Study Guide

Grandmè Ifé in Breath, Eyes, Memory

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Grandmè Ifé

Wise Woman and Storyteller

As the total matriarch of the Caco family, Ifé is a strong, loving figure. She's an old woman full of stories. She's a practical woman who has seen her share of suffering, but ain't prone to regret or sentimentality.

Basically, she's who we want to be when we hit our golden years—a total sparkplug that's also a font of sage-like wisdom.

Sophie sees this when she has to say goodbye to her grandmother before leaving for New York:

[...] my grandmother said that it was best that we leave before she got too used to us and suffered a sudden attack of chagrin. To my grandmother, chagrin was a genuine physical disease. Like a hurt leg or a broken arm. To treat chagrin, you drank tea from leaves that only my grandmother and other old wise women could recognize. (3.24)

Ifé's wisdom comes from a life lived in difficult circumstances, but also from participating in a culture rich in stories and traditions. She is recognized as the storyteller ("the tale is not a tale unless I tell"); the one who has the responsibility to transmit the lore of past generations.

So it's no surprise that Sophie associates her grandmother with the legends of the island—the Erzulie statue that becomes so important to her belongs to her grandmother—and confides in her, hoping to get good advice. After all, Ifé's seen a lot. She knows what's what.

But She's Only Human...

While Ifé is an overwhelmingly positive presence in Sophie's life, she has her flaws. And they're not just cute flaws, like snorting when she laughs or dancing awkwardly.

Here's the flaw: she carried on the tradition of virginity testing, the humiliating practice of checking to make sure a young girl's hymen was still intact. And Sophie—who adores her grandmommy and thought she could do no wrong—can't understand how she could do such a thing.

Ifé tells Sophie that virginity testing was merely one of those things that a good mother did to make sure her children found husbands—and that it's time for her to get over her pain:

"Now you have a child of your own. You must know that everything a mother does, she does for her child's own good. You cannot always carry the pain. You must liberate yourself." (23.157)

So at first glance this seems insanely harsh—the verbal equivalent of slapping someone and telling them to "Snap out of it." And it seems especially cold to the ears of Sophie, who can't redeem her body image enough to have a functional marriage.

But Ifé's always practical, and her granddaughter comes to realize that she really does have to free herself from the resentments of the past before she can move forward.

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