A Memory Summary
by Eudora Welty

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A Memory Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator remembers herself as a young teenager, lying beside a lake after her usual morning swim. In early adolescence, she judged everyone and everything and reacted so timidly to the physical world around her that she could bear to observe things only through a frame she made with her hands.

Through this frame she sees herself projected onto the world. Every leaf that falls, every bird that flies overhead, she imagines is trying to signal her, to leave her some message. Each moment is fraught with the heightened significance adolescents impose on their environment. Like most adolescents, this girl is obsessed with a secret love, a love hopelessly unexpressed that appears “grotesquely altered in the outward world.”

Her love sent her a signal one day on the stairs; she allowed herself accidentally to touch his wrist as they passed, and he pretended not to notice. Since that day she has cherished the memory of their touch, a memory that she can bring to mind at any moment and burnish with longing until it “would swell with a sudden and overwhelming beauty, like a rose forced into premature bloom for a great occasion.”

Since that day she has worried over him, watched for him, wondered about him, but has never spoken to him or made any direct contact. Her love, she confesses, made her both an observer and a dreamer. She obsesses over the dangers she imagines he may face, and when one day in Latin class he gets a bloody nose, she falls over in a dead faint. “I saw red—vermilion—blood flow over the handkerchief,” she remembers, and adds, “I recognized it.”

Lying on the beach, she polishes the memory of the day on the stairs and ponders the sense of mystery and danger that surrounds this memory in her mind. The reality of children running on the beach vies with the reality of the memory: Which is the real moment? She cannot distinguish.

While she is in this state of half-dream and half-wakefulness, a family of bathers comes and lies down too close to her. Once she notices them, she cannot look away or escape their physical presence. They are loud, squirming people whose bathing suits “did not hide either the energy or the fatigue of their bodies, but showed it exactly.” It is as if the ugly physical reality of life has penetrated the careful frame the teenager has constructed around her world, and re-created her careful, static world of incredible beauty as a caricature of itself.

The family consists of a man, two women, and two boys. One boy is so grotesquely fat that he protrudes from his costume at every turn. In the manner of young boys, he runs about wildly, pinches his brother, and kicks up sand. The other boy is younger and skinnier; he avoids his brother by throwing himself into the lake whenever he is threatened.

The adults lying on the sand also are unruly by the careful standards by which the narrator judges the world. The man lazily scoops sand against the older woman’s legs. She is fatly terrifying, a mountain of flesh that may disintegrate at any moment. Her breasts loom large and droopy; her arms teem with fat that hangs “like an arrested earthslide on a hill.”

The younger woman wears a bottle-green bathing suit and embodies a jealous rage directed at the man and woman. When the man heaps wet sand into the older woman’s bathing suit “between her bulbous descending breasts,” the angry young woman cannot keep from laughing derisively. The teenager wishes fervently that they were all dead.

The scene suddenly erupts with action. The angry younger woman joins the boys in running and jumping along the beach. They scream, the fat woman smirks, and the sounds of frantic squeals and “the fat impact of all their ugly bodies on one another” take over the teenager’s consciousness so completely that she sees that family’s antics even with her eyes closed. She tries desperately to withdraw into herself, into her dream-memory, but even while she feels the familiar heavy sweetness the memory...

(The entire section is 1,152 words.)