At Weddings and Wakes by Alice Mcdermott

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Momma Towne ruled the roost when she received it from her sister, who died in her fourth childbirth leaving an infant, Veronica, and three other little girls—Lucy, May, and Agnes. Perhaps Momma gathers the children closely to her because she feels guilty about taking a ready-made family from a dead sister. Perhaps she feels remorse from being angered by the killing hand of God after she waited seven years in Ireland for the chance to come to her sister in the United States. Perhaps the guilt is the result of her deliberate and successful attempt to tempt her sister’s husband into marriage not by attracting him physically but by seducing him with arguments, substituting mindplay for foreplay. When she finally has a child of her own, a son, she spoils him; while he is still a young man, she dismisses him from her house and from herself so thoroughly that he appears, hat in hand, only at weddings and wakes.

Lucy is the only one of the girls who marries and leaves home, but she is so closely tied to her stepmother and her stepmother’s house that she makes arduous and frequent visits home in the summer, bringing her three children. Twice a week, they make the journey from their house in Long Island, which is ten blocks from the nearest bus stop. The bus takes them past the cemetery, the churches, and out of suburbia, where they have to transfer to another bus in a crowded multiethnic neighborhood. Once there, they proceed to the subway station, where surroundings seem to the children even more bizarre. They take a train that rushes them through Queens and on to Brooklyn, then transfer to another train. The children notice their mother’s confidence growing until, finally again in her old neighborhood, she settles from a hurried to a relaxed pace, sending the message that she is again at home.

Waiting for Lucy and her children are the aunts. May left a convent because she had come to realize that she loved the life of a nun too much to think of it as devotion, duty, or sacrifice. May returns to her stepmother’s house and settles into the routine of caring for Momma and looking forward to the visits of Lucy’s children. Veronica, the youngest of the sisters, is always at home, her face still disfigured by early skin problems, sipping cocktails that have become her nourishment. Agnes, a career woman, though able to leave the house to work as an executive secretary and to separate herself by means of her finely tuned tastes, is a stern and brittle woman.

Together, stepmother and sisters indulge in ritual complaints. Lucy is foremost in her never-ending litany of vague protests against the man she married, who dutifully drives to Brooklyn after work to fetch his family home. In the house of his mother-in-law, he performs for Momma the rites of a businessman, and he speaks politely and gently over cocktails and dinner to each of...

(The entire section is 770 words.)