Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Family

By Edwidge Danticat

Family

[...] 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)

According to Grandmè Ifé, affection for and dependence on family is not just a psychological phenomenon—it's a physical condition. It affects the balance of life for each of the Caco women, and when a person is missing, things are "off": personal emotional equilibrium goes completely out of whack.

As a child, the mother I had imagined for myself was like Erzulie, the lavish Virgin Mother. She was the healer of all women and the desire of all men. She had gorgeous dresses in satin, silk, and lace, necklaces, pendants, earrings, bracelets, anklets, and lots and lots of French perfume. She never had to work for anything because the rainbow and the stars did her work for her. (8.59)

Young Sophie confesses to herself (but not to her mother) that she really did have something quite different in mind for a mother than the frail-looking and frightened woman before her. Erzulie, the Vodou goddess of love and beauty, is a combo of contraries: desire and virginity, motherliness and sexuality. It's a tough mother-image to live up to. Sophie relates many of these qualities to her own mother, but Erzulie actually pulls it off with divine grace—no disasters befall her.

Tante Atie walked between the wooden crosses, collecting the bamboo skeletons of fallen kites. She stepped around the plots where empty jars, conch shells, and marbles served as grave markers.

"Walk straight," said Tante Atie, "you are in the presence of family." (23.149)

For Sophie, the weight of the family's past nearly crushes her. And yet, she takes a quiet pride in her family name and feels affection for all those who went before her. Tante Atie's command to "walk straight" becomes a pressing theme for Sophie, who feels the pressure to be strong and succeed in life, particularly for the sake of family honor.

"Our family name, Caco, it is the name of a scarlet bird. A bird so crimson, it makes the reddest hibiscus or the brightest flame trees seem white. The Caco bird, when it dies, there is always a rush of blood that rises to its neck and the wings, they look so bright, you would think them on fire." (23.150)

Whenever an author puts this much forethought into the naming of her characters, you'd better sit up and take notice. Sophie takes great pride in the strength and passion of the Caco women, something that she's learned from the stories told to her by Tante Atie and Grandmè Ifé. The connection between the beautiful Caco bird and the women in the family is cemented by the final image of Martine in her flaming red burial clothes: strong, daring, free.

"The love between a mother and daughter is deeper than the sea. You would leave me for an old man who you didn't know the year before. You and I we could be like Marassas. You are giving up a lifetime with me. Do you understand?" (11.85)

Martine has serious attachment issues with her daughter, Sophie. In this case, she can't bear the idea of being abandoned by the one person in the world with whom she feels she has a permanent bond. While this relationship isn't 100% healthy, we see Martine's point: Danticat places a special emphasis on the mother-daughter bond, one that is echoed in the connection between Haiti and her "daughters."

"Do you see my granddaughter?" she asked, tracing her thumb across Brigitte's chin. "The tree has not split one mite. Isn't it a miracle that we can visit with all our kin, simply by looking into this face?" (14.105)

Ifé reflects on the miracle of genetic transmission, as reflected in her grandbaby's face. This is an especially poignant moment for Sophie, who knows very well that she doesn't resemble her mother.

"There is a story that is told all the time in the valley. An old woman has three children. One dies in her body when she is pregnant. One goes to a faraway land to make her fortune and never does that one get to come back alive. The last one, she stays in the valley and looks after her mother." Tante Atie was the last. (17.119)

Ifé tells the story of her motherhood to Sophie just as she would tell any other tale that she'd learned from her ancestors. Although Tante Atie is not the "last" in terms of age (she's actually older than Martine), she is the last one to remain with her mother. Ifé's choice to narrate her life as a story emphasizes the importance of storytelling in Haitian culture.

"The girl she said, I didn't tell you this because it was a small thing, but little girls, they leave their hearts at home when they walk outside. Hearts are so precious. They don't want to lose them." (18.125)

This story about the girl and the lark—told by Ifé to the little boys in her yard—emphasizes the connection between women and their families in this work. Yes, the little girl is outfoxing the kidnapper lark, but there is truth in what she says: we leave our hearts at home. This resonates especially with Sophie, who can't seem to escape the need for her childhood homes.

My mother placed her hand on my grandmother's shoulder and signaled for her to wait. She turned back to me and said in English, "I want to be your friend, your very good friend, because you saved my life many times when you woke me up from those nightmares." (26.170)

Although the relationship between Martine and Sophie is fraught with emotional complications, the desire for friendship between the estranged mother and daughter feels undeniable. Ifé tells Martine that she needs to be friends with her daughter so that her final wishes will be carried out. Sophie also learns that she needs to value her mother more, since she won't be around forever.

"Do you understand now why your mother was so adamantly against your being with a man, a much older man at that? It is only natural, dear heart. She also felt that you were the only person who would never leave her." (32.210)

Sophie walks right into her therapist's trap. While she may resent her own mother's jealous behavior, Sophie (now a mother herself) understands what it means to rely on a daughter's total fidelity and love. While the circumstances of her birth were less than ideal, Sophie has to accept that her mother actually loves and needs her, even as an adult.