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The Prodigal Daughter

Reclaiming an Unfinished Childhood

Margaret Gibson

Publication Year: 2008

The 1950s and 1960s were years of shifting values and social changes that did not sit well with many citizens of Richmond, Virginia, and in particular with one conservative family, a staunchly southern mother and father and their two daughters.  A powerful evocation of time and place, this memoir—a gifted poet's first book of prose—is the story of an inquisitive and sensitive young woman's coming of age and a deeply moving recounting of her reconciliation later in life with the family she left behind.

Returning us to a Cold War world marked by divisions of race, gender, wealth, and class, The Prodigal Daughter is an exploration of difference, the powerful wedge that separates individuals within a social milieu and within a family. Echoing the biblical Prodigal Son, Margaret Gibson's memoir is less concerned with the years of excess away from home than with the seeds of division sown in this family's early years.  Hers is the story of a mother proud to be a Lady, a Southerner, and a Christian; of two daughters trapped by their mother's power; and of their father's breakdown under social and family expectations.

Slow to rebel, young Margaret finally flees the world of manners and custom—which she deems poor substitutes for right thought and right action in the face of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War—and abandons her fundamentalist upbringing.  In a defiant gesture that proves prophetic, she once signed a postcard home "The Prodigal."  After years of being the distant, absent daughter, she finds herself returning home to meet the needs of her stroke-crippled younger sister and her incapacitated parents.

In this tale of homecoming and forgiveness, death and dying, Gibson recounts how she overcame her long indifference to a sister she had thought different from herself, recognizing the strengths of the bonds that both hold us and set us free. Interweaving astute social observations on social pressures, race relations, sibling rivalry, adolescent angst, and more, The Prodigal Daughter is a startlingly honest portrayal of one family in one southern city and the story of all too many families across America.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 4-9


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

The author gratefully acknowledges the editors of the following publications in which the chapters listed first appeared, sometimes in different forms: Blackbird: “The Queen of Hearts” and “Southbound,” Spring 2007 and Fall 2007, respectively; Creative Non-Fiction,“Thou Shalt Not Kill,” 1992; ...

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1. Southbound

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pp. 1-13

Southbound, the train leaves New London station in bright morning light. I’ve stowed my suitcase and taken a seat by the east window to watch the river, its surface so silken that the pilings of an abandoned pier reflect, refract, and plunge like roots through the flowing mirror that carries an ash-blue streak of cloud, ...

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2. Angel in the Window

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pp. 14-27

The last syllables of the lullaby dissolved into the word night. Outside, the night was changing from deep blue to black with stars. It was cold for March. A wind had blown all day, and I could still hear it as the word night died into the hum of our mother’s rich contralto, ...

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3. Thou Shalt Not Kill

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pp. 28-43

When Amma came to Richmond from the country for dinner, she liked to be kissed right away, with the door still open behind her. I wanted to stand and look at her first, because we didn’t see her often. We never went to her house in the country, somewhere near Amelia, ...

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4. Christmas Dinner

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pp. 44-53

A great fire, high and red, flamed in the fireplace. Careful of the great heat and the crackling noises which now and again exploded into a spew of sparks, Daddy poked at the logs, tapping them, pushing them back, as if he held roaring tigers at bay. ...

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5. Catechism

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pp. 54-68

Where Mom and Dad purchased the only piano we could afford I don’t know for sure, but by the time of my second lesson, the piano—a dark, somber wood with still-white keys—was delivered. Mom didn’t play the piano, but when I saw her spread her hands over the keys, I knew she was giving me what she would like to have had herself. ...

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6. Stonewall Court

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pp. 69-78

The iced tea and the glass, the mint, the sugar, and the lemon were all make-believe, but I pantomimed making and serving the iced tea on a silver tray, bending at the waist as I entered the shade. I curtsied, but my humility wasn’t deep enough. ...

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7. Fitting In

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pp. 79-90

Worried about Mom, I stood quietly next to the bed she’d returned to shortly after breakfast. It was only early morning, not yet hot. Nevertheless, she had said to Daddy as he left for work, “It’s too hot to think about it.” When he leaned over to kiss her, she’d pretended to see something on the rug and bent down, ...

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8. Classes

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pp. 91-116

In the fall of 1954 Mom landed a job teaching second grade at St. Catherine’s School—the most respected school in the city of Richmond, she told me proudly. All the best people enrolled their children in the school, which had a long waiting list. ...

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9. The Queen of Hearts

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pp. 117-134

Shetland sweaters were a must, but they were expensive, especially at Steve and Anna’s, the select little shop in Westhampton where St. Catherine’s girls bought their clothes. My mother rummaged in an attic trunk and found a sweater, dusky rose in color, ...

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10. Faith, Hope, Charity

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pp. 135-149

“Amma is coming to live in Richmond,” Mom announced one night at the dinner table. Elizabeth and I looked at each other quickly. Which of us would have to give up her bedroom? Immediately I began constructing an argument in my mind, listing the reasons Elizabeth’s room would be more suitable for Amma ...

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11. The King of Spades

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pp. 150-166

Again Mom shushed him. I heard the heavy thud of a suitcase, footsteps, their bedroom door closing, muffled voices I couldn’t make out behind their closed door. Elizabeth would tell me later she’d slept through Dad’s late night arrival, but then her bedroom was at the back of the house. ...

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12. Acting Lessons

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pp. 167-183

God was omniscient; only God could see what was predestined, my mother announced as we washed dishes after supper. I rinsed a plate and waited. Usually when Mom began with a pronouncement about God, she was worried. This was prologue. ...

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13. Epiphany

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pp. 184-194

We had turned off the Chula Road in Amelia, jouncing on the hard, rutted lane that curved between the July cornfields, heading toward Aunt T’s farmhouse, when around a blind corner in the field of high corn we were met nearly head-on by a black Model-T Ford. ...

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14. Night

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pp. 195-200

Late-afternoon shadows slowly lengthen and take the nearby field into dusk and nightfall. Summer or winter outside our house in Connecticut, on a clear night the sky is lit by an endless field of night-blooming stars. A barred owl calls in the woods outside. ...

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About the Author

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p. 216-216

Margaret Gibson is the author of nine books of poetry, most recently Icon and Evidence, Autumn Grasses, and One Body. She is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and lives in Preston, Connecticut.

E-ISBN-13: 9780826266354
E-ISBN-10: 0826266355
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826217837
Print-ISBN-10: 0826217834

Page Count: 216
Illustrations: 10
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: 1