“First Death of Her Life” by Elizabeth Taylor


In this week’s “Deal Me In” challenge I drew the four of hearts—although the deck was well-shuffled, it happened to be an adjacent card–and story–to the five of hearts I drew last week.  “First Death of her Life” is a brief (three pages) story about a young woman whose mother has just died in hospital and it reflects the rush of ambivalent feelings that engulf her.  In the midst of her tears she pauses to mentally compose a letter—“for her mind was always composing letters”–to her boss telling him that she will be away for four days for her mother’s funeral.  The nurse comes in:

The nurse came in. She took her patient’s wrist for a moment, replaced it, removed a jar of forced lilac from beside the bed as if this were no longer necessary, and went out again.

Lucy, our subject character, resumes her mental letter, starting anew.  She wonders how her father is doing–he is late.  He will have missed his wife’s death.   It is snowing and 4 PM on a winter’s day.  Lucy works hard to push away her negative memories of her mother because it was important that they “be sent away for ever” and “only loving-kindness” to remain.

She takes a tentative sip of the champagne from her mother’s glass by the bedside.  The family is clearly poor, but they have spent money on the champagne, the lilac, the private room.  After a “life of drabness and denial” on the “mean street where they lived” they wish her to have a little piece of luxury.  Lucy gathers up her mother’s handbag, the library book she had chosen, which would go unread, and takes a final sip of the champagne then leaves.

This story, like the previous one I read by Elizabeth Taylor, reminds me very  much of the kind of impressionistic moodiness of a story from Joyce’s “Dubliners”.   The dead mother gets her flowers, champagne, and library book before she is able to appreciate them.  As the story ends, Lucy leaves the hospital as her father arrives:  There is a sense of missed opportunities; of missed messages; of the collision-course between one’s duties to work and earn money and one’s duties to family, especially when they are ill, dying, dead.

“Opening the glass doors onto the snowy gardens, she thought it was like the end of a film. But no music rose up and engulfed her. Instead there was her father’s turning in at the gates. He propped his bicycle against the wall and began to run clumsily across the wet gravel.”

This is the end of life—no grand swelling of music; no majestic pomp.  And I am reminded again of one of my personal moments of bitterness:  having to work at the very moment my mother died because I had taken too much time away when she was ill.  And I remember my husband being fired from a job because he went to my sister’s funeral.  Most American employers don’t deal with death very well.

Deal Me In 2017 Challenge: Week 2


This week I drew the 5 of Hearts, which corresponds to the impressionistic short story, “The Idea of Age” by Elizabeth Taylor.   The unnamed narrator is a ten year old girl who clearly has a lot of anxiety about getting older.  She has a great fear of her mother’s death which she expresses obliquely:  she likes to read books about children who have dead mothers provided that the woulds are healed.

She carefully guards her mother along with a “mother-figure” in the form of a dramatic Mrs. Vivaldi who summers in the same place that the girl and her family go.  Mrs. Vivaldi is a larger-than-life dramatic woman, who recites Shakespeare and plays with her long pearls.  Mrs. Vivaldi also speaks a lot about being old.

Our narrator resolves no mysteries here, but she does give us a compelling portrait of the anxieties of a pre-adolescent girl who is worried about the concept of age, of growing old, and of the potential segue into death.

“When I was a child, people’s aged did not matter; but age mattered.  Against the serious idea of age I did not match the grown-ups I knew—who had all an ageless quality—though time unspun itself from year to year, Christmases lay far apart from one another, birthdays ever further; but that time was running on was shown in many ways.  I ‘shot out’ of my frocks, as my mother put it.  By the time I was ten, I had begun to discard things form my heart and to fasten my attention on certain people whose personalities affected me in a heady and delicious way” begins the story.

And me too.  For some strange reason,  certain “celebrities” of all types grabbed my imagination which clung to them.  For some, it was a name:  C. Douglas Dillon–secretary of the treasury.  What could the C. stand for?   There was Liz and Eddie and Debbie.  JFK and Jackie.  I started reading newspapers and I lavished as much attention on The New York Times as I did on Photoplay.  T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost were alive.  At that age I could not and did not sort out the relative importance of Pat Boone and Nikita Krushchev; Edward Villella and Shirley Jones; Katherine Anne Porter and Princess Margaret Rose.  They were all, in sundry ways, Mrs. Vivaldis for me.



Deal Me In: Katherine Mansfield, “The Stranger”


My first story of the year for this challenge turned out to be “The Stranger” by Katherine Mansfield.  It was so similar in mood, tone, outcome to “The Dead” by James Joyce that it seems almost certain she wrote it as an homage.   Mr Hammond is anxiously waiting for his wife, Janey,  to return after a year’s absence.   She has been abroad visiting their married daughter.    He wonders why the ship has been off the coast for so long without moving.   Why is it taking so long?  As he awaits his reunion with his wife, we are treated to his thoughts about her and his anticipation of her return.  He’s brought along letters from the children at home and he’s also booked an extra night at the hotel for a treat so that they don’t need to dash home too quickly.

There are some worries:  the doctor’s “launch” has left the pier at two-fifteen and it is now four twenty-eight.  Finally Janey arrives and is surrounded by people saying farewell:

“Goodbye, dear Mrs. Hammond, what this boat would have been without you”.  People hope that she will write to them; that she will visit them.  She’s almost like a celebrity amongst the people disembarking.

Like Gabriel Conroy in James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” Mr. Hammond is eager to get Janey into the hotel room.  “For God’s sake let’s get off to the hotel so that we can be by ourselves!” he snaps at her.

Once at the hotel, he’s eager for romance and she seems to be postponing it.  She wants tea; she wants to talk; she wants to look at the children’s letters.  He wants to “blot out everything” and he suffers tortures.  But she has others things going on in her head.

I won’t write a spoiler but the essence is that she’s had an experience she cannot shake loose and he is annoyed that his physical desire is not topmost in her mind.   She wants to talk, but dares not spoil his evening.  She does talk:  she has done nothing wrong, but yet he is enormously upset that her head is in the place of mortality and philosophy while his is between his legs.  He feels, at the end of the story, that his entire life is ruined and that he will never be truly alone with her again.

Mansfield presents her characters and their thoughts and what they say with an almost dispassionate clinical sense of reporting:  and the upshot is that the Hammonds, husband and wife, are in that age-old conflict about just when, why, and how a woman feels too bereft, or unwell, to capitulate to sex.

It’s a very moving story and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her stories this year.







Deal Me In: 1917 Challenge




I titled this entry 1917 Challenge.  That’s where my head is.  Let me revise it to the Deal Me In 2017 challenge.   I am planning to try some challenges this year, although I am not going to force myself to succeed.

Deal me in invites us to choose 52 short stories for the year and I am going to focus on four writers whose work I’ve long wanted to spend some time on.  Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Here’s my deck:

Clubs:  Chekhov:

  • 2 of clubs:  Death of a Clerk
  • 3 of clubs:  Small Fry
  • 4 of clubs:  The Huntsman
  • 5 of clubs:  A Malefactor
  • 6 of clubs:  The Requium  READ WEEK 6
  • 7 of clubs:  Anyuta
  • 8 of clubs:  The Bet
  • 9 of clubs:  Oysters
  • 10 of clubs:  The Grassshopper
  • Jack of clubs:  A Doctor’s Visit READ WEEK 5
  • Queen of clubs:  Who’s to Blame
  • King of Clubs:  The Ninny  READ WEEK 4
  • Ace of Clubs:  Gooseberries

Diamonds:  Katherine Mansfield

  • 2 of diamonds:  The Governness
  • 3 of diamonds:  Bliss
  • 4 of diamonds:  Je ne parly pas francais
  • 5 of Diamonds:  The Young Girl
  • 6 of diamonds:  The Stranger  READ WEEK 1
  • 7 of diamonds:  The Daughters of the late colonel  READ WEEK 7
  • 8 of diamonds:  Life of Ma Parker
  • 9 of diamonds:  The Singing Lesson
  • 10 of diamonds:  The Voyage
  • Jack of diamonds:  The Garden-Party
  • Queen of diamonds:  “Miss Brill”
  • King of diamonds:  “Marriage a la mode
  • Ace of diamonds:  The Doll’s House

Hearts:  Elizabeth Taylor

  • 2 of hearts:  “Taking Mother out”
  • 3 of hearts:  Spry Old Character  READ WEEK 11
  • 4 of hearts:  First Death of Her life  READ WEEK 3
  • 5 of hearts”  The Idea of Age  READ WEEK 2
  • 6 of hearts: Nods & Becks & Wreathed Smiles
  • 7 of hearts:  A Sad Garden’
  • 8 of hearts:  Shadows of the World
  • 9 of hearts:  The light of day
  • 10 of hearts:  Swan-moving
  • Jack of hearts:  A red-letter day  READ WEEK 10
  • Queen of Hearts:  Plenty Good Fiesta
  • King of Hearts:  I Live in a world of make believe
  • Ace of Hearts:  You’ll enjoy it when you get there  READ WEEK 9

Spades:  Flannery O’Connor

  • 2 of spades:  Judgement Day
  • 3 of spades:  Parker’s Back
  • 4 of spades:  Revelation
  • 5 of spades:  Why do the heathen rage?
  • 6 of spades:  The Lame Shall enter first
  • 7 of spades:  The Partridge Festival
  • 8 of spades:  Everything that rises must converge
  • 9 of spades:  The Comforts of home
  • 10 of spades:  The enduring chill
  • Jack of spades:  A view of the woods
  • Queen of spades:  Greenleaf  READ WEEK 8
  • King of spades:  You Can’t be any poorer than dead
  • Ace of spades:  Enoch and the Gorilla


I know that some of the most famous stories are not listed but that’s because I’ve read them recently.