An Excerpt from “Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters” by Maya Sonenberg

What happens when the urge to ditch your family outpaces the desire to love them? The stories in Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters, winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, attempt to answer this question, heading straight for the messiness of domestic relationships and the constraints society places on women as they navigate their obligations.

“When did the dark come in?” she wonders, looking at the photograph. Self-possessed, she spun on a beach in Oregon. She wore a tie-dyed dress and flung her arms wide, sleeves and skirt belling, vibrating yellows, blues, greens, pinks. She was ten years old, alone on the sand. Deliciously, she was smiling. Now she feels she has broken through all the childproof gates, avoided child labor, survived childbed fever, and grown up, only to face, astonished, in this one telescopic moment, herself as a child, but it’s not the same child she remembers.

Her own children ate jelly beans. The boy savored the spicy ones: red-hot cinnamon and grayish-purple clove, the color she imagines photons to be. The girl hoarded hers, pink ones, white ones even if they tasted of coconut, counted them and counted them again, smiling. After giving some to her mother, she saved the rest for herself. Then she changed her mind, gave some to her brother, and they made a home for the candy in an old bucket they painted blue. On summer afternoons, the children sat under a tree by the street and sold their wares, all the candy they saved together all year.

Of her childhood, she remembers: dark winter afternoons in her friend Silly-Milly’s bedroom, darkening Barbie dolls with magic markers until they wore a variety of black and purple bruises. Then, she just thought it was a weird form of decoration, but now, a mother, she thinks of them as bruises and is aware, too, that if she weren’t a mother, she might just think of them as tattoos. Her friend’s home was strange—that was the prevailing sensation. At dinner, she was served half an avocado with vinaigrette pooled in the center, its texture unbearable, something dense like liver, something smooth and slick like the glossy surface of a photograph. Now she loves avocado, slices it onto whatever whenever, but for years it didn’t seem like something she, herself, would ever like. She remembers the next time she ate it, snuck inside a turkey sandwich when she visited California, and how she smiled, surprised at its goodness.

One morning her son dressed in costume-jewelry, put on glittery blue wings over his baseball pajamas, a golden crown, plastic rings with smiley faces on every finger, layers and layers of beads. He knelt for the camera in this pool of finery, unaware that it might be the last time he dressed in jewels. Even though he was not yet conscious of self in relation to the world, this moment held future moments and their opposites. As a child, she dressed in Mother’s stilettos, her wedding dress, pillbox hat; she’s never worn such things again. She took the photo. In it he’s alone. 

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