The story opens with the narrator ironing. She is prompted to
think about her daughter by someone's request (presumably a teacher's)
to discuss ways to help her.
The narrator goes back nineteen
years, to the time when her daughter was born. The narrator herself was
nineteen at the time, trying to get by during the Great Depression.
Emily, as her daughter was called, was a happy baby.
is eight months old, her father leaves them, and the narrator has to
seek work. Emily is left first in the care of a neighbor, then with the
father's family, as the narrator struggles to make ends meet.
finally returns to live with the narrator at the age of two. The
narrator leaves her at a nursery school, where the conditions are awful.
The narrator thinks of the caller's reference to Emily's
talent for comedy. Looking back over Emily's tough childhood, the
narrator isn't sure how Emily acquired this talent.
Back to the
flashback: The narrator remarries. When the narrator has a second
daughter, Susan, Emily gets red measles. After the measles, Emily is
still unwell, so they send her to a convalescent home in the country.
It's only later that the narrator learns from Emily how horrible the convalescent home was.
After eight months at the home, Emily still hasn't gained weight, so they send her home.
a child, Emily has trouble keeping up in her classes, and she has few
friends. She often stays home, sometimes because of her asthma.
around this age, Emily still gets along with her younger sister Susan,
but the narrator notes that since then, their relationship has soured.
narrator interrupts her reflections to change her son Ronnie's diaper.
After she puts Ronnie to bed, she continues to think about Emily.
narrator thinks of the war years. Emily helps her mother take care of
the other four children and the housework. Emily is so exhausted by her
work that she is unable to keep up in school.
To pass the time,
Emily parodies the students at her high school. The narrator suggests
that Emily put on an act for the school amateur show.
does, and her act is a hit. She does her comedy routine at other high
schools and colleges, then in other cities. The narrator attends one of
Emily's performances and is amazed by her transformation on the stage.
The narrator's ironing is interrupted by Emily herself, who's home from school. Emily chats with her mom before she goes to bed.