‘How to Talk to Your Mother’ by Lorrie Moore
Read it here in about 20 minutes.
Thinking about motifs…
I’m a sucker for nostalgia. Having a short story/novel look back into the past, especially after a character has died, gets me every time. The opening line of this story tells us someone has died: ‘Without her, for years now,’; the title tells us it’s the narrator’s mother, and my sentimentality is immediately triggered.
This story uses a backwards chronology. The reader can see this right away, as the years are listed, in bold font, like bullet points, down the left-hand side of the page. There’s one paragraph per year, although some years are missing – why is that? Did nothing happen? Or too much?
Many of the paragraphs include real-world events, such as ‘1972. Nixon wins by a landslide’ and ‘1967. … The first successful heart transplant is performed in South Africa’ – I like this technique; it adds realism, and brings us out of the narrator’s personal life for a moment, before throwing us back in.
As we read, we see motifs – recurring images – babies/children, the kitchen and domestic activities, hearts, the confusion between love and sex. As the story progresses, we can see the same mistakes being made over and over again by the narrator.
When we reach the end of the story (the chronological beginning), we can perhaps understand why these motifs are significant to the narrator, although we can’t figure out, just as she can’t, what went wrong for her. The backwards chronology works because of this; we see the end of the story first, then we move backwards in time to see how she got there (but not why). We also see that, although the narrator did not have her own child, in caring for her mother as she aged, did she not become a mother, of sorts, after all?
The story is circular, beginning and ending with dreams and babies, and a child trying (but not really) to talk to a mother who does not understand her.