I really like Elizabeth Taylor's work. She writes so eloquently. Her stories are less about action than about the people inhabiting the spaces and places she writes about and what they feel and how they interact. I sometimes find general collections of short stories that I read from a little disappointing. It's not that they aren't filled with wonderfully crafted stories, which most of the time leave me with lots to think about. It's more an issue with how few women authors seem to be represented in them. I try and alternate between male and female writers (maybe I shouldn't do that?), and I'll easily run out of choices by female authors long before those by male authors. So the choice was easy this week when I spotted a story by Elizabeth Taylor in Short Story Masterpieces edited by Robert Penn Warren.
"A Red Letter Day" is an excellent example of Elizabeth Taylor at her finest. The story is a snapshot of a mother and her son, and the tension between them as they spend Visiting Day together. It's a rather cheerless story about a mother's feelings of what I saw as inadequacy and unhappiness and her son's confusion from them.
Tory is a divorced mother, 11-year-old Edward her only child. It becomes obvious to the reader how she feels about being divorced. The cabs pass and repass her by between station and school, and she's one of the last to get one, "having no man to exert authority for her." Later in the story Edward will mention a package he received from his father, and Tory's response, which "lays ice all over his heart", though she tries to remain indifferent.
Tory is not the only parent to arrive alone. Another mother, Mrs Hays-Hardy does as well and shares a cab with her to the school. One look at Mrs Hays-Hardy and Tory notes with distaste that she looked as if she had a "teeming womb". She's certainly the mother of not one but several sons, and no matter if they didn't have a father, they would feel no lack of father as surely her son did, as she was "large enough to be both father and mother to them." No bitterness there. Still, you can't but help feel for Tory.
""Nervous dread made her feel fretful and vicious. In her life, all was frail, precarious--emotions fleeting, relationships fragmentary. Her life with her husband had suddenly loosened and dissolved; her love for her son was painful, shadowed by guilt--the guilt of having nothing solid to offer, of having grown up and forgotten, of adventuring still, away from her child, of not being able to resist those emotional adventures, the tenuous grasping after life."
The discomfit between mother and son is palpable on both sides. She considers them both amateurs in their relationships with each other. She loves him and no doubt he loves her as well, though it's difficult to show it. It comes out in odd ways that neither probably really appreciate all that much. He dreads the day as much as she must, but it does mean a meal outside the school.
When Tory sees Edward glance after the departing Hays-Hardy brood, she asks if he'd have liked to have joined them, and he replies no, they don't like him. Twist the knife, as if you don't already feel bad enough for the boy. Tory tries to make the day nice, though it seems to drag and she grasps for whatever she can to make it pass quickly. I imagine it's simply a matter of growing up, but mother and son don't seem to be able to communicate well (though the Hays-Hardys seem to have a jolly time). Embarrassment turns Edward crimson when Tory asks a museum attendant to explain the meaning of a mosaic to him, as "her son adores Greek Mythology", but she fails to realize Edward hates it when she does this. And she does it often.
Relief comes at the end of the day as Tory leaves Edward on the steps of the school. Matron has gone inside to attend to Mrs Hays-Hardy, so the good-byes are uncertain. The tension is lifted when both gaily return to their own lives. This was a wonderful story, despite it's serious subject. I hope I've not made it sound too dreary, and I feel like I've described it in such a choppy manner. Taylor made me curious about both and sympathetic to each as well. She renders the inner feelings of mother and son with such acuity. I wish I could find this online, so everyone could easily read it, but I recommend it in any case--it's well worth searching for!