The first person narrator in “Filling Station “ by Elizabeth Bishop describes a typical gasoline station of the latter half of the twentieth century. The family-owned stations are hard to find in today’s world of convenience stores. The narrator takes an interest in the filling station because she is part of the family.
This business has apparently seen better days. If the narrator is reliable, this is a filthy place. Everything seems to be covered in an oily film.
Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
The gas station may be old and so busy that cleanliness is not a first priority.
The father is wearing a monkey suit according to the narrator. The outfit is probably a pair of work overalls. The monkey suit phrase comes from the nickname for an auto mechanic, whose slang term is "grease monkey." His overalls are too tight because they rub under his arms. The reader may wonder why he cannot afford a new pair, or he may have recently put on extra weight.
The father’s sons work at the station with him. According to the speaker, there are several sons. These boys work hard like their father. In addition, the sons are quick in their work but a little sassy in their attitudes.
The reader can imagine pulling into the station. Then, the driver would ask to fill it up with gasoline. One of the sons would check the air in the tires. Another one would check the oil and water under the hood. The third son cleans the windshield. The father finishes filling up the tank; then, he tells the driver how much the gas cost because all the other service is free. That is how the filling stations used to work.
The summary of the second half of the poem includes a description of the family dog, which sits resting comfortably in a wicker chair on a cement slab. Although the narrator is a member of this family, she asks the question of whether the family lives in the filling station. It is unclear where the family lives.
In the next three stanzas, the tone changes. The narrator finds a little spot in the gas station, probably in the office, that is like an oasis in the desert. Someone has tried to fix a little area that looks rather homey; it has been given a feminine touch.
There is a nice table that is part of a matching set. On the table is a homemade crocheted doily. In addition, on the table is a begonia plant. The color in the area is provided by the comic books awaiting their readers.
The narrator wonders why these items are here. Who made the doily, bought the plant, or moved in the table? Her answer becomes quite poignant. She says to herself: “Somebody who loves us all.”
She does not tell the reader who that person is. Obviously, it must be her mother who has gone away. Possibly she has died or has just left. The reader is left to wonder.