At the beginning of her mother’s second illness, Gifty discovers that her experimental mice have been fighting. She separates them as she speaks on the phone to Pastor John, who is worried because her mother isn’t coming to church or answering the phone. He thinks that “it” is happening again, so Gifty asks him to send her mother to stay with her.
When her mother falls into her second depression, Gifty becomes her primary caretaker. Until that moment, her inclination towards taking care of others was directed towards the mice she uses in her neuroscientific experiments. The juxtaposition of the mouse’s suffering with that of Gifty’s mother introduces one of the book’s important symbols: the mice stand in for Gifty’s brother (and to a lesser extent her mother), helping her to understand the roots of her childhood trauma. On the phone, neither Gifty nor Pastor John can name her mother’s depression. And his roundabout discussion of “it” clearly suggests that faith alone isn’t the answer to what ails Gifty’s mother.
When Gifty gets her mother from the airport, her mother seems empty. She doesn’t even mock the “bleeding heart” that Gifty’s hybrid-electric car signifies. When her mother calls her “my bleeding heart,” Gifty assumes she means that Gifty left Alabama because her bleeding heart made her too weak to live among the Bible Belt’s strong Christian folk. The words of her mother’s clichés are always corrupted, like saying “crime shame” instead of “a crying shame.”
When Gifty picks her mother up from the airport, she immediately falls into the old caretaking role she had as a child. Gifty also makes assumptions about what her mother believes (like that it’s frivolous in some way to drive a hybrid vehicle) and presents them as fact. Readers should be careful about taking Gifty as a reliable narrator of her mother’s inner life, even though Gifty herself thinks she knows her mother well enough to guess. The corrupted language of Gifty’s mother’s cliches arises, at least in part, from the fact that she’s an immigrant and English is her second language. But it also points to the fragility of received ideas, including the religious dogma Gifty was taught as a child.
Gifty’s mother stares out of the car windows while Gifty remembers how beautiful she found California initially. She wanted to find herself by getting lost, following advice she underlined when she read Walden in college. On a bridge, Gifty stares at another driver, making him uncomfortable. She thinks that everyone must look at the water and wonder if there’s another way out.
As Gifty and her mother drive home, Gifty reflects on her reasons for coming to California, which included a desire for self-discovery. The fact that she’s still thinking about her desire suggests that she hasn’t discovered herself. The drive also offers important hints about Gifty’s character: there’s no reason for her to make the other drivers feel uncomfortable, except perhaps for her own discomfort over being forced into a caretaking role for her mother again. Moreover, her belief that everyone must be subtly suicidal suggests her worry over her mother (who once attempted suicide) but also her own fascination with death. Again, she’s assuming that other people must feel what she herself feels.
During her first illness, Gifty’s mother lost 70 pounds, so this time, Gifty buys a Ghanaian cookbook and a deep fryer to make her familiar foods. Her grandmother sold food from a cart in Kumasi, a city in Ghana. Because she was Fante, she refused to speak the Asante majority’s language (Twi).
The brief aside about Gifty’s grandmother, who refused on principle to learn the language of a tribe with whom her people were at war generations earlier, shows how stubbornness is a family trait that both Gifty and her mother will demonstrate. Gifty’s worry over making sure her mother eats points to the way that food symbolizes both caretaking and intimacy in the book.
At her apartment, Gifty apologizes to her mother for the mess. Her mother could always find hidden dirt and would admonish Gifty, saying, “Cleanliness is godliness.” Gifty would correct the words of the cliché, reminding her that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” but her mother didn’t see a difference.
Although Gifty is performing the role of the caretaker for her mother, her worry that she will get in trouble for not keeping her home clean enough suggests that in important ways she hasn’t stopped seeing herself as a child in relation to her mother. The quibble of the two women over the words of the cliché shows how mother and daughter are both similar (both stubbornly hold to their version) and different in their worldviews.