Marshall’s short story “To Da-duh, in Memoriam,” revolving around a rivalry between a grandmother and a granddaughter, functions within a series of contrasts as each female tries to prove that her world is superior. “I tried giving the contests I had sensed between us a wider meaning,” Marshall notes in her introduction to the story when it was included in Reena, and Other Stories. “I wanted the basic theme of youth and old age to suggest rivalries, dichotomies of a cultural and political nature, having to do with the relationship of western civilization and the Third World.” Marshall infuses “To Da-dun, in Memoriam” with small, careful details as well as large thematic concepts that explore those opposing forces, all of which contribute to the complex link between the vigorous American child and the aging island woman. Indeed, as Adam Gussow points out in The Village Voice, the love shared by grandmother and granddaughter is “fed by a mixture of love and fear.”
In the opening paragraph of the story, the narrator introduces the contrasts that will form the basis of the relationship between herself and her grandmother. Inside the embarkation shed, the narrator stands on the threshold of entering a new world. She is not quite in Bridgetown proper, yet she is no longer connected to the boat that transported her from New York. This in-between point is characteristically indistinct; it is “dark … in spite of the daylight flooding in from outside.” In failing to illuminate the interior, the sunlight is unable to carry out one of its primary functions, thus hinting at upcoming island inadequacies. The sunlight also blinds the narrator, thus illustrating its dual, opposing nature; it can provide clarity of sight, but it can also be so strong that it obscures vision. The sunlight thus represents both the granddaughter and the grandmother, who are so positive what they believe is right that they have difficulty seeing the other’s point of view. Indeed, the light symbolism applies to the narrator’s entire trip to the island; although Barbados is a land of sunshine, the narrator brings darkness to her grandmother’s world.
Details throughout the story strengthen this idea of contrast, many of which come at the beginning of the story and rest within the family. For example, Da-duh prefers boys to girls and “white” grandchildren—fair-skinned grandchildren of mixed race—to those with dark coloring. Da-duh, who lives in St. Thomas, considers her relatives from St. Andrews to be unsophisticated and awkward. Comparing the reactions of the New York relatives to her own, she is “ashamed at their wonder” and “embarrassed for them.” The words with which the Barbadians greet the American relatives also show the material and sociocultural differences between the two family groups: “And see the nice things they wearing, wrist watch and all!” they exclaim.
Bridgetown offers Marshall another opportunity to explore the idea of opposites. Though Bridgetown is Barbados’s largest city, its third-world atmosphere makes it hard to conceive of it in the same category as a modern city such as New York. The narrator notices the donkey carts on the streets and the woman’s feet that”slurred the dust” of the unpaved roads. The family’s journey through Bridgetown should be celebratory reunion, but it is described as “part of a funereal procession” moving toward a “grave ceremony.” The reactions of the family members to the ride in the lorry further reinforce the differences between New York and Barbados. Da-duh, so confident at the embarkation shed, now holds tight to her granddaughter’s hand because she is afraid of machinery. However, as soon as the truck leaves Bridgetown, surrounded again by her beloved sugar canes, Da-duh is able to relax. The narrator, in contrast, now feels overwhelmed. Looking at the tall canes lining the road,
“I suddenly feared that we were journeying . . . toward some dangerous place where the canes, grown as high and thick as a forest, would close in on us and run us through with their stiletto blades.”
Nowhere, however, are the forces of opposition more apparent than in the granddaughter’s and grandmother’s evocations of their communities and backgrounds. To prove the superiority of her world, Da-duh introduces her granddaughter to the land. She points out the plants, the breadfruit, papaw, guava, and mango, and elicits that the only tree on the narrator’s block is a chestnut tree that produces no fruit. She takes the narrator to a small topical forest that is at once a place of beauty, violence, and peace. She owns sugar cane fields, while the narrator only has processed sugar, an insubstantial, potentially harmful substance derived, as Da-duh tells her, by “squeezing] all the little life in them.” Daduh’s words serve as a reminder that she possesses the real item—the canes—while her granddaughter only has a cheap imitation.
In response to Da-duh’s boasting about the natural glory of Barbados, the narrator tells her all of the things that New York does have. If Barbados is a “perennial summer kingdom,” New York offers dramatically cold winters. The narrator exaggerates in telling Da-duh how the snow in New York covers the treetops. The canes, too, would be “buried under tons of snow. The snow would be higher than your head, higher than your house.” She highlights Da-dun’s inadequacy by pointing out that if she dressed in New York as she did in Barbados, she would “freeze to death.” The narrator adds insult to injury by telling her grandmother that she has a coat “with fur on the collar.”
This pattern, set on the first day of the narrator’s visit, continues to develop. Da-duh shows off the natural world, while the narrator responds by “recreating my towering world of steel and concrete and machines for her.” Eventually, Da-duh turns to her crowning glory, her greatest source of island pride, “an incredibly tall royal palm which rose cleanly out of the ground… [and] soared high above the trees around it into the sky.” Da-duh challenges her granddaughter, “All right now, tell me if you’ve got anything this tall in that place you’re from.” The narrator responds with news of the Empire State building, at the time the world’s tallest building, which is located in New York. Thus, with finality, she wins the competition. Not surprisingly in a story so reliant on opposition, this victory leaves her feeling “triumphant yet strangely saddened.”
While “To Da-duh, in Memoriam” rests on this series of contrasts, there are also many instances in which these opposites meet in one entity. For example, when the narrator’s mother is reunited with Da-duh for the first time in fifteen years, the narrator is surprised how her mother, “who was such a formidable figure in my eyes, had suddenly … been reduced to my status.” At one time, the narrator’s mother occupies the dual roles of child and mother.
This concept of merging disparate factors most aptly applies to Da-duh, however. This suggestion, raised at the narrator’s first sight of her grandmother, grows increasingly stronger throughout the story. The narrator’s initial impression of Da-duh is that of a woman who is both young and old, one whose vibrant force of will stubbornly fights against her weakening body. As Da-duh makes her way through the embarkation shed, her body strains not to give in to the physical debilities that wrack an eighty-year-old woman. Her posture is bent “ever so slightly” but the “rest of her… sought to deny those years and hold that back straight.” Also significant is Da-duh’s ability to transcend time periods, as evidenced by the “long severe old-fashioned white dress she wore which brought the sense of a past that was still alive into our bustling present.” Indeed, when the narrator looks into her grandmother’s face, she wonders if Da-duh might be “both child and woman, darkness and light, past and present, life and death,” for “all the opposites [are] contained and reconciled in her.”
Because Da-duh possesses youthful elements within her, she can form a close connection with her granddaughter. Similarly, the narrator is equally drawn to this relationship. In certain ways, the narrator is both child and adult, for example, in her “fierce look,” her “small strength,” her pride in taking after “no one but myself,” and her ability to alert her grandmother to some “disturbing, even threatening” characteristic. These two females, one young and one old, can be perceived as two halves of one whole. However, they are unable to coexist as such; the old woman cannot sustain the pressure of the child’s vitality, and the child, with the backing of the changing world, overpowers the old woman. Da-duh is eventually unwilling to accept the modernity that her granddaughter presents to her and instead accepts her defeat—and chooses death. In accordance with all that has come before it, the story’s ending further raises the specter of opposites. As Lloyd W. Brown observes in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, “The opening statement [of the last paragraph] (‘She died and I lived’) presents the life-death antithesis.” Indeed, this idea is so important to Marshall, who wrote in her introduction that she felt that she and her grandmother, upon their first meeting
“both knew, at a level beyond words, that I had come into the world not only to love her and to continue her line but to take her very life in order that I might live.”
Despite—or perhaps because of-—these conflicting feelings, the narrator continues to honor her grandmother, and in doing this creates her own environment of contrasts. For a period, she lives as an artist in a loft above a New York factory. Within this stark, urban, technologically advanced world, the narrator chooses to embrace those natural elements that her grandmother so dearly loved. The story closes on an image of the narrator’s pictures of “seas of sugar-cane and huge swirling Van Gogh suns and palm trees [in] a tropical landscape … while the thunderous tread of the machines downstairs jarred the floor beneath my easel.”
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Paule Marshall, Published by Gale, 2002.
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “To Da-duh, in Memoriam,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002