‘Mother’ by Andrea Lee

Lee, Andrea 1984

Mother by Andrea Lee, 1984

The magic trick:

Using a variety of methods to characterize the mother in the story

Andrea Lee uses a variety of techniques here to honor her mother – or at least to portray the mother of the story’s narrator.

She uses anecdotes – miniature narratives that begin and end. She also describes the woman with broader adjectives and characterizations.

Then suddenly, toward the end of the story, she focuses on a particular memory that is a bit longer than the earlier bite-sized anecdotes. It deals with the mother’s actions after a neighbor commits suicide. It takes the story to a darker place, yes. It also demonstrates an interesting connection between mother and daughter as they bond over their shared excitement, perverse as it may be, over their interaction with tragedy.

Even with this odd detour, the story manages to close by situating the mother in the kitchen, thus tying all the threads of memory together. And that’s quite a trick on Lee’s part.

The selection:

When she married my father, the prescribed young minister, my mother had become, inevitably, a schoolteacher – a beautiful one. She was full-faced, full-bodied with an indestructible olive skin and an extraordinary forehead – high, with two handsome hollows over the temples. She had a bright, perverse gaze, accentuated by a slight squint in her left eye, and a quite unusual physical strength. She swam miles every summer at the swim club, and at the small Quaker school, where I was a student and she taught sixth grade, it was common to see her jumping rope with the girls, her large bosom bobbing and a triumphant, rather disdainful smile on her face. Her pupils adored her, probably because her nature held a touch of the barbarism that all children admire: she would quell misbehavior, for instance, by threatening in a soft, convincing voice to pull off the erring student’s ears and fry them for supper.

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