Memory and Forgetting
Both Jamie and his mother wrestle with their memories of the past in a way that almost minimizes present time. Although the scenes in the hospital are told in present tense, Jamie frames the story of his mother’s stay in the hospital as if it were being told as a memory. Near the story’s beginning, Jamie refers to the day he found out about his mother’s brain tumor as being in the past when he remarks, ‘ ‘By the time this happens, it is too late for me,” and when he closes the story he ends with, ‘ “This is my entire life, everything that I remember.” Woven through the memory of his mother and her brain tumor are other memories of Jamie’s life, including the time when his father left the family, Jamie’s failures in school and at work, and what happened during the summer of 1977.
Memories are delicate and untrustworthy things in “Animal Stories.” At the story’s beginning, the issue of Jamie’s mother’s ability to remember events is raised, even those things that have happened just since the previous day. Jamie refers to his mother’s brain tumor as “eating her memories.” Ironically, while Jamie claims to be working on “trying to forget things,” even to the point of enlisting his mother’s help in teaching him “little tricks about forgetting,” the entire story he tells is of past events. Part of the summer of 1977 is spent learning how to drink gin so that he, his friends, and his mother can wake up the next day having forgotten the previous day, but Jamie still remembers much of the sadness of that summer.
Jamie connects his mother’s brain tumor with the increasingly odd behavior she began exhibiting around 1976 and 1977, when she would place small, one-word notes in their neighbors’ mailboxes. More recently she has forgotten that she and Jamie’s father are divorced. Jamie remarks that in his mother’s book about animal memory she argues, “Tumors may grow because people can’t forget,” as if getting rid of memories would help one prevent tumors. But his mother has a lot of memories to forget, he says, noting, “A psychic friend of the family once said that my mother’s soul is older than the rocks in China.”
Jamie’s family consists of him and his parents, but it is not a picture of happiness and harmony. In fact, he notes, “There is nothing to replace the failure of our parents.” In 1977, Jamie’s physician father, David, left the family for reasons that are not explicitly stated, but his departure probably had something to do with his wife’s increasingly bizarre behavior. For example, according to Jamie,’ ‘Sometime in 1977 God had told Mom: watch out for doctors, they just want to touch you.”
After David leaves, Jamie’s mother is unable to serve as the head of the household, and the family disintegrates into a pattern of self-destruction. Jamie’s girlfriend Alice moves in, as does his friend Tom, and the four of them create a sad pseudo-family that falls into excessive drinking and depression. Even though David comes by on occasion to work in the garden, the household is hardly able to function. Jamie’s mother cannot be trusted to cook, so Tom takes up the job but not with much success. Eventually Alice and Tom primarily eat only celery, and the four members of the household spend most of their days in the basement of the deteriorating house, away from the heat of the day, coming up into the rest of the house only after dark. They rarely leave the house. When they do go out, they sometimes visit Goodwill, emerging from the store as ‘ ‘walking collages of other people’s lives.” Eventually Jamie’s parents are divorced.
Despite all of the sadness in his relationship with his family, Jamie is attached to his mother in a tender, yet painful, way. Though he remarks,’ ‘Any man’s mother is a source of grief until she dies,” he obviously cares for her. He stays with her in the hospital, helping her to the bathroom and with the television’s remote control. When she creates a memory of having visited Vienna, Jamie plays along with her, not wanting to bother her with unnecessary facts. He starts to gently touch the side of his mother’s face, “because,” he says, “I know she is dying,” but she quickly jumps out of the car when she sees her house.
Disease and Sickness
The story is focused on Jamie’s mother’s brain tumor and on how it has affected their lives. Most of the present time frame of the story takes place in a hospital, where, Jamie notes, “people lose themselves.” The atmosphere of the hospital is not very warm: there are “humming contraptions with beeping lights,” and Jamie is afraid that “around each corner might lurk a cluster of diseases waiting to bore under our skin.” In addition, the doctor, who sees Jamie’s mother, acts distant and distracted, sometimes paying as much, or even more, attention to the nature videos running on the room’s television than to his patient. He eventually forces her to leave the hospital because she will not cooperate with his treatment.
Sharon, the woman sharing the hospital room with Jamie’s mother, is recovering from a drug overdose. Even though the hospital is supposed to be a place where people come to heal, Sharon is visited by strange people, probably her drug dealers, who slip her pills and comment on how much various medicines in the room are worth.
Jamie’s father is a doctor, but he is nowhere to be found during his ex-wife’s illness. In fact, one of first signs of Jamie’s mother’s illness comes when she believes that God has told her to avoid doctors. Soon after, Jamie’s father leaves his family.
Depression and Sadness
Jamie displays many signs of deep sadness and even depression throughout the story. Though he describes himself as ‘ ‘a happy man,” he reports that he is “shedding things, like jobs, cars, and old clothes,” and he no longer sees his girlfriend Alice. During the summer of 1977, he, along with Alice, his mother, and his friend Tom, drank heavily and rarely left the house. The house eventually fell into disrepair and became the house that the neighbors wondered about. During that summer, he and the others seemed to work on being sad, as taught by his mother, who encouraged them to “savor” their sadness. “It was, she assured us, our only real friend, and we believed her.” He also reports that by 1982, he had quit trying to improve his life and that “shortly afterwards I stopped caring so much.”
Nature and the Environment
While in the hospital, Jamie’s mother constantly watches nature videos and documentaries. Many are about animals that are endangered, that are being damaged by environmental pollutants, or that are simply unusual. In 1979, according to Jamie, his mother changed her name to Meadow Star, developed an interest in animals, and decided to write a book on how animals remember things. “Mom loves animals because they can’t remember in the same way we do,” says Jamie, and she believes that this forgetting is the reason animals are happy. He also notes that in 1984 he developed an interest in nature. He often compares human behavior with that of animals, usually concluding that animals are better fit for their environment than are humans.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Jason Brown – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.