Housewifely Arts

by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Issue #142 November 15th, 2010Buy Now!

Edited by Karen Friedman


I am my own housewife, my own breadwinner. I make lunches and change light bulbs. I kiss bruises and kill copperheads from the backyard creek with a steel hoe. I change sheets and the oil in my car. I can make a pie crust and exterminate hump back crickets in the crawl space with a homemade glue board, though not at the same time. I like to compliment myself on these things, because there’s no one else around to do it.

Turn left, Ike says, in a falsetto British accent.

There is no left—only a Carolina road that appears infinitely flat, surrounded by pines and the occasional car dealership billboard. I lost my mother last spring and am driving nine hours south on I-95 with a seven-year-old so that I might hear her voice again.

Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman lives on a small farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont with her veterinarian husband and daughter. She received her MFA from Bennington College, and her work has recently been featured in the anthology New Stories from the South, Ploughshares, Narrative, Kenyon Review, and Oxford American.

Q&A by Karen Friedman

KF: Where did the idea for this story come from?
MMB: The story is rooted in real life. My veterinarian husband was raised by two veterinarian parents. He grew up in a house full of animals, and for a few years, the menagerie included a rescued African Gray parrot named...Carnie. (Can birds sue?) Carnie could imitate my mother-in-law’s voice perfectly. Sadly, my mother-in-law passed away in May 2009, and I was left with the haunting thought that, somewhere, a parrot still had her voice. It inspired an imaginary quest.
KF: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
MMB: There were two primary challenges. The first was working through time, and keeping narrative energy in the front and back stories.

The second challenge was injecting the filial relationships with as much accuracy as I could muster. After I had my first child, I went back and edited many of the mothers in my stories. While I knew what it meant to be a child, I did not fully know what it meant to be a mother.
KF: Your story contains some heartbreaking observations about motherhood, and I know you wrote it shortly after your daughter was born. In what way do you feel like that transition influenced the story?
MMB: Within six weeks in 2009, my first daughter was born, my husband graduated from veterinary school, my beloved mother-in-law passed away, and we moved twelve hours north, away from my family. The transition brought me to my knees.

I have never wanted to be better at anything than motherhood. And I’ve never found anything harder to be good at. Motherhood is physically and mentally humbling. Additionally, it is, and may always be, a difficult time to put a child into the world. I feel a lot of anxiety about the quality of our environment and society. I had a friend tell me that motherhood is the ultimate act of hope; this is true for me.

I think you can see these anxieties projected into my main character. As a single mother, she feels pinched. She wants to preserve her child’s innocence. She feels guilty for his current and future flaws, as it is her body that has produced them. As her own mother’s health deteriorates, she feels torn between her desire to spend time with her child and her unhappy, ailing mother. She worries that he will one day have complicated feelings toward her, the way she does with her own mother.

Going to bed one night, she finds herself playing a game of Worst Case Scenario—what if a python approaches her child? What will she do then? As a mother, I often find myself engaging in obsessive, silly, and messy behavior. What I wanted to produce in this story is the realization that, in most cases, love is at the heart of the mess.
KF: Although you now live in Vermont, you spent most of your life down south, which makes me wonder whether you identify yourself as a southern writer.
MMB: I do consider myself a southern writer, though who knows for how long? There are still Baptist preachers, g-droppin’ grandmothers, and well-mannered parents in my head. A dilapidated antebellum home on flat, sandy soil surrounded by pine trees and a family graveyard—that is where my imagination lives. This all results in a sort of redneck lyricism that I haven’t been able to shake.

What I like about Vermont is that, aside from being cold and mountainous, it reminds me of the agricultural North Carolina of my youth. Lots of open space, casual people, business around the dinner table. I’m a sucker for the small town mode of being.
KF: At one point the main character calls Carnie an “ebony beaked wise-ass”. Even after reading your story a dozens of times, there are still lines that make me laugh out loud. Do you consider yourself a wise-ass?
MMB: My mother would!
KF: Ike is a delightful character—one of the best children I’ve read in a long time. Was there a real-life inspiration for him?
MMB: Truthfully, yes. I used to babysit a family of four. The youngest son was precocious and inherently theatrical. Even at five, he had undeniable pizzazz. He sponged up every one-liner, every song. He was like a forty pound adult who still needed the occasional nap. I adored him.
KF: Why does the main character decide to stay at the end, and do you think she will live in the same house for the rest of her life?
MMB: One thing that got me down about last decade’s building boom was the transience it implied. I’ve always loved historic houses, because they seemed, to me, to be built with more beauty and permanence in mind. As in, this is where our family will stay and invest our energy (in the house, each other, and the community). I realize the job environment doesn’t make that possible for many these days, but I still revere the idea of settling, of forging a deep connection with place. There is a different spiritual residue in a true homestead, no matter how modest or unique.

The main character, before deciding to stay in her current house, breaks in to her childhood home. Decades of events and the evidence of her parents’ handmade projects (molding, curtains) speak to her. When she decides to remain in her current house, despite its problems, she is metaphorically re-committing to the idea of home life. It is a calculated and yet emotional investment.
KF: How long did it take you to complete this story?
MMB: It was a work in progress over two years. The draft was written in a month and a half, but the edits were substantial over time.
KF: What are you working on now?
MMB: I’m working on a short story about Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra, and wrapping up some edits on my collection-in-progress, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. I’m also working on a novel about Oscar Wilde’s hard-living niece, Dolly.

I’ve also been blogging weekly for Ploughshares since September. It’s fun and challenging to come up with a new piece of content every seven days.
KF: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MMB: Trust your reader.