Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) is remembered as one of America’s greatest wits. If you watch Gilmore girls, you’ll be familiar with her name, as Rory is depicted reading a 1976 edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker. The creator of Gilmore girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino, was clearly a huge fan, naming her production company Dorothy Parker Drank Here. I feel the character of Miss Patty is straight out of Dorothy Parker’s world.
Dorothy Parker was famous for her acerbic literary reviews, and deliberately picked targets she knew she’d hate.
Aside from reviewing, Parker wrote her own original fiction, mostly when she was young, and always in the short form. But her short story “I Live On Your Visits”, published in 1930, was created at the other end of her life, after her own marriage had broken down and she herself was living in a hotel.
Your reading may or may not be affected by the fact that these characters are inspired by real people in Parker’s life:
[“I Live On Your Visits”] is about her close friend, Beatrice Ames Stewart, the former wife of Algonquin Round Table member Donald Ogden Stewart. He left his wife for the widow of muckraker Lincoln Steffens, Ella Winter. The couple’s two sons, who Bea raised alone, are the inspiration for the character in the story. (It was Bea Stewart who went to Parker’s apartment the day she died and took her dog home with her, or else Lillian Hellman would have removed the collar and turned the pooch out into Central Park).Dorothy Parker Society
The Dorothy Parker society also reminds us that “everything in the short story is similar to the The Ladies of the Corridor, which Parker co-wrote with Arnaud d’Usseau in 1953″, that Parker is saying something important about living alone, and that it’s not really meant to be funny. This is clearly one of those stories which will be interpreted differently depending on how much the reader knows about the author and her life. I will be approaching this story as a standalone piece.
“I Live On Your Visits” is not considered one of Parker’s deeper stories, not even by the Dorothy Parker Society, and was in fact dropped from a later edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker.
When Andrew Sean Greer joined Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “I Live on Your Visits,” he pointed out that reading Dorothy Parker aloud is completely different from reading her inside your head. He found the character of the mother far more lively when performed. Dorothy Parker was clearly very aware of her audience at all times (why else deliberately review the things you despise?) and performed on a stage even when writing for the page. We can take that on advice: Parker’s work is better read aloud.
SETTING OF I LIVE ON YOUR VISITS
- PERIOD — Greer mentions that he keeps forgetting this story is set in the 1950s, not the 1920s. We tend to associate Dorothy Parker with flapper fashion and culture, but remember this was written when Parker was a middle aged woman. This story was published in 1955, and we can assume the story is set around the same time because Parker herself was living in a hotel and she was no doubt inspired by that experience. It’s interesting to see Dorothy Parker explain the word “cool” meaning “awesome” rather than “coldish”, which was a new trend in the 1950s, and one which never died.
- DURATION — a portion of a single afternoon
- LOCATION — a hotel in America
- ARENA — The entire story takes place in the mother’s hotel room, which is actually a bit like a castle with secret rooms, if we count the surprisingly well-stocked fridge as a separate room. The symbolism of rooms within rooms may be symbolised by the gift of a music box at the end, or perhaps I’m reading too much into it. (Rather than like a castle, the mother’s rooms are probably better compared to the interconnecting back rooms of a well-lit stage.)
- WEATHER — It’s raining outside, which juxtaposes against the warm, well-lit interior of the hotel room.
- TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — There’s nothing crucial to the plot, but the electric bulbs surely have symbolic significance:
[The hotel room] was warm, and it was so bright. The many-watted electric bulbs his mother insisted upon were undimmed byt he thin frilled shades she had set on the hotel lamps, and there ere shiny things everywhere: sheets of mirror along the awalls; a square of mirror backing the mirror-plated knob on the door that led to the bedroomp cigarette boxes made of tiny bits of mirror and matchboxes slipped into little mirror jackets placed all about; and, on consoles and desk and table, photographs of himself at two and a half and five and seven and anine framed in broad mirror bands.
What’s with the mirrors? Typically, mirrors are symbolically associated with vanity, which would be in line with the mother’s imaginary stage, in which she uses the true friend as her audience.
- LEVEL OF CONFLICT — The central conflict is between a mother and a son, and how involved a son should/can be in a mother’s life.
- THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The mother seems to live in hope that she’ll achieve some sort of deep familial connection with her son, but by the end of the story she has realised that her boy is a man now, and he has chosen his father’s family as his main one. This mother appreciates ‘tall’ (grown/mature) men, and when she bids him goodbye, she is bidding her relationship with child-son goodbye.
CHARACTERS OF I LIVE ON YOUR VISITS
There are three characters on the page of this story: The Mother, the son (Christopher) and the mother’s friend (“true friend”, Mme. Marah), sitting on a sofa nearby. (Marah is a variant on Mara, which means “bitter” in Hebrew. This is a name taken by Naomi in the Old Testament. I have no idea if this is intended symbolism or not, though the son does make a Biblical reference with the food.)
“Mme. Marah,” his mother said, “may I present my son?”
“Christ, he’s a big bastard, isn’t he?” the true friend said.
She was a fine one to talk about anybody’s being big. Had she risen, she would have stood shoulder against shoulder with him, and she must have outweighed him by sixty pounds. She was dressed in quantities of tweedlike stuff ornamented, surprisingly, with black sequins set on in patterns of little bunches of grapes. On her massive wrists were bands and chains of dull silver, from some of which hung amulets of discolored ivory, like rotted fangs. Over her head and neck was a sort of caul of crisscrossed mauve veiling, splattered with fuzzy black balls. The caul caused her no inconvenience. Puffs of smoke issued sporadically from behind it, and, though the veiling was crisp elsewhere, around the mouth it was of a marshy texture, where drink had passed through it.
His mother became the little girl again. “Isn’t he wonderful?” she said. “This is my baby. This is Crissy-wiss.”
“What is his name?” the true friend said.
“Why, Christopher, of course,” his mother said.
Why the emphasis on the size of the True Friend? My reading is that the True Friend is a trans woman or a drag queen. Apparently, an earlier version of this story included a gay queen, who was omitted during the editing process. Andrew Sean Greer feels conflicted about this; Parker surely knew many gay queens in real life, but may have severely disappointed him if she’d gotten the character wrong. On the other hand, he feels he himself was edited out of the story, then speculates, as I had, that the True Friend is simply a recasting of the Gay Queen who was ostensibly removed, but not really.
Another short story in which the rainbow was sucked out of it (but not really): “Je ne parle pas Francais” by Katherine Mansfield. You can edit the surface level rainbow out of a story, but a queer story remains queer at a fundamental level.
By the way, a caul is a woman’s close-fitting indoor headdress or hairnet. Also: the amniotic membrane enclosing a fetus.
The character of the mother reminds Greer of a Miss Havisham character.
Miss Havisham is a character in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations (1861). She is a wealthy spinster, once jilted at the altar, who insists on wearing her wedding dress for the rest of her life. She lives in a ruined mansion with her adopted daughter, Estella.Wikipedia
She puts me in mind of Norma Desmond, the star of Sunset Boulevard. Norma, like this mother, performs on an imaginary stage.
Off-stage cast of characters: Christopher’s father (the mother’s former husband) and the father’s ‘new’ wife, Whitey, who has in fact been married to the father for a number of years already. She is a much easier personality to deal with than Christopher’s own dramatic mother. The stepmother also happens to have a small white dog called Whitey, who followed her home one day in the snow and already seemed to answer to Whitey. An interesting detail — what does it mean?
The step-mother’s alter ego is simply a dog who, by coincidence, has the same name. The real mother’s alter ego is the baby voice she slips into. I believe these two women are being juxtaposed; the alter ego of the dog is cute and unproblematic, whereas Chris is constantly walking on eggshells around his birth mother, gauging whether she’s being a little girl or the darker, more serious version of herself. (On-stage versus off-stage.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF I LIVE ON YOUR VISITS
I feel this is one of those titles with two very similar meanings:
- I live ‘for’ your visits — I can’t wait to see you
- When you visit, that is the time I come fully to life.
Whose story is this? I consider it a character study, mainly of the mother, though the true friend is thrown in for sparkle. This is also a ‘relationship’ study, in which the son is the straight man and the mother is the eccentric in something akin to a black-comedy duo.
The mother is clearly disenfranchised from mainstream society, not least because she’s a divorced woman in the 1950s. We must deduce the rest. Alcoholic? A sex worker? When Chris hopes she’s not “like that”, what does he mean? I take it he’s hoping she hasn’t turned to sex work, but I can’t see any other way the mother is supporting herself, with a well-stocked fridge at that. And why she’d lie about having no money if she weren’t ashamed of the money she did have.
The mother wants to see more of her son. The son is basically stonewalling her by refusing to tell her much about his life at his expensive school and with his father’s new family.
Mother and son are each other’s opponent, though I detect some passive aggressiveness on the part of the true friend who dishes out a fortune for Chris, unasked for. Who wants to hear news that your third born will be stillborn or something like that, and that your health is in jeopardy?
Madam Marah is basically a witch archetype — the one in a fairytale who turns up uninvited and gives the really shit present. By divining the boy’s future, she is almost wishing it upon him, as a curse. The mother is sort of like the witch’s shapeshifting familiar, or a witch herself, from the same cabal.
The mother strangely divies people up into ‘human beings’ (good) and others (bad). Ironically, the true friend is hellbent on dividing people up according to their star sign, which is the opposite of treating someone like a ‘human being’.
The son plans to spend as little time as possible with his mother at his requisite visit to her new hotel. Fortunately for him, the trains have made it so he is already late. He does not plan to extend the visit at the other end, especially after he learns there’s a weird friend with his mother in her hotel room.
The mother has for some reason invited her friend to the room despite wanting quality time with the son she sees seldom. Why would she do that? My take: The true friend functions as an audience, and also as an ally of sorts, who can be trusted to side vaguely with the mother in censure of the son.
It’s even less clear what Madam Marah is getting out of this, but she clearly gets some sort of thrill out of divining an unpleasant future for a teen who, looking through her eyes, is a privileged white boy who attends a fancy school. She’s basically telling Chris not to rest on his privilege. Health and happiness may be fleeting. She’s trying her best to equalise them all. She also uses horoscopes to fatalistically explain the world and why people do the things they do. The mother probably finds this a comfort. It takes all blame off her shoulders.
The entire visit has been low-level conflict, and finally the boy stands up to leave. He’s leaving when he wants to, not when the mother wants him to. Christopher has won this battle.
“Christ, he gets bigger and bigger,” says the true friend. The boy has now reached adulthood, symbolised by his supposed largeness. We’ve seen his progression with the snapshot of his photos at various stages of his development, in which his head is too big for his body. Now he is fully independent from his mother.
“You must go,” she said. “It is so written. But take happiness with you. Take sweet memories of our time together.”
The mother is the melodramatic type, but her melodramatic tendencies come in handy, because now she seems to be saying goodbye to the relationship she had with childhood Christopher, prepared to say hello to adult Christopher.
The mother gives Christopher the gift of a music box which plays the national anthem of France. There’s a plastic Poodle on top of it. Christopher assumes he’s to give it to his step-mother, but his mother intends for him to give it to her dog. What are we to make of this? I suspect readers are meant to find this gesture as baffling as Christopher does.
Christopher goes back to his father’s family. He’s said nothing the entire visit other than platitudes and required responses. He has clearly learned this way of dealing with his mother, and put it into practice on this day, in which he was more tested than usual by the addition of his mother’s horoscope-obsessed witchy friend.
“I Live On Your Visits” is a snapshot of a boy’s uncomfortable and reluctant visit to see his mother, but there’s no sense that he won’t return for more of the same drama. This is how it is between him and his eccentric mother.
Compare and contrast with “Reunion” by John Cheever, this time about a boy’s uncomfortable visit to see his father. In that story, it is doubtful that the boy will ever see his father again.
Boys, especially, are required to bifurcate from their mothers around adolescence. This seems to be an intergenerational truism, and even when mothers are excellent, there’s the grief of healthy and natural separation. Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood goes deep into that.
Parents and adult children must almost divorce before forging a new relationship, this time between adults rather than between child and adult. There will no doubt continue to be many stories about the relationships between adult parents and their adult children.