The Only Woman You Can Truly Know: On Desiree Cooper’s ‘Know the Mother’

Cooper’s stories of womanhood and motherhood touch on survival, defense, intergenerational wisdom, and what it means to be visible.

Desiree Cooper
Short Stories | 112 Pages | 5.5” x 8.5” | Reviewed: Paperback
978–0–8143–4149–0 | First Edition | $15.99
Wayne State University Press | Detroit | BUY HERE

Image: Wayne State University Press.

The cover of Desiree Cooper’s Know the Mother features a black woman wearing a strapless evening dress; her hair is up, flowers adorn her décolletage, and the overall aesthetic hums somewhere between beauty queen and fifties housewife. Two white, manicured hands reach up behind her, covering her smiling eyes. On the back cover sits the negative image: a white woman, same evening attire, different colors. This time, dark-skinned hands play Guess Who with the white face. The imagery sets up one of the collection’s primary interests: the intersectionality and interchangeability of women, particularly black women, throughout the generations.

At just over a hundred pages, the collection contains 31 individual stories. Some are as long as 10 pages, others as short as a single, evocative paragraph. Most fall somewhere in between. The stories run the gamut of feminine archetypes: the mother, the wayward child, the powerhouse corporate lawyer, the trophy wife. The collection skips around in time and place, variously inhabiting modern-day Detroit, post-WWII Japan, and the Deep South. The cohesive thread of the collection concerns how these women fit into the roles, in their own lives and the lives of others, that are in many cases preordained for them.

Funnily, it often seems that we are reading about the same woman over and over again. Cooper seems to desire this lack of sinking too deeply into any one woman’s story; not that we should get attached to a character or to her particulars, but that we allow these stories of women to flow over us. This narrative reincarnation also becomes literal in the concerns of the characters, who themselves seem sure of exactly where or when they exist in relation to their ancestors. In the title story, the narrator serves as caretaker for her aged mother. We ruminate on a moment of confusion for the narrator:

“Two months ago, I was bringing warm sheets up from the dryer in the basement. As I reached the top of the stairs, I could hear Mother singing. I dashed around the corner, half expecting to see her remaking her bed, lifting the mattress to miter the corners.
But when I reached her room, nothing had changed. Her hair was still a thin layer of down. Her cheeks were still sallow. Her shoulder blades jutted beneath the summer blanket as if she were hiding her favorite book beneath the covers. Yet somehow as she slept, she was a young woman again, singing.”

Many of the pieces center around survival and the changing terms of that survival. In “To the Bone,” the narrator tells the story of her life using food and, more generally, how the relationship between a woman’s weight and her value shifts from her childhood to that of her granddaughter’s. She says,

“I learned early how to live on bone and gristle.”

Growing up in poverty, for her, meant that a fat woman was something of value, and a fat child a symbol of success. Her teenaged granddaughter dreams only of thinness and turns up her nose at her grandmother’s greasy, nourishing food. No matter; the narrator eats her grandchild’s abandoned meals just as easily. She sees that nothing goes to waste.

Within stories of survival come stories of defense. How to defend your home, your children, your sexuality, and your choices against a world questioning and encroaching on it all. “Something Falls in the Night” fragments a home invasion into multiple outcomes. “Night Coming” pits a pregnant young woman’s fears about her life trajectory, and her husband’s faithfulness, against the alternating thrill and fear of living in Detroit, a city that looms large in the black imagination:

“But being from Atlanta, she had no way of knowing that she was experiencing only a seasonal euphoria. As summer turned to fall, a paralyzing darkness encroached upon the city. By December, it seemed to cut the afternoons in two. Nikki found herself leaving the house in the morning and coming home at night without ever seeing the sun. For months on end, the drag of winter circled from gray to black, then back again.”

Cooper frequently highlights the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter. Skipping a generation of influence blurs the lines of heritage and opens up the stories to a more mystical air — again, the notion of reincarnation, of history repeating itself, simmers just behind the scenes. In these relationships, there are more opportunities for miscommunication, more conversations in which two people are shouting at each other from across a room. “Open Sky” sees grandmother Betty navigating the hellish landscape of modern airport security with her savvy granddaughter, who knows more about the nature of their trip than Betty does. On the plane, Betty reminisces to herself about a childhood friend who went on to become a flight attendant and all that she gained and lost by making that choice. She muses to her granddaughter that she might consider such a glamorous career herself. In response, the college student betrays her misunderstanding of her grandmother’s cultural context:

“Alex stared at Betty, then suddenly burst out laughing. ‘Are you serious, Gran? I’m going to film school. I’m not gonna be a flight attendant.’”

This brief exchange comes toward the end of the collection, and sums up well the fugue-like, repetitive nature of these women’s lives. Different as they are, all these characters struggle equally to take the wisdom of those who came before them and to pass the right kind of wisdom down to subsequent generations. What Betty knows, and what Alex will soon discover, is the necessity for women of being fluid in their lives and relationships. Be a child, grow up, become a teenager, grow up more, become a mother, know what it means to be a mother, look back on your life, take care of your own parents, be a wife, be a daughter, then a worker, be the other woman, be the only woman you can truly know.

LAURA CITINO is a fiction writer and essayist from Michigan, who received her MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University. Her work has appeared in numerous journals in print and online, including Passages North, Sou’wester, Gigantic Sequins, and Cream City Review. She is Fiction Editor for Sundog Lit and currently lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.