Tag: parenting

Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl” (1978)

jamaica kinkaid girl

The photograph, by Nina Lean of Time Life Pictures, appears in the online edition of the New Yorker’s version of the story. It did not appear when the story was originally published.

Some of the reasons this story, if it is a story (Kincaid’s early writings were autobiographical visas out of her former like in Jamaica), is so captivating: the mixture of humor and cruelty; the revelations, one after the other, about the girl and whoever happens to be giving her alleged life lessons, presumably her mother; the revelations about the family life the girl leads, comfortable enough to serve tea and have three meals a day at table but not so luxurious as to not have to plant okra a distance from the house; the recurring hammering about her becoming a slut: “try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming,” “and so prevent yourself from looking like the slut you know you are bent on becoming,” behave this way and that “this way [men] won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming”; the contrast, as in a piece of music when brass and winds clash, or when the percussion section suddenly blasts its awareness, between the mundane and the catastrophic (“this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child even before it becomes a child”); the use of allusive language in an environment where allusions appear to be always better than directness, except when preaching advice or directives, where it is important to learn how to smile to people you like only so much, or not at all, where it is important to learn how to lie, but also how to have the kind of fun that would have you spit in the air and move just enough to avoid it hitting you in the face; the way we have the entire biography of a girl coming of age, of her parent’s abrasive rearing, of a family where the girl’s role has been turned over to a form of servitude; the way semi-colons are the only dividers between a life of impositions, expectations, derision and occasional fun for appearance’s sake; the way Kinaid has invented an entirely new way to tell a story, long enough for two pages, long enough to die and never be done again: a one hit wonder of its kind; even the way it ends, with a hilarious and sad kicker that makes you want to squeeze every loaf of bread you see from now on.

The New Yorker, June 19, 1978

Cheever, “The Sutton Place Story” (1946)

Deborah is the not-quite 3-year-old daughter of Katheryn and Robert Tennyson. Her parents party and get drunk so much that “She made Martinis in the sand pile and thought all the illustrations of cups, goblets, and glasses in her nursery books were filled with Old-Fashioneds.” She is mostly cared for by a nanny, Mrs. Hartley, with whom she quarrels as if the two were an old couple. At one of her parents’ parties, they entertain a woman called Renee Hall, an actress, about 35, “dissipated and gentle,” who saw her life disappearing and her wish for a child unfulfilled. She takes to Deborah, but has a falling out with the Tennysons when she becomes too attached to the little girl, lavishes her with too many gifts and even ventures to question her parents’ style:

But eventually Mrs. Hartley hands off Deborah to Renee to look after for a few hours a week, especially when Mrs. Hartley goes to church. One of those days, right after Deborah tells renee that she has a friend called Martha and is dismissed “of course you do”) Deborah disappears. Her parents are in a panic. The search is on. Police finally find her in front of an antique store on Third Avenue. She tells her father she had to find her friend Martha.

The story recall Flannery O’Connor’s “The River,” where of course the boy, also surrounded by drunkard and somewhat more indifferent parents, isn’t found but drowns, looking for his own version of Martha.

[Missing children, panic, loss, unfulfilled life, projection, parenting, drinking]
The New Yorker, June 29, 1946

Willa Cather, “The Sentimentality of William Tavener”

The circus is in town, and Hester wants her harsh husband to let their boys go there. William and Hester Taverner are prosperous farmers in McPherson County (a rarity). Silence “was William’s refuge and his strength,” but he was a hard man, “grasping, determined and ambitious.” Hester remembers going to the circus when she was young. She tries to convince William of letting the boys go. “Nobody was ever hurt by goin’ to a circus,” she says. Turns out he’d sneaked out and been to the same circus when he was a boy. That startles Hester. They reminisce. “Their relationship had become purely a business one, like that between landlord and tenant. In her desire to indulge her boys she had unconsciously assumed a defensive and almost hostile attitude towards her husband. No debtor ever haggled with his usurer more doggedly than did Hester with her husband in behalf of her sons. The strategic contest had gone on so long that it had almost crowded out the memory of a closer relationship. This exchange of confidences tonight, when common recollections took them unawares and opened their hearts, had all the miracle of romance.” They talk so much “they had as much to say to each other as people who meet after a long separation.” He then gets up for bed and sets aside $10 for their boys to go. Hester “had a painful sense of having missed something, or lost something; she felt that somehow the years had cheated her.” She gives the boys the money. All these years, she had been their advocate. And now, this twist, as she spoke for their father. “The boys looked at each other in astonishment and felt that they had lost a powerful ally.”