While sitting in a taxi on the way to a party in New York one windy March evening, Jeannette Walls catches a glimpse of her mother, Rose Mary Walls (Mom) rifling through a dumpster for something to eat. Although Mom’s hair is unkempt and her skin parched and raw, her exuberance in going through the dumpster reminds Jeannette of how she was when Jeannette was a child.
Jeannette’s lifestyle clearly contrasts with her mother’s, as the juxtaposition of the New York taxi and the dumpster makes clear. While Mom looks as you might expect a homeless person to look, her “exuberance” points to something more complicated, some enjoyment of her situation. That Mom was like this when Jeanette was a child indicates that Mom’s unconventionality extended to motherhood as well.
Since she is only two blocks away from the party, Jeannette worries that Mom will see her and begin to talk to her, and that a fellow party guest will see them together. Jeannette asks the driver to take her home to her apartment on Park Avenue.
Jeannette cannot handle having her two worlds collide. She feels deep shame about her mother and does not want anyone in her current social circle to find out about her mother (or, by extension, her past).
Back home, surrounded by her vases, old books, and Persian rugs (though not her husband, who often works late), Jeannette feels self-loathing, wondering how she can help her parents. They have refused material help before, but as Jeannette looks around her apartment, she feels uncomfortable being surrounded by nice things while her parents are homeless downtown. She decides to invite Mom to dinner.
While her mother collects refuse from a dumpster, Jeanette is clearly wealthy and has actual collectibles. Yet these objects, which Jeanette the narrator is careful to describe, make her feel worse. This suggests that even as Jeanette feels ashamed of her mother, she also feels ashamed at how she has abandoned her parents. Inviting Mom to dinner is the only way she can think of to take on some kind of responsibility for her parents’ situation.
Since Mom doesn’t have a phone, Jeannette has to leave a message at a friend of Mom’s and wait a few days for her to return her call. When she does, Mom suggests they meet at her favorite Chinese restaurant.
Today people are assumed to be immediately reachable, but Mom is both unwilling and unable to conform to this modern-day standard.
When they meet, Mom seems excited to see Jeannette. She also immediately drops the packets of sauce and dried noodles into her purse to eat later. At the same time, she starts telling Jeannette about a Picasso retrospective she’d seen recently. For her, he’s overrated, and Cubism is “gimmicky.”
Mom’s contradictions immediately jump out: she can speak intelligently about modern art and culture even as she hoards food since she cannot be sure when she’ll eat again.
Jeannette interrupts Mom to say that she’s worried about her, and asks if she can help. Mom replies that she needs nothing—except perhaps an electrolysis treatment, she adds jokingly—and that it’s Jeannette whose values are muddled. Jeannette mentions she saw Mom picking through a dumpster, and Mom replies that Americans just don’t recycle enough.
Even as Jeannette worries about Mom, Mom worries about Jeanette and her embrace of “materialistic” values. Suddenly Mom’s homelessness seems not just a financial situation but a result of a kind of philosophy or moral system. For Mom, eating from a dumpster is just a kind of maverick environmentalism.
Jeannette admits she was later ashamed that she didn’t say hello. Mom, though she doesn’t seem upset, chastises her for being embarrassed by her parents—she should accept them as they are, Mom says. When Jeannette asks how she is supposed to tell her friends about her homeless parents, “Just tell the truth,” Mom replies.
The difference between Mom’s and Jeannette’s values is similarly apparent here. In the ending to this short opening section, we also get Jeannette’s motivations behind writing this memoir—taking Mom’s advice and telling the whole truth, both revealing the background and family she has hidden from the world and, in doing so, accepting it.