Study Guide

The Moths Quotes

  • Family

    I was fourteen years old when Abuelita requested my help. And it seemed only fair. Abuelita had pulled me through the rages of scarlet fever by placing, removing and replacing potato slices on the temples of my forehead; she had seen me through several whippings, an arm broken by a dare jump off Tío Enrique's toolshed, puberty, and my first lie. Really, I told Amá, it was only fair. (1)

    The narrator sets up the circle of life here. She's only fourteen and she's supposed to start helping her grandmother, but she sees it as a repayment for the ways her grandmother has cared for her throughout her bumpy childhood.

    Not that I was her favorite granddaughter or anything special. (2)

    We're going to go ahead and call the narrator's bluff on this one. She claims she isn't her granny's favorite, but come on—her grandmother asked specifically for the narrator to be the one to come take care of her on her deathbed, even though she's not "nice" like her older sisters. They have a special bond, and the narrator is just protesting too much.

    I wasn't even pretty or nice like my older sisters and I just couldn't do the girl things they could do. (2)

    The family seems to be all girls, with an undetermined number of sisters running around bashing each other with words and bricks (for real). The narrator finds her individuality by being different from her sisters. We can't tell them apart, and don't even know most of their names, but our main girl is definitely special. Even if it's in negative ways, she's still set apart.

    So I began keeping a piece of jagged brick in my sock to bash my sisters or anyone who called me bull hands. (2)

    Whoa. This is pretty violent and pretty hardcore, right? This kind of extreme response to name-calling is a symptom of the deep violence that runs throughout this family's relationships. It also shows how insecure the narrator is within her own family that she feels the need to defend herself in this way.

    Then he strategically directed his anger at Amá for her lousy ways of bringing up daughters, being disrespectful and unbelieving, and my older sisters would pull me aside and tell me if I didn't get to mass this minute, they were all going to kick the holy shit out of me. (8)

    "Strategically" is an interesting adverb. The narrator's father yells at her mother when the narrator misbehaves, which in turn spurs her sisters to action—in order to keep their mother out of trouble, they pressure the narrator to obey, using their own threats of violence. The father is playing everyone against each other to keep his family in line.

    When I returned from the market, I heard Amá crying in Abuelita's kitchen. […] After a while, I patted her on the back for comfort. Finally: "¿Y mi Amá?" she asked in a whisper, then choked again and cried into her apron. (11)

    This is the moment where we learn that Abuelita is the narrator's maternal grandmother. Amá is crying because, as it turns out, Abuelita is her Amá. The narrator might feel some compassion for her mother here because she sees her as a scared, sad daughter, not just her mom.

    I heard you, Abuelita, I said, stroking her cheek, I heard you. (14)

    The narrator is treating her grandmother as though she is a little baby crying in her crib, when in actuality, she's an elderly woman lying dead in her bed. This role-reversal is important: The narrator transforms from the grandchild who needs to be taken care of into the adult who takes care of her grandmother.

    The scars on her back which were as thin as the life lines on the palms of her hands made me realize how little I really knew of Abuelita. (14)

    While the narrator has spent lots of time with her grandmother in her life, she has never gotten to examine Abuelita's body or realized how little she knows about her past until her grandmother is dead. It's hard to imagine what Abuelita must have gone through (maybe a whipping?) to get the scars, but it also shows that even in tight-knit families, the past can be full of secrets.

    She was not as heavy as I thought and when I carried her in my arms, her body fell into a V, and yet my legs were tired, shaky, and I felt as if the distance between the bedroom and bathroom was miles and years away. Amá, where are you? (15)

    Again the image of the grandmother as a baby comes into play. The narrator carries her grandmother in her arms, just like an infant. However she doesn't feel like the baby's mother—instead she doesn't know what to do and wishes for her own mother, saying, "Amá, where are you?"

    […] I wanted to return to the waters of the womb with her so that we would never be alone again. I wanted. I wanted my Amá. (16)

    Whoa. This is some serious family imagery happening right now. The narrator takes her baby-fied grandmother to the tub and wants to go back to the "waters of the womb" with her. She wants them to both become fetuses, to start over at the beginning of life together and "never be alone again." What underlies all this is the narrator's desire for her own mom. She has been thrown into adulthood, and right now she could really use some help.

  • Violence

    […] [S]he had seen me through several whippings, an arm broken by a dare jump off Tío Enrique's toolshed, puberty, and my first lie. (1)

    The narrator rattles off a list of difficulties she's experienced in her fourteen years, and several of them are "whippings," we assume applied by her father. Because she includes the pain of those beatings in a list along with her broken arm and puberty, it seems as though they're just part of growing up.

    So I began keeping a piece of jagged brick in my sock to bash my sisters or anyone who called me bull hands. Once, while we all sat in the bedroom, I hit Teresa on the forehead, right above her eyebrow and she ran to Amá with her mouth open, her hand over her eye while blood seeped between her fingers. I was used to the whippings by then. (2)

    The narrator could be a character from Orange is the New Black with these prison-revenge tactics. But nope, she's not behind bars—she's in her childhood home. The fact that these girls treat each other so monstrously is kind of shocking; violence just permeates this family.

    In the early afternoon Amá would push her hair back, hand me my sweater and shoes, and tell me to go to Mama Luna's. This was to avoid another fight and another whipping, I knew. (4)

    The narrator's mother is at a loss when it comes to dealing with her rebellious daughter. Trouble is, they're locked in a vicious circle: The narrator hits her sisters, which gets her a whipping from her dad, which makes her even more rebellious. Amá tries to break the cycle by removing the narrator, but we're not sure she's actually the problematic element here.

    I would deliver one last direct shot on Marisela's arm and jump out of our house, the slam of the screen door burying her cries of anger, and I'd gladly go help Abuelita plant her wild lilies or jasmine or heliotrope or cilantro or hierbabuena in red Hills Brothers coffee cans. (4)

    What a contrast. The narrator leaves behind a super-violent household (direct shots, slamming doors, cries of anger) and goes to a healthy, growing garden at her grandmother's house. While at her own house everything is destructive, Abuelita gives her something productive to do.

    This was one of Apá's biggest complaints. He would pound his hands on the table, rocking the sugar dish or spilling a cup of coffee and scream that if I didn't go to mass every Sunday to save my goddamn sinning soul, then I had no reason to go out of the house, period. Punto final. He would grab my arm and dig his nails into me to make sure I understood the importance of catechism. Did he make himself clear? (8)

    Wow. This guy needs to work on his marketing techniques. If he wants his daughter to obey him and go to church, maybe he shouldn't directly associate church with pounding a table, screaming, and digging his nails into his daughter's arm (ouch). Talk about counterproductive.

    [M]y older sisters would pull me aside and tell me if I didn't get to mass right this minute, they were all going to kick the holy shit out of me. (8)

    Okay, we have to admit this is kind of funny. The narrator is in trouble because she won't go to church—so she's rejecting holiness in a way—but her sister's respond by threatening to beat "the holy shit" out of her. In the end they're just reinforcing their father's violent threats, hoping that if she falls in line, they'll spare her a real beating from their dad.

    Abuelita fell off the bed twice yesterday, I said, knowing that I shouldn't have said it and wondering why I wanted to say it because it only made Amá cry harder. (12)

    We threw in this quote to remind you that, bricks aside, language can be violent as well. The narrator hurts her mother intentionally here by simply opening her mouth. It won't leave a physical scar, but in some ways, this wound might take longer to heal.

    I guess I became angry and just so tired of the quarrels and beatings and unanswered prayers and my hands just there hanging helplessly by my side. (12)

    Here the narrator explains why she lashes out at her mom with her angry, hurtful words. In short, she's tired of getting beaten up at home, the place she's supposed to feel safest. And those hands, which are made fun of by her sisters, and are used to beat them in retaliation, are actually just helpless. It's the helplessness that makes her so angry—she's too young to make changes to her life.

    The scars on her back which were as thin as the life lines on the palms of her hands made me realize how little I really knew of Abuelita. (14)

    Yikes. We don't know what happened to Abuelita to leave her with thin scars all over her back, but we can only imagine it wasn't pretty. The first thing that pops into our heads is a whipping. It seems probable that Abuelita grew up in a violent family just like the one the narrator is in, though they never talk about it.

    The bathroom was filled with moths, and for the first time in a long time I cried, rocking us, crying for her, for me, for Amá, the sobs emerging from the depths of anguish, the misery of feeling half born, sobbing until finally the sobs rippled into circles and circles of sadness and relief. (16)

    So this isn't a violent moment—instead it is a moment in which the narrator releases some of the pain she's been holding onto due to the violence in her life. She's been on the receiving end of lots of violence from her dad, and she's also been a violent person herself. She's trapped in her family because of her age ("the misery of feeling half born"), but here she finally gets some release. Think of this as a glimpse of the other side of violence.

  • Appearances

    I wasn't even pretty or nice like my older sisters and I just couldn't do the girl things they could do. (2)

    The narrator has different abilities and interests than her sisters, which she attributes to the fact that she looks differently. The other girls are "pretty," which by the narrator's logic leads to them being "nice" and doing "girl things." Thing is, we see her sisters act pretty nastily—which is neither "pretty" nor "nice" in our book.

    My hands were too big to handle the fineries of crocheting or embroidery and I always pricked my fingers or knotted my colored threads time and time again while my sisters laughed and called me bull hands with their cute waterlike voices. (2)

    Okay, that's just mean. The narrator's sisters are supposedly "pretty" and "nice" (see the quote before this) but they don't seem nice at all—instead of helping the narrator, they call her "bull hands." Again the character is boiled down to her appearance as her trouble with sewing is blamed on her bodily appearance.

    So I began keeping a piece of jagged brick in my sock to bash my sisters or anyone who called me bull hands. (2)

    Bet you never saw a bull carrying a brick in a sock. The sisters' insults are obviously very hurtful to the narrator—so much so, that she reacts with extreme violence. Beauty may only be skin deep, but being told you're not beautiful can hurt to the core.

    My hands began to fan out, grow like a liar's nose until they hung by my side like low weights. (3)

    The narrator is called "bull hands" because she is clumsy with her needlework. When her sisters make fun of her, though, it only seems to exacerbate the problem—her hands grow even more, like Pinocchio's nose. The idea that her bad behavior could cause a change in her body (like lying and the growing nose) is kind of silly, but she seems to believe it.

    Abuelita made a balm out of dried moth wings and Vicks and rubbed my hands, shaped them back to size and it was the strangest feeling. (3)

    The narrator's grandmother seems to have some magical powers hidden up her sleeve, and she's able to reshape the narrator's hands, which grew after her sisters' insults (see the previous quote). Now, because of love, the narrator's appearance returns to normal. The effects of her family members' love or hate are evident in her appearance… or her sense of her appearance, anyway.

    Looking into her gray eye, then into her brown one, the doctor said it was just a matter of days. (6)

    Just as the narrator's bull hands are evidence of her clumsiness and her sisters' meanness, the grandmother's body also holds the keys to her existence. The doctor looks into her eyes and just seems to know that she's dying. This is another instance of appearances being especially meaningful in this story—and we have more to say about Abuelita's eyes over in the "Symbols" section.

    Her gray wiry hair hung over the mattress. Since I could remember, she'd kept her long hair in braids. (6)

    The grandmother's hair is not done up into braids; instead it's "wiry" and hanging. The fact that the grandmother is letting herself go this way lets us know that she isn't feeling so hot. Her appearance used to be important to her, since she was always kempt, so this is more than just a bad hair day; it indicates that death is on the way.

    So I would wash my feet and stuff them into my black Easter shoes that shone with Vaseline, grab a missal and veil, and wave good-bye to Amá. (8)

    When the narrator obeys her father's orders to get to church, she has to force her body into church-going mode. Her appearance changes with her activities; she has to "stuff" her feet into her shoes. She's always too big (remember those bull hands comments?) and her family's expectations for her make her struggle to fit in.

    I liked her porch because it was shielded by the vines of the chayotes and I could get a good look at the people and car traffic on Evergreen without them knowing. (9)

    Appearance is important in this short story, but so is disappearance. The narrator is always under scrutiny, taking near constant criticism for her appearance, so it's nice for her to just hide out on her grandma's porch, seeing without being seen. It's a way to escape the world's judgment for a while.

    I returned to towel the creases of her stretch-marked stomach, her sporadic vaginal hairs, and her sagging thighs. (14)

    Abuelita's appearance reveals a really important characteristic about her—namely, her womanhood. She's a mother (stretch-marked stomach, a result of pregnancy), and an old woman (thinning pubes). Her body tells the story of her life.

  • Mortality

    But this was a different kind of help, Amá said, because Abuelita was dying. (6)

    The narrator is used to helping her grandmother in her garden, but this time she has to help her at her deathbed. The contrast is pretty striking. In the garden the two are concerned with life—growing, planting, producing food—but now they are concerned with death. But Abuelita trusts the narrator because she has cared for her plants; now she can care for her, too.

    Looking into her gray eye, then into her brown one, the doctor said it was just a matter of days. (6)

    Abuelita dies of stomach cancer, but the doctor is able to tell that her life force is running out by looking into her eyes. In this moment it's like the gray eye is closer to death (one eye in the grave?) and the brown eye is closer to life. For more on this, get thee to the "Symbols" section pronto.

    There comes a time when the sun is defiant. Just about the time when moods change, [. . .] there comes an illumination where the sun and earth meet, a final burst of burning red orange fury reminding us that although endings are inevitable, they are necessary for rebirths, and when that time came, just when I switched on the light in the kitchen to open Abuelita's can of soup, it was probably then that she died. (13)

    The narrator relates the sunset, part of the natural world, with her grandmother's life. The sun goes down every night, but it comes up every morning, reminding us humans that endings come before beginnings. This metaphor allows the narrator to think of her grandmother's death as a new beginning, a rebirth.

    The room smelled of Pine Sol and vomit and Abuelita had defecated the remains of her cancerous stomach. (14)

    Well, this story goes from a beautiful sunset of rebirth to realness in no time flat. The strong scent imagery acknowledges the dirty, physical process of death. It ain't all sunshine and beauty.

    She had turned to the window and tried to speak, but her mouth remained open and speechless. I heard you, Abuelita, I said, stroking her cheek, I heard you. (14)

    Abuelita dies with her eyes open, trying to speak. She was alone in the moment of her death, though, so who was she talking to? The narrator tries to comfort her after the fact, as you might comfort a scared child—but she didn't actually hear her grandmother. Does this mean that death is really lonely, that no one hears us? Maybe so.

    With the sacredness of a priest preparing his vestments, I unfolded the towels one by one on my shoulders. (14)

    The narrator hates going to mass, but when it's time to prepare her grandmother's body she slips into religion mode without any problem. Humans almost always deal with death through ritual. It helps us know what to do in the face of the unknown.

    She was not as heavy as I thought and when I carried her in my arms, her body fell into a V, and yet my legs were tired, shaky, and I felt as if the distance between the bedroom and bathroom was miles and years away. (15)

    Carrying her grandmother's dead body to the bathroom is the final step in the narrator's ritual. The distance between the bed and the bathroom though isn't just measured in spatial distance, though; it's also temporal. By dealing with her grandmother's death, the narrator gains years of experience. Death makes her grow up.

    I bent my knees slowly to descend into the water slowly so I wouldn't scald her skin. (16)

    Even though her grandmother is dead, the narrator acts as though her body can still feel. She is careful not to burn her grandmother, as though lowering a baby into a warm bath. It's like the full weight of her grandmother's death hasn't yet registered.

    Then the moths came. Small, gray ones that came from her soul and out through her mouth fluttering to light, circling the single dull light bulb of the bathroom. (16)

    Even though Abuelita is dead, there is a part of her that continues to live. The moths have been living in her soul with her throughout her life, and now that she's gone they come out into the world; they find new light. The narrator can see them, just like she can feel her grandmother's presence. For more on this little creatures, hop over to the "Symbols" section—they're kind of a big deal.

    Dying is lonely and I wanted to go to where the moths were, stay with her and plant chayotes whose vines would crawl up her fingers and into the clouds; I wanted to rest my head on her chest with her stroking my hair, telling me about the moths that lay within the soul and slowly eat the spirit up; I wanted to return to the waters of the womb with her so that we would never be alone again. (16)

    The narrator says that dying is lonely, which is kind of weird because she's not the one who has actually died here. That would be her grandmother. Metaphorically, though, Abuelita's death ushers in the death of the narrator's childhood—so the narrator does experience her own death of sorts, too. And in both cases, she feels intensely lonely.