The Irony of Affection in “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam”
Sometimes within literature the narrator will tell a story in flashback, as if he or she is reflecting on his or her life of the past. This is the case within the short story “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam.” The narrator looks back upon her visit to Barbados as a young girl and reminisces about her relationship with her grandmother, Da-Duh. Although the narrator and her grandmother come from completely different worlds and seemingly have nothing in common, they manage to forge a connection and create a tenuous bond, which is against the odds. Paule Marshall’s story, “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam,” uses tone and characterization in order to identify the main differences between the narrator and Da-Duh and to demonstrate the irony of how two polar-opposite people can form an emotional bond and find affection for each other.
The story first makes use of the narrator and Da-Duh’s respective physical appearances in order to show the contrast between the two characters. The text defines Da-Duh as a woman with “an intense, unrelenting struggle between her back which was beginning to bend ever so slightly under the weight of her eighty-odd years and the rest of her” (Marshall 2182). Also, Da-Duh has “ruined skin and deep wells at the temple and jaw” and eyes that are “alive, unnervingly so for one so old” (Marshall 2183). These descriptions characterize Da-Duh as a very old woman, but they also imply that she has some fight left in her. Her “alive” eyes suggest that the woman is wise and is very aware, despite the fact that she is old. Also, the “struggle” that rests on her back hints to the reader that Da-Duh has faced many obstacles and experiences in her life and that they have taken their toll on her body and points to Da-Duh’s stubborn loyalty to the natural beauty of her home, in defiance to her daughter’s industrial home. On the other hand, the narrator is a young child when she visits her grandmother. She is nine years old and must look up in order to make eye contact with her family (Marsahll 2182). When she first encounters Da-Duh, the narrator has a “fierce look” that her grandmother recognizes (Marshall 2183). The story identifies the narrator as a little girl in order to demonstrate how she and her Da-Duh are seemingly opposites of one another. However, despite the gap in age and the difference in physical appearance, their first encounter identifies the connection between Da-Duh and her granddaughter. In the narrator’s eyes, “Da-Duh had recognized [her] small strength—and this was all [she] ever asked of the adults” (Marsahll 2183). This passage demonstrates the new relationship between the two characters. The old woman, who has obviously been a fighter her whole life, recognizes that the narrator has spunk and courage, as well. The two realize that they might have something in common and begin to form an emotional connection. This connection between the old woman and her young granddaughter demonstrates the irony that makes up the story. Despite the obvious differences between them, the narrator and Da-Duh begin to form an attachment and recognize the similarities between them.
In addition to labeling the physical differences between Da-Duh and the speaker, the short story also identifies how the two characters are completely foreign to each other, since Da-Duh is from Barbados and the narrator is a native of New York. Throughout the story, the two constantly compare their respective homes in competition. While each character hopes that her home is better, both of them still accept the other’s opinion. For example, as Da-Duh shows the speaker around the island, she introduces her to the natural fauna and says, “This is a mango. I know you don’t have anything like these in New York” (Marshall 2185). Da-Duh’s tone is matter-of-fact, as if nobody would ever think about arguing with her. The narrator realizes her grandmother is right about New York and decides to retaliate with tales of her own homeland. The narrator tells Da-Duh “not only what snow in the city was like, but what it would be like here, in her perennial summer kingdom” (Marshall 2186). The narrator’s tone is very nonchalant, as if making this point to her grandmother is not a big deal. Instead of being angry at her granddaughter, Da-Duh is more surprised and intrigued about her granddaughter’s willingness to defend her home. Once again, these passages demonstrate how very different the two characters are, but also identify the new relationship that they are forming. Also, the similarity in the two characters’ tones suggests that they are ultimately alike. It is ironic that two people who come from such different places like New York and Barbados could be able to brag about their homes but still find respect and admiration for the other.
Along with describing the cultural differences between the two characters, the story describes Da-Duh and her granddaughter as each teaching the other about life in her homeland. Since New York and Barbados are very different and have completely separate cultures, the lessons the characters teach are another example of how completely dissimilar they are from each other. For instance, on the last day of the narrator’s visit, Da-Duh brings her to a new part of a gully that is “an area darker and more thickly overgrown than the rest, almost impenetrable” (Marshall 2187). At this place, Da-Duh shows her granddaughter an “incredibly tall royal palm which rose cleanly out of the ground” (Marshall 2187). The speaker has never seen this sort of tree before, and it marks a new point in her relationship with her grandmother. At this point, Da-Duh is reaching out to the narrator and showing her parts of Barbados that are hidden and special. The gully is not an ordinary place and the serious tone of the story suggests that Da-Duh would not show the tree to anybody. Also, the narrator shares her knowledge of tall structures when she shares, “‘We’ve got buildings hundreds of times this tall in New York. There’s one called the Empire State Building that’s the tallest in the world’” (Marshall 2187). The tone of the narrator shows that this knowledge is also special and shows the reader how the speaker tries to relate to Da-Duh. Even though a palm tree and the Empire State Building are part of completely different categories and demonstrate how the speaker is unlike her grandmother, they build upon the affection between the grandmother and her granddaughter. When the narrator shares her knowledge of tall buildings from her home, she is really trying to prove to Da-Duh that she understands how special the tall tree is and wants Da-Duh to relate to New York the way the narrator does. At this point in the story, Da-Duh feels defeated and “All the fight went out of her” (Marshall 2187). She realizes that her granddaughter has won their competition. Da-Duh finally submits to the notion that her New York-bred granddaughter has knowledge that compares to Da-Duh’s understanding of Barbados. Even though Da-Duh constantly argues with the narrator throughout the story, she finally relents and accepts that her granddaughter’s loyalty to New York is like Da-Duh’s own loyalty to Barbados. This comparison between the palm tree and the building in New York once again demonstrates how the two characters with very little in common still find something to talk about and relate to with one another. This discussion between Da-Duh and the narrator feeds the irony of the story. Even though these two people have knowledge about separate things, they find a way to communicate with each other.
Finally, the ironic bond that forms between Da-Duh and her granddaughter culminates in the final scene of the story. The narrator is grown up and Da-Duh has been dead a long time. The narrator explains how her grandmother still influences her and says, “She died and I lived, but always…within the shadow of her death” (Marshall 2188-2189). The nostalgic tone that accompanies these words demonstrates how that visit to Barbados shaped the narrator’s life and is still a part of who she is. Also the narrator reminisces that for a short time she lived “like one doing penance…in downtown New York” (Marshall 2189). This section of the story suggests that the narrator finally realized that Da-Duh’s native land is an important part of her life and living anywhere else just seems like “penance.” In other words, the narrator does not view New York the same way since she bonded with her Barbadian grandmother. Despite the differences between these two characters, the narrator discovers that Da-Duh’s opinions and lifestyle shaped her lifestyle, too. Da-Duh’s influence feeds the irony of the story since the narrator, who could not be more different from her grandmother, finds that the effect of her visit to Da-Duh still resonates with her.
Paule Marshall’s story “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam” depicts a relationship of affection between the narrator, a young girl, and her grandmother. The text provides various examples of how these two characters are different. The narrator is young, comes from New York City and has knowledge about tall buildings. In contrast, Da-Duh is an old woman from Barbados, whose only knowledge of tallness comes from a palm tree. Despite the lack of common ground between these two characters, they manage to forge a connection and see that there are parallels between them. The irony of two completely different characters finding a way to relate to each other is the basis of the story, and the text’s use of tone and characterization supports that irony.
Marshall, Paule. “To Da-Duh, In Memoriam.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 2182-2189. Print.