Recitatif

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Mary (Twyla’s Mother) Character Analysis

Mary is Twyla’s mother, who is introduced in the first sentence of the story when Twyla explains she is in St. Bonny’s because “my mother danced all night.” Throughout the story, Twyla uses this same phrase—childlike in its vague simplicity—to describe the reason why Mary can’t take care of her. Its true meaning remains unclear; it is possible that Mary simply does not want to be a mother, but it’s also plausible that she is a sex worker. Mary’s name is ironic, as she is the opposite of the pure, self-sacrificing, morally perfect figure based on the mother of Jesus. Instead, she neglects Twyla, who at one point mentions that “Mary’s idea of supper was popcorn and a can of Yoo-Hoo,” and fidgets throughout the church service when she comes to visit St. Bonny’s. The fact that Twyla calls her mother “Mary” as opposed to something like “Mom” indicates the skewed nature of their relationship. Even at eight, Twyla is arguably more responsible than her mother, a fact revealed when Mary visits and “smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking for her mother, not me.” Twyla’s feelings about her mother are decidedly mixed; she is ashamed and resentful of Mary’s inappropriate outfit and the fact that she didn’t bring her any food, but experiences a moment of bliss when Mary embraces her. In the latter part of the story, Twyla repeats the refrain that Mary “never did stop dancing,” even as Twyla became a decidedly serious and responsible wife and mother herself.

Mary (Twyla’s Mother) Quotes in Recitatif

The Recitatif quotes below are all either spoken by Mary (Twyla’s Mother) or refer to Mary (Twyla’s Mother). For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the HarperCollins edition of Recitatif published in 1998.
Recitatif Quotes

My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Mary (Twyla’s Mother), Roberta’s Mother
Related Symbols: Dance
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the opening sentence of the story. Immediately, it highlights a connection between Roberta and Twyla through the explanation of why they are brought to St. Bonny’s. This connection becomes the basis of their deep (if unstable) bond that lasts into adulthood. Meanwhile, Twyla’s words also draw a parallel between Mary (Twyla’s mother) and Roberta’s mother, and their respective afflictions. Although we might not ordinarily think of “dancing all night” as a problem—and certainly not a condition, like an illness or disability—Twyla suggests that in this context, that is exactly what it is. Mary’s tendency to “dance all night” is a metaphorical (or euphemistic) sickness or disability that prevents her from performing the duties of a normal, healthy mother.

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I thought if my dancing mother met her sick mother it might be good for her. And Roberta thought her sick mother would get a big bang out of a dancing one. We got excited about it and curled each other's hair.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Mary (Twyla’s Mother), Roberta’s Mother
Related Symbols: Dance
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:

During Roberta and Twyla’s time at St. Bonny’s, there is a visiting day during which relatives and other adults come to attend a church service and have lunch with the children. Roberta and Twyla grow excited over this prospect, imagining that their mothers will enjoy meeting one another. Like their “salt and pepper” daughters, Mary and Roberta’s mother are constructed as parallel versions of each other, even as they are also opposites. Whereas Roberta’s mother is sick and (as we later learn) deeply religious, Mary’s problem seems to be that she is too fun-loving and irresponsible to take care of Twyla. The girls’ optimism about the prospect of their mothers meeting draws them even closer together, symbolized by the intimate, reciprocal act of curling each other’s hair.

I saw Mary right away. She had on those green slacks I hated and hated even more now because didn't she know we were going to chapel? And that fur jacket with the pocket linings so ripped she had to pull to get her hands out of them. But her face was pretty––like always––and she smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking for her mother, not me.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Mary (Twyla’s Mother)
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

The visiting day has arrived, and Twyla and Roberta have carefully prepared, wearing their best outfits and making baskets out of construction paper which they fill with candy. When Twyla sees Mary, however, she is overcome with embarrassment; Mary is dressed inappropriately for chapel, and wearing a fur jacket that is obviously ripped. In this moment, Twyla and her mother Mary perform a role reversal, in which Twyla becomes the sensible, disapproving mother, and Mary the giddy, frivolous little girl. This reversal foreshadows Twyla’s development into a responsible (and perhaps slightly boring) adult, who is focused on creating a conventional, stable life for her family—the opposite of what her mother provided for her.

"Did I tell you? My mother, she never did stop dancing."
"Yes. You told me. And mine, she never got well." Roberta lifted her hands from the tabletop and covered her face with her palms. When she took them away she really was crying. "Oh, shit, Twyla. Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Maggie?"

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta (speaker), Maggie, Mary (Twyla’s Mother), Roberta’s Mother
Related Symbols: Dance
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

Roberta has become hysterically upset over the incident with Maggie, and Twyla has attempted to comfort her, telling her that they were just children. In an effort to distract her, Twyla returns to a consistent refrain in the women’s relationship: their habit of asking about each other’s mothers. At first this seems to help, however the last words of the story are in the form of Roberta’s sudden exclamation: “What the hell happened to Maggie?” As a result, the story ends on a climactic, unresolved note. While Twyla has been able to move on from the incident with Maggie and does not seem to feel guilty about it, Roberta remains fixated.

Meanwhile, Roberta’s question also speaks directly to the reader, and raises two possible lines of inquiry. One refers to the episode in the orchard, and brings up the unresolved issues of what took place. Why did the gar girls kick her? Why did no one intervene? Why was Big Bozo fired, and was it a direct result of what happened to Maggie? However, the more obvious reading points to the question of Maggie’s ultimate fate. While both Roberta and Twyla have overcome their traumatic childhoods and achieved relative success in life, Maggie’s circumstances remain completely unknown. She is a lost character, an outcast within the narrative. The question of her fate is only raised at the very end of the story, when it is too late to receive an answer.

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Mary (Twyla’s Mother) Character Timeline in Recitatif

The timeline below shows where the character Mary (Twyla’s Mother) appears in Recitatif. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Recitatif
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
...the narrator, explains that she and Roberta were in a shelter called St. Bonny’s because Twyla’s mother “danced all night” and Roberta’s mother was “sick.” Twyla says that people often feel pity... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
...“a girl from a whole different race,” she felt “sick to my stomach.” Her mother, Mary, had told her that people of Roberta’s race never washed their hair and “smelled funny.”... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
...leaves, Roberta asks Twyla if her mother is sick too; Twyla responds that her mother (Mary) isn’t sick, but “just likes to dance all night.” Twyla likes the way that Roberta... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
...of them, “they wouldn’t be real orphans.” Twyla is upset upon seeing that her mother, Mary, is wearing a pair of green slacks that Twyla dislikes and considers inappropriate for the... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Twyla is so happy to see Mary that she briefly forgets about Roberta, until Roberta comes to introduce her mother to Twyla... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
Mary hasn’t brought anything to eat for lunch, and Twyla again thinks, “I could have killed... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
...and Twyla asks after Roberta’s mother. Roberta says she is “fine” and Twyla says that Mary is “pretty as a picture.” Roberta leaves and Twyla again thinks about how ugly the... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
...and as they are saying goodbye once again ask about each other’s mothers. Twyla says Mary never stopped dancing, and Roberta sadly admits that Roberta’s mother never got well. After Roberta... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
...and that both women had “nobody inside.” She draws a parallel between Maggie’s disabilities and Mary’s inability to perform her duties as a mother; she then compares Maggie’s silence and helplessness... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
...agree that they were both “lonely” and “scared.” Twyla asks if she told Roberta that Mary “never did stop dancing.” Roberta responds that her own mother never got better. Suddenly she... (full context)