Study Guide

Atie Caco (Tante Atie) in Breath, Eyes, Memory

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Atie Caco (Tante Atie)

When we first meet Atie Caco, she's in the running for winning the #1 Most Maternal Award. We pretty much want to jump into the pages of Breath, Eyes, Memory and sit on her lap. She greets Sophie after the child returns from school and chats with her while she holds her on her lap. She cooks awesome food. She—like Mary Poppins—seems to be practically perfect in every way.

And, best of all, Atie's inherited the gift of storytelling from her mother, Ifé, something that Sophie treasures about her well into her adult life:

There was magic in the images that she had made out of the night. She would rock my body on her lap as she told me of fishermen and mermaids bravely falling in love. The mermaids would leave stars for the fishermen to pick out of the sand. (15.110)

Atie uses only gentle love-words with young Sophie, calling her "my angel" and adorable terms of endearment. Atie is, in many ways, servant to the emotional needs of the family. She embraces this role fully, making it her goal to show Sophie that she is totally loved:

I would like to know that by word or by example I have taught you love. I must tell you that I do love your mother. Everything I love about you, I loved in her first. (2.20)

Sophie can't understand why her beloved aunt won't follow her to New York, but Atie knows that she's following the expected path in life, from which she won't deviate. As the oldest child, she's responsible for the care of her aging mother. But it is Atie's sense of duty that will change her from the patient, loving character that Sophie so loves.

Disappointment and Change

By the time Sophie returns to Dame Marie as an adult with a child of her own, she finds a very different Atie. In some ways, the change is for the better: Atie has learned to read, a big step for a woman who had thought her time for book learning had passed.

But that taste of liberation reminds Atie that the rest of her life is confining and pointless. In her culture, a woman is for two things: marriage and childbearing. Unable to fill those roles, Atie is in kind of an identity wasteland. She expresses her frustration to Sophie:

"They train you to find a husband... They poke at your panties in the middle of the night, to see if you are still whole. They listen when you pee, to find out if you're peeing too loud. If you pee loud, it means you've got big spaces between your legs. They make you burn your fingers learning to cook. Then still you have nothing." (21.137)

This injustice leads Atie to bitterness, drinking in the evenings to dull the emotional pain of having nothing to look forward to in life. Martine seems to bring out the worst in her when she returns to Haiti in search of Sophie. Atie's antagonism may be subtle, but she's clearly ready to vent a little about her loss of Sophie all those years ago.

Saying Goodbye

In the end, we literally lose sight of Atie. The focus is so strongly on Sophie's confrontation with the place of Martine's early tragedy that we can only hear her voice as an echo of Ifé's crucial question ("Are you free?"). She's broken by Martine's death, but she uses the Caco strength to participate in that last call of liberation.

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