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Cathy Song’s “The Youngest Daughter”

The generation gap is one of the popular themes addressed in the literature, as the lack of understanding between the older and younger family members often causes conflicts and life dramas. Cathy Song’s poem “The Youngest Daughter”, however, is distinguished for its delicate depiction of the relationship between the narrator and her mother. The present paper analyzes the poem in detail and argues that despite the narrator’s tiredness of domesticity and thoughts about the flight from home, she and her mother are devoted to one another and involved in the same daily rituals of care and support.

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In the first stanza, the author points out the effects of aging on both women, because “The sky has been dark/ for many years” (Song, lines 1-2). The narrator reveals that her skin has become pale and damp as “rice paper” (Song, line 4), indicating that she is of Asian American heritage, as rice is commonly known as an Asian symbol; it is also stated explicitly that the narrator believes she is getting older as she notices the changes of her skin. The main character also suggests that she and her mother are similar in their physical sensations, associated with aging: “and [the skin] feels the way/ mother’s used to before the drying sun/ parched it out there in the fields” (Song, lines 5-7). Since the daughter talks about her mother’s experience, one can assume that she knows a lot about her mother and they might have been close for many years. The attention to such details as the feeling of parched skin demonstrates that the narrator is at least not indifferent to her mother’s life story.

In the second stanza Song depicts a migraine fit she suffers, in particular, she confesses that her eyelids are extremely hot and her skin is “aspirin colored” and “tingles with migraine” (Song, line 13). Headache can be also interpreted as a symbol of fatigue, which is accompanied by such symptoms as high temperature. In medicine, increasing temperature means immunity’s rejection of certain types of cells or substances and the body’s struggle with the adverse effects of these cells, so the narrator might not be able to accept certain aspects of her life, which appear to be exhausting. In this stanza, her mother is shown as a comforting angel, who tries to remove the pain: “Mother/ has been massaging the left side of my face/ especially in the evenings/ when the pain flares up” (Song, lines 13-16).

Given the tense used and the overall meaning of the phrase, one can assume that her mother has been practiced facial massage for many years, especially in the dark time of the day, when migraine pains normally intensify. As one can assume, the mother is committed to her daughter’s health and has been helping her struggle with the acute medical condition for many years, so facial massage has probably become her mother’s ritual. The scene of the mother curing her weak daughter also points to the special intimacy between them and trust the narrator has for her mother, as only the chosen people are normally allowed to see and intervene in one’s illness, as physical imbalance makes a person defenseless. Trying to prevent this mutual trust from vanishing, the parent strokes the narrator’s face with tenderness, as in cases of migraine, excessive pressure might cause exacerbate the situation.

The idea of intimacy is deepened in the subsequent stanza describing the narrator helping her disabled mother take a bath. The older woman is grateful for such physical support, so it brings her a sentimental mood: “This morning/her breathing was graveled,/ her voice gruff with affection/ when I wheeled her into the bath” (Song, lines 17-20). While the parent is lying in the bath and mocking her huge breasts, the narrator soups her very gently and recounts that “six children and an old man/ have sucked from these brown nipples” (Song, lines 27-28). Breasts can be viewed as a symbol of maternity, and because they are large, the narrator’s mother was probably a caring parent who paid much attention to her children’s development. Furthermore, it is made clear that the older woman has to inject insulin and thus suffers from diabetes.

Because the narrator is the youngest child, she does not remember her mother in her young years, so she states: “It seems, it has always/ been like this: the two of us/ in this sunless room,/ the splashing of the bathwater” (Song, lines 35-38). Thus, the youngest daughter was born when the mother already had poor health, so helping the older woman with maintaining hygiene has been the narrator’s ritual for many years. It also needs to be admitted that this stanza explains the poem’s title, as the youngest daughter is often viewed by mothers as the “last gift” and potential caregiver when the woman has a physical impairment. Whereas the other siblings are probably much older than the narrator, as she remembers her deceased father as an old and weak man who needs the others’ care, one can assume that the main character much better than her five brothers and sisters understands what aging and gradual loss of physical abilities are. Therefore, the youngest daughter, presumably the late child, assumes the responsibility for looking after her mother.

In the last stanza, the impression of warmth and closeness in a mother-daughter relationship is the strongest, as the former is portrayed cooking the dinner. The older woman approaches this ritual with attention and prepares exotic food like gingered fish (Song, line 42). In addition, the parent does not forget about her daughter’s preferences and includes “a slice of pickled turnip,/a token for my [the narrator’s] white body” (Song, lines 43-44). Although the main character considers escaping this home with its simple rituals of which she is probably tired and which contribute to her headaches, she is not likely to abandon her mother and break this mutually supportive relationship. This can be proved by the fact that the two women normally eat in “the familiar silence” (Song, line 45). The possibility of silence between two persons points to their extraordinary closeness, as psychologically, the calm is pressuring and people use to fill it with a conversation. However, the mother and the daughter in the poem understand one another without words and do not need to talk to remain close.

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As one can conclude, although the main character seeks new impressions and experiences and seems to a certain extent tired of the daily domestic practices, associated with the care about her mother, her commitment and desire for staying with the older woman are much deeper than it seems at the first sight. The thorough analysis of the verse “The Youngest Daughter” suggests that the last and the late child, especially female, have the greatest empathy with the parents’ deteriorating health state, growing up in the atmosphere of parental aging; moreover, the main character on her own experience understands what pain and disease are. Therefore, the narrator voluntarily assumes the duty of looking after her mother and the poem shows that the daughter has been taking care of her mother since her early years, i.e. for several decades.

Works cited

Song, C. “the Youngest Daughter”. 2009. Web.

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