Any woman of a certain age who has or had an ambiguous, testy, contentious, guilt-ridden relationship with her mother looks for the opportunities to acknowledge she wasn’t alone. When I read Tiff Holland’s Betty Superman (34 pp, $12.00, Rose Metal Press), I wondered how she’d managed to eavesdrop conversations I had with my mother. Or was Holland the long-lost sister I yearned for and got a little brother instead?
Whichever, I got completely lost in this fiction chapbook collection of short, short stories involving a coarse, chain-smoking mother with a sharp tongue and her daughter, with whom I identified probably too closely. Even though I instinctively knew that, as a chapbook, I’d finish it by the time I finished my morning cereal, I felt cheated when there were no more stories.
The aptly named “Dragon Lady” introduces us to the unseen narrator’s mother who wears “sweaters, tight over missile-silo brassieres. Pink. Yellow. Two pairs of support hose and open toed shoes, even in winter.” If that isn’t showing not telling, I don’t know what is. That image of the missile-silo brassieres and tight sweaters could have been my mother, and I was hooked from that first sentence. Good for a reader; good for a writing lesson as well.
The one-paragraph story “Hot Work” shows us transvestites who come to a beauty shop after it closes to have their make-up done by the mother from the first story. The narrator pretends to sleep but watches the transvestites, “unwinged angels with five o’clock shadows…trying in that small space to learn how to fly.” Such a short piece, but every word tells a story.
In “Betty Superman,” the title story, we learn the mother’s name is Betty. I could see this story so clearly–a seventeen year old embarrassed by her mother’s every antic and amazed by a woman’s stubbornness to get you to do something you don’t want to do. Out of guilt, you do it. Every time.
Remember the first time a date came to the house to pick you up? Again, if you’re close to my age, you know the protocol was for the guy to come to the door. In “First Husband,” the narrator’s date comes to the door with flowers for Betty because he’s been warned about her. Betty’s greeting to him confirms her daughter’s fears: “My, aren’t you queery looking?”
Mother and daughter have a talk about relatives who are homosexual in “The Red Snapper.” It’s mostly a narration by Betty of having caught two female cousins in bed. She goes on and on with her stories, while her daughter, now a writer, scribbles notes under the table.
“The Disappearing Populace,” another very short story, tells so much more about Betty. She’s on husband number three, but “she’s ready, always ready to bail, to put him out on the pavement.” Then, she fixes a dinner he has requested and eats with him. I could say more, but I’d rather you read the story.
“The Barberton Mafia” is the story of the man Betty let get away while she was separated from the narrator’s father–“even his own mother said I should leave him.” First, he’s a pimp because he always had pretty girls around him, then Betty decides he was Mafia because he was “I-talian.” This is a remarkable insight into the mother-daughter dynamic and well worth re-reading.
In the story “Stretched,” on a trip to a restaurant with Betty, the daughter and her daughter hear an unusual story about a surgical procedure Betty had done, but it leads to much more information than you ever wanted to hear. Hysterical and serious at the same time.
In “Self-Serve Unleaded,” the daughter explains to Betty how to pump gas, after having learned it was something Betty had never done. This was a poignant example of how the roles switch when a parent gets older.
The final story, “Homing,” shows us a Betty whose health has deteriorated. She doesn’t smoke anymore because she has emphysema, but though the cough is worse, the daughter is no long afraid of it. She has moved into acceptance, and she is more protective. When she rushes to get between her mother and strangers who have offered to pray for her, we see Betty still has some strength left in her. And we see as well, in a moving conclusion, just exactly how Betty and her daughter feel about each other.
This is a wonderful collection of perfectly wrought stories I recommend to any and all.