Mrs. Winterbottom is a fascinating character. She's is Phoebe's sad and lonely mom who eventually leaves her family for a time. And we can't really blame her for it. After all, everyone treats her like she's a servant or something. Most of the time, her family just ignores Mrs. Winterbottom and all of the nice things she does for them, all of the delicious things she cooks.
Sal observes from the minute she first meets Mrs. Winterbottom that she tries very, very hard to make her husband and two daughters happy. But they don't try at all to make her happy.
In fact, our gal Sal notices a lot of things about Mrs. Winterbottom, including this very important moment:
At that moment, it was as if a switch went off in Mrs. Winterbottom's brain. She put her hand to her mouth and stared out the window. She was invisible to Prudence and Phoebe, though. They did not notice. (17.31)
What has Sal just witnessed? What switch went off in Mrs. Winterbottom's brain? In this moment, we don't get to find out, but later, we can assume it has something to do with where she disappears to when she leaves her family.
As it turns out, Mrs. Winterbottom leaves to reconnect with a son she gave up for adoption before she married Mr. Winterbottom. She never told anyone about this son for fear of not seeming "respectable." She is very worried about being "respectable," perhaps because Mr. Winterbottom cares so much about being respectable, too.
And when she does return to her family, she's a whole new woman: "Her hair was not only short, but also quite stylish. She was wearing lipstick, mascara, and a little blush on her cheeks, and her clothes were altogether unlike anything I had ever seen her in […] She looked magnificent, but she did not look like Phoebe's mother." (39.23)
But that's all she's been up until now: Phoebe and Prudence's mother, and Mr. Winterbottoms wife. She's been dutiful, she's been respectable, and that was totally the problem. What's so great about this moment is that we learn that Mrs. Winterbottom is much more than just a mother – she's a woman with her own past. Of course that past is a painful one, even a little bit scandalous, but it's also a big part of her identity.
Things might get dicey in the Winterbottom household in the times to come, but Mrs. Winterbottom is so brave and bold in this moment we feel hopeful that she can overcome the sadness that she was trying to get over. That same sadness that Chanhassen felt. But that's just Shmoop thinking aloud. What about you – what do you think is going to happen next for the Winterbottoms?