Recitatif

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Unlike Mary, Roberta’s mother is never named, and the details of her character remains vague. She is described as “sick,” though it is unclear what she suffers from and possible that it is a mental, rather than physical, illness. When she arrives to visit Roberta at St. Bonny’s, Twyla describes her as “bigger than any man,” wearing an enormous cross and carrying a Bible. In contrast to Mary, Roberta’s mother is deeply religious and serious. Later in the story, Roberta reveals that her mother was raised in an “institution” and that Roberta expected to be, too. In the final scene, Roberta sadly admits that her mother never got better.

Roberta’s Mother Quotes in Recitatif

The Recitatif quotes below are all either spoken by Roberta’s Mother or refer to Roberta’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 brought a painted sign in queenly red with huge black letters that said, IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?. Roberta took her lunch break and didn't come back for the rest of the day or any day after. Two days later I stopped going too and couldn't have been missed because nobody understood my signs anyway.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta , Roberta’s Mother
Related Symbols: Protest Signs
Page Number: 223-224
Explanation and Analysis:

Although she earlier stated that she didn’t have a strong opinion on busing, Twyla has joined a counter-protest motivated by her argument with Roberta. She makes protest signs that address Roberta directly, and become increasingly strange and difficult for anyone except for Roberta to understand. Her final sign, reading “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?”, has nothing to do with busing at all and instead takes the form of the refrain with which she and Roberta have ended most of their conversations as adults—by asking about each other’s mothers.

Twyla’s words in this passage convey the sense that while Roberta has assimilated into a group of others who feel able to vocalize their opinions about political issues affecting their families, Twyla remains an outsider who cannot effectively communicate with others. Her statement that she “couldn’t have been missed because nobody understood my signs anyway” can be read at both a literal and metaphorical level. In the metaphorical sense, it implies that Twyla feels like a perpetual outcast and unwanted member of society because of her inability to be “read” and understood by those around her—with the one exception of Roberta.

"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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Roberta’s Mother Character Timeline in Recitatif

The timeline below shows where the character Roberta’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
...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 for her when they learn she... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
...briefly forgets about Roberta, until Roberta comes to introduce her mother to Twyla and Mary. Roberta’s mother is “bigger than any man,” wearing an enormous cross and carrying a huge Bible. Mary... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
...brought anything to eat for lunch, and Twyla again thinks, “I could have killed her.” Roberta’s mother , meanwhile, brought a large array of food; Roberta brings Twyla some graham crackers after... (full context)
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
...meant “Jimi Hendrix, asshole.” She goes to leave without saying goodbye, and Twyla asks after Roberta’s mother . Roberta says she is “fine” and Twyla says that Mary is “pretty as a... (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
...about each other’s mothers. Twyla says Mary never stopped dancing, and Roberta sadly admits that Roberta’s mother never got well. After Roberta goes, Twyla wonders if it’s possible Roberta is right about... (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
...crazy because she couldn’t talk, and that Maggie was brought up in an institution like Roberta’s mother was (and where Roberta assumed she also would be). (full context)