The sometimes tumultuous relationship that mothers and daughters share has been the subject of many literary works. This bond affects both parties in profound ways that they themselves may not even understand. Many stories have been written to explain the complicated feelings that a daughter has with her mother. In “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)”, Lorrie Moore implements an unconventional style that provides a unique perspective for the familiar topic of mother-daughter relationships.
Moore starts the story in the 1980s and slowly travels back in time to the 1930s, recounting events that have happened in the interim. This deviation from the traditional, linear story forces the reader to think about events in a new way. It shows where the narrator is and then proceeds to reveal the path that leads her there.
When reading the events of her past, the reader thinks of them in the context of the narrator currently sitting on the bus, looking at babies that belong to someone else and missing her mother. “The Mothers can see you eyeing their children. They smile sympathetically. They believe you envy them. They believe you are childless.” (240-241) Right away, the emotional state of the narrator is revealed and there is a mystery surrounding who she is. The story becomes “What made the narrator who she is?” rather than “What will the narrator become?”
The other interesting technique used by Moore is that she tells the story in second person. This creates a story that reads like advice or commands instead of traditional story being told. At the end of the entry for 1975 it says, “March, like Stella Dallas, spine straight, through the melodrama of street lamps, phone posts, toward the green house past Borealis Avenue, toward the rear apartment with the tilt and the squash on the stove. Your horoscope says: Be kind, be brief. You are pregnant again. Decide what you must do.” (p 242) The burden of what to do with an unplanned pregnancy is placed, not on the narrator, but on the reader. Although the reader, of course, cannot make an active choice about what to do, they are forced to consider what they would do. This makes the story more personal for the reader, rather than just an abstract concept.
The other affect that the second person point of view has on the story is that it mimics a How-to Guide that might be feature in a magazine or advice column. In 1978 it says, “Bury her in the cold south sideyard of that Halloweenish house. Your brother and his kids are there. Hug.” (p. 241) This comes across as a command on how to properly bury your mother and interact with your family. Of course, unlike traditional How-to Guides, this story does not portray ideal scenarios and how to do the absolutely right thing.
As this unconventional guide travels back in time, the life story of the narrator unravels, revealing a somewhat troubled past. In 1965 she says, “Try to figure out what has made your life go wrong. It is like trying to figure out what is stinking up the refrigerator. It could be anything.” (p. 245) It is also revealed that the narrator has had three abortions in the course of her life. In her mind, her life ha been imperfect and she has been less than an ideal person.
Throughout the story, however, we can see the strong relationship that she has had with her mother and how highly she values it. She says, “Think about your mother. Sometimes you confuse her with the first man you ever loved, who ever loved you, who buried his head in the pills of your sweater and said magnificent things like “Oh god, oh god,” who loved you unconditionally, terrifically, like a mother.”(p. 243) This denotes not a sexual relationship, but one of intense love. The narrator sees her mother, and all mothers, as the greatest source of unconditional that others aspire to attain.
The first time that the narrator has an abortion, she calls herself “a zoo of insecurities.”(p. 245) Even if she doesn’t realize it, she believes that she cannot live up to being the source of unconditional love that her mother has been for her.
In 1967, the narrator’s mother moves in with her because she is sick. The narrator says, “You feel many different kinds of emptiness.” (p. 244) Shortly after this, she has her second abortion. As she takes care of her mother and feels the pain of her deterioration, she continues to actively make the decision to not become a mother herself. Although she loves her mother, she can’t see herself fulfilling that role for someone else and putting them threw the same things that she has been through.
The unconventional method of storytelling in this story engages the reader in a different way and forces the reader to examine the influences that created the person that the narrator is. As she goes through life and faces challenges, the reader must think about the relationships between parents and children and how they affect who we become. The choices that we make often determine the people we become and are shaped by those that we have held a close bond with.