Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836
The unnamed twenty-three-year-old narrator/protagonist, finding herself “out of money” and not “in love,” returns home to live temporarily with her mother, who secures her a tutoring job. Her mother, a divorced school administrator, leads a quiet life in a small town resembling the author’s West Virginia hometown. The mother spends evenings knitting and watching television; the closest she comes to a man is watching Walter Cronkite, television’s grandfatherly news anchorman, who she fears has cancer. After a liberated life in college and later in California, the narrator finds the home routine dull. Rather than watch television, she starts going to her room at night to read and think. She offers her mother “a subscription to something mildly informative: Ms., Rolling Stone, Scientific American.” Her mother declines.
One subject that the narrator thinks about is her mother’s early life, recalled in old photographs. The mother attended college, then became a cadet nurse, but World War II ended before she finished her nurse’s training. She came home to care for her sick mother and eventually to marry the narrator’s father: “She married him in two weeks. It took twenty years to divorce him.” The mother, it appears, married him for strictly practical purposes: “He was older, she said. He had a job and a car. And Mother was so sick.” Perhaps a related reason for the marriage’s failure was sex—or the lack thereof. After reading in her mother’s Reader’s Digest about a girl carried off by a grizzly bear, the narrator dreams that her father approaches her sexually: “I think to myself, it’s been years since he’s had an erection.” In the final years of their marriage, the mother refused to have sex with the father.
On weekends, the narrator gets away from home by attending rummage sales, but these, too, recall the past and raise the specter of sexuality. An old football sweater for sale reminds the narrator of Jason, her high school boyfriend who “made All-State but . . . hated football.” They would park and try to make love on his sweater, but she was evidently so inhibited that their futile efforts only caused her pain. The narrator does not buy the sweater, but she does purchase “an old robe to wear in the mornings” because “it upsets my mother to see me naked.” She also buys her mother an old record, The Sound of Music, but the record reminds them both of Jason.
The subject of Jason and sex finally causes the differences between mother and daughter to erupt in an argument. It begins when they see Hubert Humphrey, the former vice president, now shockingly old and frail, on television. The mother immediately cries “cancer,” but the daughter disagrees:All Hubert needs, I tell her, is a good roll in the hay. You think that’s what everyone needs. Everyone does need it. They do not. . . . I seem to manage perfectly well without it, don’t I? No, I wouldn’t say that you do.
The mother lectures the daughter—“your attitude will make you miserable. . . . One man after another”—concluding with the declaration that Jason “lost respect” for the daughter when the two cohabited at college. The daughter screams back with an obscenity, for Jason eventually suffered some kind of mental breakdown—what he “lost” was his mind. Refusing to talk about it anymore, the mother retires to the bathroom for “hydrotherapy,” a relaxing bath. When she has to ask the daughter for a towel, the two make up. The mother is apologetic, and the daughter is shocked to see her mother naked and scarred: “She has two long scars on her belly, operations of the womb, and one breast is misshapen, sunken, indented near the nipple” where a lump was removed.
Insult is soon added to the mother’s injuries, however, when, in the story’s climax, the daughter puts her sexual theories into practice. The daughter gets a phone call from Daniel, an old California boyfriend who has come east. When they lived together, both had their problems. He smashed dishes, “ran out of the house with his hands across his eyes,” and was touchy about his Vietnam war wounds, while she finally developed total frigidity. Still, the daughter, who has been considering a trip to the university to find “an old lover,” invites him for a visit. On his best behavior, Daniel at first delights the mother, but her impression of him changes when, on Sunday morning, she hears him and her daughter making love in the bedroom above her head. The mother slams the door angrily as she leaves for church.
When she returns, Daniel has left, but her anger remains. Seeing the daughter, the mother goes to the sink and starts washing the clean dishes again. Fearfully, the daughter embraces her, and the mother complains bitterly that “I heard you. . . . Here, in my own house.” Then she hushes and stares into the water while the daughter continues holding her.
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