The Chin Chin Man finally found work as a janitor at a daycare center, where the children loved his accent, his height, and his stories about being one of two living tree-men that grew in a forest in Africa. When Nana was in kindergarten, the Chin Chin Man would take care of him while Gifty’s mother worked. She became jealous of how close father and son were, although she herself never kept the things he made her or listened to his stories. Gifty listened to the stories, including the tree-man one. Once she asked if their mother was the second tree-person, and Nana said no, their father was a tree, but their mother was a rock.
Gifty isn’t just a carbon copy of her mother; this memory illustrates how she shares her tendency to tell stories—such as claiming that she’s an African princess in kindergarten—with her father. The domestic arrangements of Gifty’s family also point towards the struggles they experienced as immigrants: the Chin Chin Man struggled to find work and then became the children’s primary caregiver because Gifty’s mother remained the primary breadwinner. As children, she and Nana thus found their mother humorless and uninteresting, like a rock. It’s only as she ages herself that Gifty can start to understand some of the traumas that made her mother into the person she knows.
In the present, Gifty looks at her mice in the lab and they remind her of the baby bird. After she and Nana couldn’t get it to drink, they tried to encourage it to fly. When their mother came home, she told them it would never fly now; since they’d touched it, its mother would reject it and it would die. Nana, a lover of animals, cried. While Gifty thinks about this, she stimulates a mouse’s neural pathways.
The baby bird represents Gifty’s need to be loved and nurtured. After Nana’s death, she tried to bury those needs. Although Gifty’s mother is right that by trying to save the bird, they doomed it, the message is painful for Gifty. She wants to know that if she follows the rules and does the right things, that her life will work out well. While she remembers the baby bird Gifty continues to work with her mice. Like her memories, the mice connect her to Nana, since she’s trying to figure out a way to prevent tragedies like his addiction from occurring.
Once, she explained this to a boyfriend called Raymond in an overly simplistic way, and he chastised her for downplaying her intelligence and work. This memory reminds Gifty of telling her mother she wanted to be a scientist. On a visit home from college, she made a promise to go to church, which she immediately regretted. So, she followed it by announcing her career plan, expecting her mother to object. She reflects that she’d already become her mother’s daughter, a callous person. Once, when her mother said, “I love you” (a phrase she used to call “white people foolishness”) at the end of a phone call, Gifty laughed in surprise. Still, when Gifty went to church that visit, she felt like her mother asked Pastor John to make her a focus of his prayer.
Gifty’s train of thought connects the memory of her failure to nurture the baby bird with another of her ex-boyfriend, Raymond. He was interested in her intellect and her work, unlike her mother, who didn’t seem to care much one way or the other what Gifty chose to do with her life. Thus, he represented an opportunity to find the intimacy that Gifty craves. In contrast, her mother has always been distant and callous, and Gifty thinks that this has made her, in turn, callous. She remembers trying to goad her mother into being upset with her career choice and her frustration that her mother, if she was bothered, expressed it indirectly by asking Pastor John for his prayers.
As Gifty returns the mouse to its cage, saying a small prayer that her experiments will work, she thinks about her research on identifying the neural mechanisms at play when the brain’s reward system is insufficient (depression) or overactive (addiction). She wonders if someday, her research could lead to a brother putting down a needle, or a mother getting out of bed.
Gifty’s thoughts circle and revisit an earlier claim that she had gone into neuroscience to prove her mental toughness, not because of her family history. But this time, it’s her brother and her mother that are front and center in her thoughts, and it seems that trying to address the sources of her family’s suffering are an important part of why Gifty studies what she does. This moment shows other connections that Gifty has previously denied, too. She still prays, even if she doesn’t fully accept her Christian faith anymore, showing continuity between her childhood and adult selves. And her prayers are connected with her hopes for her research, demonstrating the similarity between religion and science as belief systems in Gifty’s mind.