The Prodigal Daughter: Reclaiming an Unfinished Childhood

The Prodigal Daughter: Reclaiming an Unfinished Childhood

by Margaret Gibson

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The 1950s and 1960s were years of shifting values and social changes that did not sit well with many citizens of Richmond, Virginia, and in particular with one conservative family, a staunchly southern mother and father and their two daughters.  A powerful evocation of time and place, this memoir—a gifted poet's first book of prose—is the story of

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The 1950s and 1960s were years of shifting values and social changes that did not sit well with many citizens of Richmond, Virginia, and in particular with one conservative family, a staunchly southern mother and father and their two daughters.  A powerful evocation of time and place, this memoir—a gifted poet's first book of prose—is the story of an inquisitive and sensitive young woman's coming of age and a deeply moving recounting of her reconciliation later in life with the family she left behind.

Returning us to a Cold War world marked by divisions of race, gender, wealth, and class, The Prodigal Daughter is an exploration of difference, the powerful wedge that separates individuals within a social milieu and within a family. Echoing the biblical Prodigal Son, Margaret Gibson's memoir is less concerned with the years of excess away from home than with the seeds of division sown in this family's early years.  Hers is the story of a mother proud to be a Lady, a Southerner, and a Christian; of two daughters trapped by their mother's power; and of their father's breakdown under social and family expectations.

Slow to rebel, young Margaret finally flees the world of manners and custom—which she deems poor substitutes for right thought and right action in the face of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War—and abandons her fundamentalist upbringing.  In a defiant gesture that proves prophetic, she once signed a postcard home "The Prodigal."  After years of being the distant, absent daughter, she finds herself returning home to meet the needs of her stroke-crippled younger sister and her incapacitated parents.

In this tale of homecoming and forgiveness, death and dying, Gibson recounts how she overcame her long indifference to a sister she had thought different from herself, recognizing the strengths of the bonds that both hold us and set us free. Interweaving astute social observations on social pressures, race relations, sibling rivalry, adolescent angst, and more, The Prodigal Daughter is a startlingly honest portrayal of one family in one southern city and the story of all too many families across America.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Poet Gibson (One Body, 2007, etc.) applies keen intellect to the formidable task of recapitulating the essentials of one's childhood. In this memoir of family life, specifically the early years with her parents, the author dissects the rights and wrongs and confounding mysteries of parental and sibling relationships. Gibson was raised in Richmond, Va., in the 1950s and '60s by white, fundamentalist-leaning Christian parents who demonstrated patronizingly (but not aggressively) racist tendencies. Gibson and her sister constantly battled for the attention of their mother, a self-styled "Lady" who exerted constant control as a function of both love and duty. Their father struggled with the pressures of social expectations, class and race. The author's remarkable facility with the language of emotion and personal insight allows her to share the flow of youthful feelings that began to push her in her own direction, away from the narrowly defined "family values" espoused by her parents. For example, Dad often used his belt as punishment for serious misbehavior or disrespect. In Gibson's mind, this brutal demonstration of so-called parental love may be compared to the biblical Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac for the love of God. One day, finding herself sequestered in reflection under a lilac bush, watching her father mow the lawn, she realizes: "I could run away and not leave the backyard." Eventually, however, she does get away physically, and spiritually, from her conventional family and its precepts. Years later, her father overcome by alcoholism and emotional collapse, her sister disabled by a stroke and her mother aging, Gibson returns to find bonds that had never reallybroken. Tensions and tenderness, beautifully rendered.
From the Publisher

“Margaret Gibson has plumbed silence and secrets, class and consciousness to produce this exquisite jewel of a memoir. The Prodigal Daughter is as much a portrait of the artist as a young girl as it is a meditation upon the way art can come from calamity—sometimes, as here, producing a final, hard-won kind of grace. This is a poet’s book, with rigorous, beautiful language; indelible images (oh Lord, the old lady in the red kimono!), and insights that took my breath away.”—Lee Smith, author of The Last Girls

“Margaret Gibson’s memoir is a vivid account of a child of the South who feels both estranged from and entrenched in southern culture. She makes us care about this young girl who, with energy and imagination, struggles to find her own mind and heart in a time of civil rights ferment and religious change. Gibson’s prose is impeccable, her portrayal of characters precise, giving the reader a glimpse of historical change through the eyes of a sensitive and insightful girl. The transition from child moving toward adulthood to child assuming responsibility for her own aging parents and a disabled sister is plausible, poignant, and instructive.”
—Elizabeth Cox, author of The Slow Moon

“Margaret Gibson's The Prodigal Daughter is a lovely memoir, rich with family history, vivid details, and a lively sense of storytelling. It is a moving story of self-discovery and awareness within a complex family portrait.”—Jill McCorkle, author of The Cheer Leader

“Margaret Gibson's evocation of urban southern society in the 1950s is so on target it's scary. This is a brilliant book.”
—Shannon Ravenel, cofounder of Algonquin Books

“This is a remarkable book. The matters that it embodies, and Margaret Gibson's insight and intelligence in identifying their presence, make this memoir as readable an evocation of a time and place as I've ever come across. This portrait of the artist as a young Virginian is rich in nuance, psychologically astute, and totally honest, without pose or pretense.”—Louis Rubin, author of Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog: On Writers and Writing

“With the fine line drawing of an acute novelist, Margaret Gibson has given us not only an enthralling memoir of family portraits but also a powerful evocation of history. The world of her story is the genteel impoverished white South on the cusp of the great change of civil rights—a story too little told from this vantage point and with such unguarded candor. She tells it with integrity and heart, but always with fierce clarity.  I laughed, I sighed, I was there. A remarkable achievement.”
—Patricia Hampl, author of I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory


"Amid Margaret Gibson's descriptions of the song of a mockingbird, the hard ways of sisters with each other, schooldays in Richmond, and her own growing into knowledge, difference, and indeed love, lie the stuff of all people's lives, thus transforming a bookish evening into an experience shimmering with light, enjoyment, and above all happiness."—Sam Pickering, author of Indian Summer: Musings on the Gift of Life

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The Prodigal Daughter

Reclaiming an Unfinished Childhood

By Margaret Gibson

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2008 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-6635-4



June 2002

Southbound, the train leaves New London station in bright morning light. I've stowed my suitcase and taken a seat by the east window to watch the river, its surface so silken that the pilings of an abandoned pier reflect, refract, and plunge like roots through the flowing mirror that carries an ash-blue streak of cloud, a shining sky. At the mouth of the broad river, out where the saltwater of the Sound absorbs the fresh water of the river, a small red house flashes in a shimmer of sun, a lighthouse in every sense of the word.

The wind has risen and now ruffles the water, and in the change of light I remember the small red brick house, far south in Virginia, where I spent a shy childhood anchored to my mother. The little red hen house she had called our home in Richmond. The affectionate nickname not only revealed her deeper roots in the farm fields of Dinwiddie and Amelia Counties, it also showed how she deflected disappointment—she turned a phrase, she put on a good face. From her, from my withdrawn father, from my difficult sister, and from conventional west-end Richmond—"the center of social rest" as I've heard it called on a nationally televised newscast—I had been running away most of my life—because, as I used to tell myself, I was different.

With a shriek of its whistle, the train gets under way.

I keep three black-and-white family snapshots in my wallet, and, as the train car rattles south, I take them out. They are not gems of wholeness, harmony, and radiance, but they seem decisive. Here I am standing alone, dressed for church, in a full skirt and small hat that tells me it's the 1950s. I am eleven, posed in the front yard, sun full in my face. The sun shines white on the grass of the well-cut yard, onto which a shadow falls. The photographer's shadow spreads onto the grass between me and him, inky black. It is a silhouette of head and shoulders, and although I recognize the silhouette taking the picture as my father's, it now also seems to be the shadow of death. I hear my parents reciting in unison the Twenty-third Psalm. This is the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Death is taking my picture, the same Shadow of Death I confused as a child with God. Death the Maker of Things Invisible was also God the Father, Creator of All Things, Author and Lord of the Visible, Judge and Justifier. To see God, I remember thinking, you had to die.

And here is my mother. There is something in her eyes and the set of her smile as she looks through the camera, through even my father, who is most likely holding the camera, an ensnaring beyond flirtation, a possession that has leaped over desire and its obstacles, over the finite and the uncertain. She has won. She is unsurpassable. Whoever you are, within this gaze she has you. In glory, she will enter the Kingdom, a triumphant mother, a child of God to the end of time.

The third photograph gives me, at first glance, my cousin Jane and me. Jane, a slim and lovely young woman, holds me in her lap. I am four, dressed in a dotted-swiss dress I remember was pink and which I wore for church or for company coming. Between Jane's body and mine, there is a darkness out of which an arm strains into the light beneath only part of a face. It's hard to see my sister—Betsy, as we called her then—but there she is, squirming her way into the picture, struggling to be seen. Although I appear innocent, even demure, looking down at my patent-leather shoes, I lean back at an uncomfortable slant, using my body to block my sister from Jane's lap and evidently from my mind. For the years I didn't want see my sister, she wasn't there. I turn over the snapshot and find in my childish handwriting these words—Jane and me.

I shuffle through the three photographs again, ending with the one of me on the grass of the front yard. I inhale a scent of cut grass and lilac in our yard and the too sweet, nearly rotten scent of daffodils cut for the vase. I inhale again, and I smell summer heat on the sticky tar of Lexington Road, thunderclouds, the swell of rain, clean laundry on the line in the backyard, my mother's skin.

Aside from the years of World War II, my parents have lived in Virginia within a radius of seventy miles most of their lives, intimate with the look of things around them there—with the James River, mimosa, old fields of scotch broom and red clay; with red brick houses and magnolia trees and the sedate respectability of west-end Richmond. To see one magnolia tree anywhere might summon for them the avenue of magnolias in front of my aunt's stately house, Alandale, near Bon Air, where Dad grew up; to see an old barn with a slumped roof might remind them of the farm in Mom's Amelia County; one spreading oak might bring back with it the small red house where I lived with them, and with my sister, rubbing elbows and ideas, striking sparks from the friction.

Or are the oaks and magnolias, the barns and front porches, the cry of the backyard mockingbird for my parents only single sensations, lit for a moment, flying and flown, single notes in a passing moment? My parents are in their nineties, in residence in a nursing home. So much has slipped away. Emptiness in the mind: they must feel it spread and deepen, much as shadow takes a field into dusk and nightfall. To what we see, to what we think, to what we are, remembering offers an odd mix of distance and immediacy—an apparent contradiction resolved only by greater intimacy and depth, not by any easy harmony. Returning home, I realize, I'm now looking for memories we can hold in common; I'm looking for common ground.

And my sister, Liz, how does she see things, now that, bedridden or in a wheelchair, she looks out onto a field from a single window, the porch railing beyond it like prison bars. Aside from her honeymoon in Bermuda, my sister has lived all of her life in or near Richmond. If she was happy, or sad, I never knew for sure, and I didn't ask. In earlier years, she would have considered such questions—asked by me—absurd.

Now, from farther down the train car, a woman's voice rises and swells. She's talking on a cell phone without any idea of how far her voice carries. "I want to go home already," says the woman, now only five or ten minutes out of the station. "I want to go home," she says again, adding, "but I need to get away."

I want to go home, I need to get away. The train's refrain, heard at root level in the mind.

I remember how, having left home and my first marriage, I sent a card to my mother, signing it "The Prodigal," in my twenties focused on departure only, perpetual departure beyond anyone's reach. Back then, I thought that a change of location would be enough to confirm who I was. Living in Richmond was not for me. I could no longer, not without an angry struggle, talk to my family or my friends about politics—the war in Vietnam, the continuing Civil Rights movement. I was fed up with manners, with the politeness Thomas Jefferson called "artificial good humor." Manners my mother called breeding. In the eyes of most of the people I grew up with, manners were equivalent to virtue, and it was hard to convince Richmonders that manners and custom offered poor substitutes for right thought and right action. Nor could I talk to anyone, least of all myself, about religion. Raised a fundamentalist Presbyterian, in college educated as an agnostic, I threw up my hands, abandoned the field, and ran away full tilt into what I called my own life—that is, into the unacknowledged and unlived lives of my parents, my mother's in particular. She hid in the blind spot of my eye, in an inner room of my psyche for too many years. I might make my own choices, live my own life, but in the shadows she stamped her foot or offered whispered judgments. If anger is a variant of self-love, in those years I loved myself, did as I pleased, and was willing to live with the consequences and with the debts my willfulness ran up. I was different—by which I meant that I also had no reason to keep in touch with my conservative, materialistic sister. Let her have cars and clothes, the big boats, the house by the golf course. I had my books. Let her have the luxury of extra calories; I had the economy of poetry.

Out the train window, the phragmites sway like a wheat field, and I look out on hummocks of mud, low-tide mud, a bird in the marsh light. After a tunnel of trees, the world widens out into a clearing of light at Deep River's salt marshes. As I always do, I watch for the glint of the distant lighthouse, a compass needle at the horizon where the Sound and the sky meet. Once across the Connecticut River, I know where I'm heading. I feel it in my bones.

Relax, I tell myself. It's hours and hours before you get there.

And yet I'm in a hurry to get there. For years the far-flung daughter, I now have a new role in the family. My sister had been the daughter who stayed home, the late-favored one who gave my parents a grandchild. After her stroke, I'm the long-distanced caretaker and daughter-turned-mother—a southbound prodigal—more so now with my mother's deepening senility and loss of independence. She knows me, but she can't easily tell me how she is. She begins a sentence and breaks it off before she reaches the verb. Her startling aphasia is interrupted only now and then by the miracle of a complete sentence. She needs diapers. She needs a wheelchair. Her doctors don't think she'll recover what only months ago she took for granted. My mother had always been the boss; now she has sunk deeper into the quicksand we call second childhood. Childhood—a dark cloth pulled over the head. Confused by my mother's decline, my father calls me often, asking for advice. The miles and miles that had once protected me from them are now too many. Earlier in my life, I'd spent years running away; now I spend much of each year returning home. There's not much time left in the season of dying. It's time to mend, to sort through, to set to rights; it's time to heal, to recover, to get to know the strangers I call my family.

My eyes blur. I wonder if there's enough time. On my last visit, before she took her afternoon nap, my mother motioned me closer, something to tell me. The look on her face said she had a wisdom to impart. "Life is ..." she began, and as I leaned in to listen during the long pause, "... something you wait for," she concluded, closing her eyes.

More than likely it will be my mother who will keep Death waiting. "I'm not leaving here until I know you'll be with me in Heaven," she once stated with implacable certitude, a few years back when she lived in the suite in Assisted Living.

"You may be here a long time, then!" I'd teased. But for my mother, then reclining with her two cats on the four-poster bed I called her throne and parliament, wearing an old bathrobe, her wig propped on the bedside table, neither my salvation nor the length of her mortal life were laughing matters. It nearly took my breath away, her unquestioned assurance of control—over God, over her own mortality, over me.

On the edge of her bed there had been her boxed Bible with the large print. In that box, carefully folded beneath the Bible, I had earlier that day found two of my mother's bras, both stretched out from carrying her womanly heft. I hadn't known whether to laugh or to cry, so I'd laughed—the Bible and her brassieres, her two principle means of support, nestled together for safekeeping. My mother was an angry woman in those years, someone who locked her door against the nurses and my father. "He comes in the middle of the night and takes my pills," she'd insisted. She took Valium for a condition she called "hot mouth."

"Dad has his own pills, Mom. He wouldn't take yours. Perhaps you're having a dream?" I was becoming used to offering both my mother and father "counsel."

"No, I see him with my own eyes. Them, too. I used to have, oh, eleven bras, and now it's a good day if I can put my hands on one."

Sorting through her things, I had found bras in coat pockets, in pillowcases, beneath towels, and in the boxed Bible whose lid, I'd noticed, was riding a little high.

"I want my family all around me," now she insisted, and I softened. Beneath the certitude was her loneliness, her fear of dying, her fear of living. Saving my soul was part of what she considered her mission in life. Saving my father's soul was also part of it, and that task had taken so much energy that she had refused to cultivate friendships or visit a library, volunteer for social activities or visit a sick relative. I have to take care of your father, she would say, his lack of social skills, his emotional unsteadiness the reasons she must isolate herself and him. Only once did she put aside her proffered excuses. "The truth is," she'd said, "I don't really trust people." When I asked her why, she waved her hand in a vague gesture that made her words disappear, as salt dissolves in water.

My parents are both able to move about in wheelchairs, or, on a good day, my father uses a walker. But it is my sister's fate to live the life of an old woman before her time. Liz lies in a single bed in a room she prefers darkened because the light hurts her eyes. The blinds are shut. She watches television all day in her isolation at Angel House, where her husband, unable to manage caring for her after her stroke, has taken her. Before her stroke, she led an active life. A partner with her husband in the printing company they pioneered together, she ate out every night, then raced to a marina near Norfolk each weekend to be on their yacht, embracing a life of material pleasure. After her stroke, unable to walk or use her left arm and leg, Liz has become dependent on others to move from her bed, to dress, to toilet. She can't read, although her memory is sharp. Her left hand has closed into a shape that resembles how she held her hand as a child when she wanted to cast the shadow of a snouted beast on the wall to scare her older sister.

"No matter what happens," Liz likes to remind me, "I'll always be younger than you are." Once when she said that, she winked and grinned at me. I saw her as a young girl in a rakish hat and a plaid wool coat, the coat buttoned tightly around her stout body as she squinted into the camera, mischievous. Even then, the light had hurt her eyes.

"That's because my eyes are blue, yours are brown," she likes to remind me. "I got all the bad genes."

Bad genes? My mind follows her words into a memory of lunch at the restaurant my sister had picked out. She and I were taking our parents to lunch, the first meal the four of us had had together after years of strain and misunderstanding as my parents, confusing love and money, prudence and control, took away the power of attorney from my sister—considered a prodigal spendthrift—and gave it to me. After my sister's campaign of reproachful and angry silence, they'd compromised and ordered a jointly held power of attorney, a possible way for us all to make amends. As we sat together as a family in the restaurant, the three of us watched my sister eat mud pie for dessert. In two months, Liz would have the stroke that would knock her unconscious in her kitchen, but we didn't know that as she ordered dessert. She insisted on dessert. We knew she was diabetic and seriously overweight. But we were too respectful of the artificial peace to say, Stop this. You know you're hurting yourself. Stop.

Forkful by forkful, Liz ate steadily, luxuriously. This is to die for, she said. This is to die for.

After her husband called to tell me that Liz had suffered a massive stroke, my body often felt heavy and numb, dumb and inattentive. I startled easily. I forgot what I was doing. I couldn't listen to ordinary conversation. Twice I wandered into the bathroom and peered into the mirror on the medicine cabinet and told my reflection, "Your sister's had a stroke."

In Richmond, when I entered her room at the rehab facility—primarily a convalescent home with a rehabilitation department and a reputation for good care—a nurse was smoothing the top sheet over Liz's body, a white mound. I couldn't see her face yet, blocked by the nurse, who was removing a lumpy plastic bundle—a soiled diaper, I suddenly realized, embarrassed for my sister. Awkwardly I balanced the large vase of roses I'd just bought for her, looking around for a place to put it down, unwilling to look at my sister until the nurse had taken away the diaper. I found an empty shelf over the television, and I put the vase of roses there, glad the flowers were colorful, the arrangement bountiful, easy for her to see from a distance.

"Look," she told me, uncovering her left leg from the sheet. She wiggled her toes. "My friend Christy came and painted them."

Her toenails, which had been coated with a lacquer clear as the white of an egg, with flecks of glitter added in, flashed like mica, like quartz in stone.

"She wanted me to have sparkly toes," she added, laughing. As she laughed, I saw how crooked her mouth was. She saw me noticing.


Excerpted from The Prodigal Daughter by Margaret Gibson. Copyright © 2008 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Margaret Gibson is the author of nine books of poetry, most recently Icon and Evidence, Autumn Grasses, and One Body. She is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and lives in Preston, Connecticut.

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