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When winter comes, the family can’t afford coal or wood for the stove. Even with a fire, the house cannot hold heat because it is not insulated. Eventually, the pipes freeze, and the kids can’t bathe, leading to their classmates making fun of them for smelling bad. One day, Lori tries to use kerosene to make a better fire in the stove, but the fire explodes, and she burns her eyebrows, bangs, and thighs. Lori and Brian run to get snow to cool her burns. Lori’s blisters sting so badly, using a blanket hurts.
Erma dies that winter, and Dad is visibly distraught. After the funeral, Lori says “Ding dong the witch is dead,” causing Dad to lose his temper and run away for four days. Erma’s house burns down that same winter because Uncle Stanley fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand. Grandpa and Uncle Stanley move into a house with running water, so the kids start going over for baths. One day, when Jeannette is sitting next to Stanley, he starts masturbating and touching Jeannette’s thigh. When Jeannette tells Mom what happened, Mom says that Stanley is lonely and that sexual assault is a matter of perception.
Spring rains bring flash floods and mudslides, and the house falls into further disrepair. When the family can no longer use the stairs to get to the bathroom, Mom buys a yellow bucket to use as a toilet. One day, Brian finds a diamond ring outside their house. When they show the ring to Mom, she says she needs it for her self-esteem and refuses to pawn it. At this point, the family is nearing starvation, and Jeannette begs Mom to leave Dad so they can sign up for welfare. Mom doesn’t believe in welfare and refuses to get a divorce because it goes against her Catholic faith. She also refuses to get a job because it wouldn’t leave her any time to work on her art.
Despite the summer’s humidity, Jeannette avoids the local pool because of bullies. The swimming times are also unofficially segregated. One day, Dinitia invites her to come during the hours that black families swim. Jeannette hesitates, not wanting to create conflict, but finds she loves the good-natured locker room teasing as well as the clean feeling of the chlorine. That same afternoon, a man with child welfare services comes to the house and asks Jeannette about her parents. She tells him that both her parents work, and he’ll have to come back when they’re home. Afterward, Jeannette is furious because she is afraid she and her siblings will be separated.
Jeannette tells Mom about the child welfare visit, and Mom agrees to get a teaching job. Mom hates teaching and regularly refuses to go to work, but it still brings in money. To make extra cash, Jeannette starts babysitting, Brian does yardwork, and Lori runs a paper route. Even with the extra income, Dad still drains their money before the end of the month, and the children are picking food out of the trash again.
The fire that hurts Lori parallels the fire in Jeannette’s first memory to demonstrate how far the family has deteriorated. When Jeannette accidentally sets herself on fire, she is behaving like a normal three-year-old, who requires adult supervision around stoves. However, Lori is old enough to understand fire safety, but still acts recklessly out of desperation. The family’s poverty has worsened so much that not even a responsible person like Lori can reliably show prudence. Mom and Dad don’t bring Lori to the hospital, but instead force her to tough out the pain. This difference shows how disinterested Mom and Dad have become in parenting, lost in their self-absorption. Finally, unlike Jeannette’s fire, Lori’s injury doesn’t halt or change the rhythm of daily life. This nonreaction reveals that the family now considers injury and misfortune as a normal occurrence, barely worth remarking upon. Mom and Dad no longer encourage their children to fight back, as they did when praising Jeannette’s fascination with flame. Rather, Lori must simply endure hardship and survive.
Mom’s deflection of responsibility throughout this section reveals once and for all that she uses philosophy as an excuse to avoid blame. Although Mom’s Catholicism usually involves the occasional attendance of mass, she evokes the church’s stance on divorce as a reason why she can’t leave Dad. This selective devotion suggests that Catholicism here functions as an excuse for not undergoing the massive emotional and logistical work it would take to leave Dad. She rejects the idea of welfare on principle, refusing to believe that the moral high ground she takes in preaching “compassion” completely breaks down when she repeatedly fails to protect Jeannette from sexual predators. Therefore, we can start to read her call for Jeannette to have compassion here as a desire to avoid confrontation with Grandpa or Uncle Stanley, who currently offer their only source of running water. She coopts the ring for her self-esteem despite having preached the value of anti-materialism to her children, again allowing them to starve for her temporary happiness. Again and again, Mom weaponizes philosophy in a way that absolves her of blame, justifying her self-indulgence.
Throughout this section, Jeannette takes parental levels of responsibility for the family, an important shift in her relationship with her parents. Despite not even being in high school, they all take on jobs, and put the money toward food instead of luxuries. Jeannette takes an advanced level of initiative to find out what the family has to do in order to receive welfare, looking at money like an adult. Her suggestion that Mom to leave Dad so that the family doesn’t starve shows just how much she’s matured. First, this plan confirms that Jeannette’s childhood hero worship of Dad has completely waned. Second, she demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice that neither of her parents possess. Dad still favors Jeannette, and she still loves him, but she wants Mom to leave him as a means of survival. Jeannette’s practicality and willpower in this section gives us an inkling of how she will eventually make her way to New York.
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