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Dicey's Song

Cynthia Voigt

Chapters 11–12

Chapter 10

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Chapter 11

Despite Dr. Epstein's feeble assertions that Momma's body should be donated to medical research, Gram insists on taking Momma home. Preston suggests they cremate her to defray the cost of taking her back to Maryland. Gram and Dicey visit the undertaker to make the necessary arrangements, and the undertaker gives them an assortment of garish urns from which to choose a receptacle for Momma's ashes. Dicey remembers the boxes at the woodworker's shop, so she and Gram visit the shop. When the man hears they need a small box, he immediately understands what has happened and offers his condolences. Once Dicey and Gram decide upon a box, he offers to give them the box as a gift. At first, Gram refuses, but before long she accepts the generous offer. At the hotel, Gram bleakly asks Dicey how they will pay the $350 for the cremation but answers her own question when she opens Mr. Lingerle's envelope and finds $500 inside. Upon this discovery, they call home, and Gram thanks Mr. Lingerle. Then, one by one, Dicey tells her brothers and sister what has happened, speaking first to James, then Sammy, and finally Maybeth.

That night on the train, Gram confesses to Dicey that she has never been out of Maryland before, causing Dicey to realize how bravely and competently Gram handled such a new and difficult situation. Soon Gram falls asleep, and Dicey walks around the train, carrying the box with her at all times. Finally, she settles down and watches out the train window, realizing that they are following the path the children took last summer very closely. She watches as familiar landmarks and towns go by, hearing all the songs they sang, and missing the freedom and difficulty of the previous summer. She then turns her thoughts to the family waiting for her at home, and imagines herself releasing her past, and as a sailboat docked and bobbing on the water. In the morning, Dicey asks Gram how she knows when she should hold on, when to reach out, and when to let go, and Gram explains that there is no clear-cut answer to this question. They disembark from the train in Wilmington, planning to take a bus the rest of the way, but Mr. Lingerle and the children greet them on the platform. Once they are in Mr. Lingerle's car, Gram explains that Momma's ashes are in the box, and Sammy begins to cry.

Chapter 12

That night, the family buries Momma. The boys dig a hole under the paper mulberry tree, and Gram places the box in the hole. Each family member drops a handful of dirt upon it, and the girls refill the hole. Dicey thinks to herself that Momma is both gone and, at last, home, and the family disperses. Inside, Gram returns from the attic with a large stack of family albums. She takes the opportunity to announce to the children that they should feel free to look around the attic from this point on. Then, the family gathers around an album, examining a picture of Momma and her brothers as children. Dicey imagines she is a boat dropping anchor in a storm, but realizes that the storm may be permanent. They settle back as Gram begins to narrate a story about the picture.

Analysis

In the final two chapters of the novel, Dicey confronts and comes to terms with a number of paradoxes. The majority of these have to do with learning how to let go and to hold on at the same time. First of all, Dicey literally holds on to Momma even while letting her go on the train. She has, to some extent, already let go of Momma and decided to move on, but at the same time, she grips the box of Momma's ashes tightly in her hands and takes the box with her everywhere on the train. Secondly, Dicey finds herself longing for the prior summer—all the risk and excitement and independence and music it contained, even while imagining the riches of friends and family she has at her home in Crisfield. She lets go of her longing for the past by remembering it, holding on to it, and reflecting on how it connects to her present. The photo album embodies a third paradoxical incidence of letting go and holding on. For example, the family has just buried Momma and made their symbolic goodbyes to her by each adding handfuls of dirt to her grave. However, in examining the photo album and beginning to explore the family history, the children and Gram still hold on to Momma. In a way, this holding on and remembering makes letting go more possible. Instead of missing Momma and feeling sad for the way her life ended, they remember her, celebrate her life, and search for the ways in which their lives are similar to hers.

Finally, Momma's belated return home embodies the paradox articulated in the gravestone inscription upon which Dicey mused the entire summer and which she shared with the woodworker, in which death is described as the ultimate, and perhaps only true home a person knows in life. When Dicey speaks the words "gone and home" over Momma's grave, she is invoking the rhyme from the gravestone over the summer. The words imply that Momma is not only literally home, but also that she is spiritually home, having finished her wanderings through this life. She is also gone and home in the hearts of the children, who have lost her permanently, but in Gram and in Gram's memories of her, have also gained access to a better understanding and fuller story of Momma.

Gram's home contains two symbolically important spaces: the paper mulberry tree and the attic, both of which play a role in the novel's final two chapters. Gram compared the mulberry tree, as Dicey remembers in the final chapter, to a family. The tree is so heavy that without wire supports, it would split itself in two with its own weight. Gram's tree, like Gram's new family, is held together by supports, and this site makes a fitting grave for Momma, who was part of Gram's first family, which was pulled apart by its own weight. Momma's return to the foot of the paper mulberry symbolizes that she has indirectly provided for the reunion and reconstitution of the family, by the way in which she raised her children—free and strong and independent, like Gram, but loving and musical, like her. Though she was part of the family's splitting apart, she has also made possible the emotional support and healing that bind it.

Finally, throughout the novel, the attic symbolized the buried past, the part of herself and her memories with which Gram could not reconcile herself and which she would not share with her grandchildren. The grandchildren, hungry to know more about their past so as to better understand both Gram and themselves, longed to roam through the attic and explore its contents, finally piecing together a family history which, for so many years, remained veiled to them. When Momma dies, Gram is forced to confront the mistakes she made in the past in her behavior toward her children. Her decision to open up the attic to her grandchildren results from her realization that she must face these mistakes and act in order not to repeat them, for in opening up the attic to the children, she reaches out to them, exposing herself and her own past to their scrutiny and question. In this act, Gram performs the complicated act of holding on, letting go, and reaching out at the same time. Gram lets go of her pride and anger by agreeing to face her past, she holds on to her memories of her now dead daughter, and she reaches out to her grandchildren, eager to learn the stories that make up their own history.

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