Saturday 11 May 2024

Mama by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin was born in Juneau, Alaska.

Alongside the recurring motif of the doctor's office, another common narrative thread found in Lucia Berlin's stories is the female narrator taking care of an ill sister. Once again, the author blurs the line between fiction and autobiography. In "Mama," the narrator provides companionship to her sister Sally, who is in the final stages of battling cancer. They reminisce about their mother, revealing the complex family history and relationship dynamics that are largely rooted in shared experiences of trauma. She was cruel, neglectful, selfish, abusive and a terrible mother to her daughters. A complicated woman and also burdened with unresolved trauma. For example, broken relationships also influenced her cynical views on the subject: "Love makes you miserable," our mama said. "You soak your pillow crying yourself to sleep, you steam up phone booths with your tears, your sobs make the dog holler, you smoke two cigarettes at once." This contrast between melancholy and dark witty humor is Berlin's specialty. She is endlessly quotable: "I told her funny stories about our mother. How once she tried and and tried to open a bag of Granny Goose potato chips, then gave up. "Life is just to damn hard," she said and tossed the bag over her shoulder." This anecdote is not only funny but offers a glimpse into the mother's personality and pessimistic worldview. Much of the story consists of these highly condensed sketches, presented in quick succession. 

Yet, despite recollecting these painful memories, the narrator attempts to uplift Sally's spirits by casting their mother in a more dignified light. She is reimagined as this youthful and beautiful person capable of expressing genuine emotion such as tears of joy. The narrator's poignant tale of her mother aboard the ship and arriving at the Juneau, Alaska harbor is emotionally resonant, especially for Sally. She is brimming with happiness at the possibilities of a fresh start. This scene stirs within Sally a profound sense of compassion towards her mother, highlighting the power of fiction. Even though the narrator is aware of the fiction's contrived artifice, Sally remains unaffected by such distinctions. The closing sentence serves as a poignant revelation of the narrator's genuine sentiments towards her mother, starkly juxtaposed with those of her sister. Overall, this is a solid story and falls somewhere in the middle-tier of Berlin's work.

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