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"Stops in Between": The Theme of Motherhood in "Getting Mother's Body"

hsymonds's picture

 “‘Good riddance,’” says Billy Beede, the main character of Suzan-Lori Parks’s novel Getting Mother’s Body, after watching her mother, Willa Mae Beede, die from an attempted abortion (Parks 37, 112). But six years later, Billy is still not “rid” of her mother; she is haunted by Willa Mae’s words and lifestyle, and by the fear of following in her footsteps. Meanwhile, Billy’s childless aunt and uncle have tried to raise her as their own, but Willa Mae stands between them. In digging up her mother’s body, Billy “kills” Willa Mae; in doing so Billy is finally able to reconcile herself to her mother’s past, build healthy relationships with her other family members, and choose her own path separate from her mother’s, which includes accepting her aunt June as her new mother, and accepting her role as a mother herself.

The tension between Billy and June is evident from their first interaction in the novel, when Billy orders June to bring her “special soap” outside so she can bathe. June complies, but resentfully (and silently) comments, “That’s easy for her to say, but I only got one leg. Billy’s got two” (Parks 18). Shortly after, she reminds Billy that she left in the middle of fixing her aunt’s hair. Billy promises to finish it later, and June says nothing more to her, but in her head remarks, “One side of my hair is nicely pressed and the other side’s still wild. Billy’s hair is nice on both sides” (Parks 19). This encounter demonstrates how one-sided their relationship is. June, being a motherly person, is willing to perform small favors for Billy, who selfishly takes advantage of this and rarely reciprocates. June sees this and resents it, but she seems to avoid arguing with Billy, as though she has given up trying to raise her or even communicate with her. June’s observations on Billy’s legs and hair both emphasize a symmetry which June lacks; this indicates that June feels incomplete and is jealous of Billy, probably because Billy is pregnant and June has always wanted to have a child.

In the same conversation, June warns Billy against stealing the wedding dress that she wants, saying, “‘Your mother woulda stole it,’” and later, “‘The apple don’t fall that far from the tree’” (Parks 18, 19). Both times, Billy angrily rejects the suggestion that she will take after Willa Mae, for Billy and June agree that this is not a desirable fate, and both fear that Billy is following in her mother’s footsteps, especially now that she is pregnant. As June observes, “Willa Mae had plenty of ‘husbands’ but weren’t never really married, and now here’s her one child, Billy, only sixteen with a baby inside her and no husband yet” (Parks 19). Thus, Billy is desperate to marry her child’s father, and then, when she learns that marriage is not possible, to have an abortion.

June has another reason for not wanting Billy to take after Willa Mae: she wants to think of Billy as her own child. But when the novel begins, she seems to have accepted that Billy is too much Willa Mae’s child to be her own. At one point, when Billy angers her, June tells Billy, “‘If you was my own child I’d slap your mouth for talking like that’” (Parks 44). June’s reason for not hitting Billy is curious; as her foster parent, one would expect June to discipline Billy as if she were her child, even if they have not bonded as parent and child. Instead, Willa Mae, dead but still present, has continued to raise Billy. When she learns that she does not have enough money for the dress she wants, Billy does not steal it as June feared, but she does remember her mother’s persuasive skills and uses the same tactics to negotiate the price of the dress (Parks 27-29). Because of Willa Mae’s influence, June cannot replace her in any role that she might have played in Billy’s life: mother, disciplinarian, or even caretaker. As June reflects, “Me and Teddy thought, if we loved Billy the way our mothers and fathers had loved us,... that she would be ours. All ours. But she wasn’t never ours no matter what we said or did” (Parks 44). Billy resisted being theirs, accepting from them only what she saw as beneficial to her and rejecting their love, because she was already and still Willa Mae’s.

Nevertheless, June still loves Billy and cares for her as she would for a child of her own. When her husband Roosevelt, or Teddy, gives Billy money to travel to her fiancé’s home, he holds back a dollar, which he has been saving to buy a new leg for June. She is at first pleased not to give this money up, “before a new thought comes to her and she looks down at the floor. ‘We’ll need that dollar for own bus fare when we head up after you tomorrow,’ she says” (Parks 47). Although she is disappointed that they must spend the money, she is entirely willing to make this sacrifice for Billy and does not even consider missing the wedding. June lends Billy her own suitcase for the trip, and gives her some chicken to take on the bus. Their relationship is still one-sided, with June doing so much for Billy and Billy giving her little in return, but as they wait for the bus, Billy remembers—and seems to regret—that she has not finished June’s hair, and when the bus arrives, Billy hugs June, “surprising [them] both” (Parks 53, 55). As the story progresses, we see that Billy’s attitude toward June is fickle and changes with her mood, but her mention of the hug as a surprise suggests the beginning of a closer relationship between them; thus, Billy’s occasional kindness and openness toward June later in the book is not merely the result of her mood swings, but evidence of character development.

For example, when Billy returns from her “fiancé’s” having found out he is already married, she refuses to tell her family what has happened, until they have all left for LaJunta together, and Billy and June are alone in the car. After the two of them share a laugh, Billy opens up to June, revealing the reason for her return and her plan to have an abortion (Parks 131-132). Later, when Billy is driving and June is riding with her, June wants to stop for some flowers on the side of the road, to put in her garden. Billy insists that there is no time to stop, but seeing June’s disappointment, reassures her, “‘[The flowers] got nice names’... ‘On the way back we’ll stop lots, you’ll see’” (Parks 159). Though she is still being selfish, Billy demonstrates here that she can see from another’s perspective and imagine how they are feeling. Later still, June and Billy are forced to sleep in the bed of the truck when their traveling companions spend the night in jail. A police officer offers them a bed in the jail, but Billy refuses and June copies her though she would rather have a bed. Billy understands, or guesses, that June refused for her sake, and gives her permission to sleep in the jail, revealing once again that she is capable of considering someone else’s needs (Parks 172-173). As they lie in the truck, Billy and June talk intimately, even discussing Billy’s relationship with Willa Mae. Then June physically reaches out to Billy, slowly and hesitantly: “If I move too fast she may run off. I get close enough and put my arm on her shoulder. She lets it stay there for a minute then shrugs it away” (Parks 174). In all these examples, we see Billy growing closer to June and building a healthy, adult relationship with her.

This does not, however, eradicate the tension between them. June is always conscious of the fact that she is not Billy’s real mother, or even related to her by blood. When Billy returns from discovering that she cannot be married, it is Teddy who speaks to her and to whom she replies, and June, who is apparently unable to hear what they are saying, calls it “Blood-to-blood talking.” She immediately offers Billy food, but Billy will not talk to her (Parks 78). When June and Billy are lying in the truck, June reflects on her relationship to her husband’s family. Tempted to accept the offer of a bed in the jail, June looks toward Billy, and finds that “Billy’s face is telling me blood is more important than comfort. But Billy ain’t my blood” (Parks 172). This is the first time that Billy has been the more willing of the two to acknowledge the relationship between them, and, unsurprisingly, it is when she can use that relationship to her advantage. Nevertheless, June decides that she has “[fallen] into the river of Beedes and got swept along in they thick brown water” (Parks 172). Thus, she does see herself as a Beede, but this is a measure of her misfortune rather than her belonging; her revelation brings her no closer to Billy.

The greater part of the tension, however, comes from their disagreement over Billy’s baby. Unable to have her own child or even to claim Billy as her own, June is looking forward to helping Billy raise her child. But Billy has decided to have an abortion, and over the course of their journey, they have several arguments on this subject. For the second time, June nearly hits Billy (Parks 132). Her objection may partly be moral, but it mostly arises from jealousy. “‘Having children is a blessing,’” June tells Billy, and it is a blessing that she has been denied (Parks 131). Billy, on the other hand, knows from Willa Mae’s experience how difficult life can be for an unwed mother: Even though Willa Mae is dead, Billy still creates stories about her life to make it appear respectable, and she has begun to do the same for herself (Parks 145, 147). Haunted by her mother’s mistakes and already beginning to repeat them, Billy is determined to end her pregnancy, but for June, this is merely another manifestation of Billy’s selfishness. Thus, Willa Mae continues to come between them.

Then they dig up Willa Mae’s body, and that is when Willa Mae finally dies. Seeing her mother’s bones, Billy begins to weep and curse (Parks 253). Perhaps she is merely frustrated not to find a treasure with the body, but given the violence of her tears—Laz says, “I ain’t never seen no one cry like she’s crying now. She may as well be fighting someone” (Parks 253)—it is more likely that she is finally releasing the pain and fear that her ten-year-old self suppressed with the words “good riddance.” Her mother has had such a strong presence in her life, but she now confronts the reality of her Willa Mae’s death, and from then on, Willa Mae really is dead. Her final song in the novel serves as a farewell: “I stopped in yr town this morning, / But tonight, this gal, she’s gotta be gone. / Don’t the Great Wheel keep rolling right along” (Parks 255). As for Billy, she can now accept without fear that “folks take after they folks” (Parks 257). She admits that her mother’s early death made it difficult to know what taking after her would mean and says, “When I seen her bones I knew what we all knew, that we’s all gonna end up in a grave someday, but there’s stops in between there and now” (Parks 257). Having recognized this, Billy is free to determine for herself what those “stops” are. Her definition of “folks” also seems to include more than one’s biological parents. She speaks of her children, her husband, her uncle, and her mother’s lover as though they are all her “folks”—people she can look to in creating her path. More significantly, she refers to her baby, the one she did not intend to have, as June’s “grandbaby” (Parks 257). Willa Mae will always be her mother, but once Billy truly understood that Willa Mae was dead, she was free to redefine her conception of motherhood in such a way that she could become a mother, and June could be her mother, too.




Works Cited

Parks, Suzan-Lori. Getting Mother’s Body. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

This is the sort of paper I’ve come to expect of you: a deliberate, carefully nuanced reading of the text. Your reading includes minute attention to the “lack of symmetry” in the relation between June and Billy (as figured by the comparison of their legs and hair), and the slow emergence of reconciliation between them (surprised hug followed by shared sleep in the truck…), a process completed only when Billy finally confronts the reality of Willa Mae’s death, and the possibility of her following a path distinct from her mother’s (my favorite line in your analysis is your succinct, “Willa Mae, dead but still present, has continued to raise Billy.”)

You call Willa Mae’s final song a “farewell,” though I’m not so sure. That “the Great Wheel keeps rolling right along” evokes, for me, both repetition and forward movement (aka “rep&rev”).

Perhaps the most striking point in your argument is that, having “laid down” Willa Mae, Billy can finally embrace June as her mother. Which opens into a larger question, the one gestured to in Billy’s finale, when she admits (as you note) that her mother’s early death made it difficult to know what “taking after her” would mean. What portion of our lives is determined by ancestry, by environment, by the modeling of our elders? Are these things distinguishable?

I remember Evelyn Fox-Keller (an American physicist and feminist, now retired from teaching History and Philosophy of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) asking, during the 2005 Larry Summers' debates, why we make so much of birth as the dividing line between what's "given" and what's learned: nature vs. nurture is a VERY suspicious binary! She developed this idea into a book, The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, which emphasizes the plastic relationship between genes and environment, and tries to counteract our tendency to privilege one cause over another by emphasizing developmental pathways...)

Anyway, you can see that you’ve got me imagining a next paper that’s not quite so literary, growing out of one that very insistently is!

I’m also excited to hear about the next paper that you really WILL write, working with Americanah, perhaps with a focus on exile in a postcolonial context, and drawing on some reading you’ve been doing in your French class. Will be very glad to discuss that when you’re ready.