Know the Mother, the debut flash fiction collection by long-time Detroit Free Press columnist Desiree Cooper includes 31 vignettes centered on the lives of women and the issues that crop up as one navigates the variegated terrain of marriage, motherhood, and professional life. These intricately woven tales highlight various aspects of life from childhood to old age, and shed light on the concessions sometimes made to peers, partners, children, coworkers, and even strangers. Conveying how social and political circumstances torque our relationships even at the domestic level is one of the major themes in this book. Imbalance between the sexes in the work place and on the home front is palpable. Race and class issues dog the characters, but don’t define them. Each unexpected intrusion of bias changes the tenor of the characters’ interactions in subtle, yet poignant, ways.
Take for instance, “Cartoon Blue,” which centers on gender bias. In the story, a high-powered lawyer realizes she is having a miscarriage in the office bathroom. As if that isn’t tragic enough, she carries on as if nothing has happened because she fears the reaction of her male colleagues: “The ladies’ bathroom has only two stalls. No one dreamed that more than a handful of women would ever work here. The floors are granite tombstones. I sit in a stall, but not for the usual business. Someone might hear me, so I hold my breath while my womb weeps.”
Other stories center on the impact of parents on their children. In the title story, “Know the Mother,” a woman faces the imminent loss of her own mother: “As I wash my mother’s back, her scent fills my nostrils. Already, she smells like a garden unearthed, a freshly dug grave. . . . Don’t leave me, I plead.”
Sometimes in the forefront, but always in the backdrop within Cooper’s fiction is the importance of family. In “Second Sleep,” the narrator realizes that despite past grievances, she needs to repair her relationship with her family: “It’s been years since you relaxed in the breast of family, but the dark cloak of December helps you remember. There was once something called a holiday, and the jokes about your cooking were the thing of family lore. The taunting used to make you blaze like a fresh wick. But on this night, you can hear the sweetness in the jesting. Like a pinch of sugar in the bitter greens.”
As a parent of teenagers, this reader’s favorite story was “Mourning Chair,” in which a mother tries unsuccessfully to fend off resentment and premonitions of doom as she waits for her daughter to return home from a night out on the town: “My daughter is easy to recognize, officer. She has a scar by her left eye—a tangle with Ginger, her moody cat. . . . She’s easy to recognize, officer. She’s the one with her heart beating in my pocket.”
In “Reporting for Duty 1959,” a sad story that deftly illuminates a child’s first encounter with racism, Sergeant Douglas Carter is driving his family from Texas to Florida in 1959, when he stops at a Holiday Inn with a prominently displayed “vacancy” sign. His young son, Junior, excited to stay in the hotel and swim in the pool, sees his father arguing with the white hotel clerk and realizes something is awry: “The rules were bending, twisting around him—signs not meaning what they said, his mother meeting his questions with anger rather than answers. His father was now pacing in the lobby of the hotel, saying words he could not hear, pointing to the stripes on his uniform, then to his family in the car, while the white man in the rinky-dink uniform kept shaking his head, ‘no.'”
Class issues and adultery both crop up in “Night Coming,” a story in which wealthy African American protagonist, Nikki, moves to Detroit from Atlanta and on Halloween night, confronts economic disparity for the first time: “They came in droves all night, kids tumbling out of buses and church vans, and the hungry adults vying with them for the best candy.” Later on, in an apt confluence of scenery and plot, Nikki discovers her husband has been unfaithful as she is standing in front of a sculpture from the Congo of a Nkonde nail figure at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “According to the museum placard, when two parties reached an agreement, they’d drive a nail into its body to seal the deal. If anyone broke the promise, the Nkonde’s spirit would punish him.”
Cooper, a long-time columnist, is adept at one-liners and witty asides. The flash fiction genre fits Cooper’s neat, abbreviated, aesthetic, and feels perfect for mothers who don’t have time for more than a morsel at each sitting, but who want to feel satisfied at the end of each selection. Each piece may hone in on a different topic—gender bias, racism, classism—but the leitmotif remains womanhood, motherhood, family life. How does the world outside the home influence what happens in the home? And how do women grapple with their various identities? Throughout this collection, Cooper might be trying to answer the question she poses in her first story, “Witching Hour,” “Why do we wake each night in that spiritless moment between worlds, we mothers and daughters and wives?” Of course, these stories can’t answer all the questions, but in Know the Mother, they are there for the reader to ponder; perhaps that is every bit as crucial.