending evenings tracing “[c]ircuitous, circumstantial lineages that seemed to encompass all the years of their youth and the breadth of the five boroughs, and were always linked . . . to the names of Catholic parishes, as if no identity of friend or cousin . . . could be truly established without first determining where he or she had been baptized or schooled or married. . . . ” Although content with this insular, smothering world themselves, they realize that it will never be enough for their daughter.

Child of My Heart simultaneously inspires admiration and provokes questions. Theresa seems at times too good to be true—too mature for a fifteen-year-old, too in control, too perfect with the children, and her attraction to the seventy- year-old artist is problematic. Similarly, Theresa’s motives in keeping Daisy’s bruises and fevers from any responsible adults is questionable. Does she really want to preserve Daisy’s one last summer of magic, or does she just want to keep her close to preserve her own childhood? “I knew I would have to tell someone, my mother, my father, perhaps Dr. Kaufman himself, and already I felt the loss of her, taken from my arms.” Underlying the entire novel is the question of the narrator’s reliability. The middle-aged Theresa is a complete cipher, and the reader can only guess at her motives.

Thus, Child of My Heart, on the surface a simple reminiscence of a notable summer, is in fact a many-layered, complex novel, dealing with death, childhood, adolescence, loss of innocence, parental responsibility, and much more. The overriding theme, however, is loss, “the inevitable, insufferable loss buried like a dark jewel at the heart of every act of love.”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 99 (September 15, 2002): 180.

Library Journal 127 (November 15, 2002): 101.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 24, 2002, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (November 24, 2002): 11.

Publishers Weekly 249 (October 7, 2002): 51.

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