Bright Angels & Familiars:
“Windows on the Sea” by Linda Sillitoe

3.27.12 | | 10 comments

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Linda Sillitoe, who passed away recently, will undoubtedly be best remembered for her nonfiction, her journalism and her history. But she was also a poet and a writer of fiction, including two novels and today’s story (a quick read) about a woman who has lost her face saving her daughter from fireworks. She’s approaching the final skin graft of her hospital stay when she is approached by a troubled team with blue and orange hair, who needs a friend of a mother or something of her own.

Sillitoe’s prose is a nice blend of poetry and journalism. Listen to the first paragraph:

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Strange that the world looked reassuringly the same although Lora Starkham would never look the same to the world. From the stocking-lined mask fitted over her face like a cat burglar, her gray-green eyes observed the traffic around the sunny atrium on the hospital’s seventh floor. She was newly grateful for her sight, for the fact that her eyes opened easily. She had been afraid for a time that her eyelids had melted, just as she knew the flesh over her cheekbones and chin had—we are, she observed wryly, clay after all.

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Save for the mildest of references and the Utah setting, nothing in this tale is explicitly “Mormon”; implicitly however, the story lends itself to a strikingly Mormon interpretation.

Somewhat unclear until the end of this tale is that the hero is as much the troubled teen as it is the damaged woman. The more parallels Sillitoe draws between the two characters the more I should have seen this, but we tend to identify more with point-of-view characters, so when I realized we were meant to understand this crazy girl just as much as the woman whose mind we sit inside, I could not, at first, understand why. My first bit of understanding came through noticing how the story is mileposted by the title: “Windows on the Sea” is the romantic name the teenager has assigned to her “all white—white walls, white ceiling, white tile floor”—room, her sanctuary, her asylum, her ironic Celestial Room where her damaged mind finds something between the opheliac freedom of madness and the love of her new, surrogate mother, a faceless stand-in for Mother. “Windows on the Sea” is the title, the first thing we see; “Windows of the Sea” is a private space this girl (spoiler: a possible victim of incest by her father) has never allowed anyone to visit before; “Windows of the Sea” is a holy place set apart in building of trauma and pain wherein a glorious vision of sun (an old symbol for the male god) meeting sea (connected by the tides to that old symbol for the female god, the moon) can, as we learn in the final paragraphs, not only be glimpsed but truly felt.

Call me crazy, but this story of a good woman, a mother who sacrificed herself to save her child, a mother who can reach a child untouchable by any other (in particular any father figure), a mother who will always fight for her children, is a plea in character form for a closer relationship with our Heavenly Mother.

Tell me I’m wrong, but I think that is exactly what “Windows on the Sea” is about.

And I have more evidence if you want it. The teenager first invites her new faceless mother to her room to pray for the daughter who caused her pain. Is not this the weeping god[dess] of Mormonism?

Take a look. There’s more. Bring it over here and we’ll talk about it.

Or, of course, feel free to prove me wrong. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that “Windows on the Sea” is about the Mormon longing—about a young girl’s longing—for her—our—Mother.

10 comments: “Bright Angels & Familiars:
“Windows on the Sea” by Linda Sillitoe

  1. Katya

    That’s an interesting take, but I’m not entirely sold on the mother=Heavenly Mother interpretation, mainly because it strikes me as an unfalsifiable statement. (I.e., is there any Mormon story about searching for a mother figure where you couldn’t make the argument that the story is really about searching for Heavenly Mother?)

  2. Th.

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    Perhaps not, so the argument is based on the sheer volume of applicable evidence unique to this story.

  3. Austin

    I like your reading. There’s also a connection for me to the temple and the female characters face being covered, which is also reminiscent of our search for a Mother that’s not in clear view.

    Also, I wondered, when I read the lines “There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” if The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was the inspiration for the story.

  4. Th.

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    It’s very possible. It’s a very plain connection.

    I like your temple observation though—it’s so clear I’m startled never to have thought it before.

  5. Cynthia Sillitoe

    It’s not an interpretation I’ve ever seen in the story, but maybe that’s because my actual time in the church was limited to a few years of primary. The temple veil allusion would have gone right past me.

    I never discussed this story in much detail with my mother, so I can only guess at her thought process. To me, the story is about how everyone carries trauma, some visible, some not. I think Pril finds Lora more of a kindred spirit than a mother surrogate, especially since she is enraged when she feels Lora is siding with Pril’s mother. The role of the mask seems to be a combination of concealment and protection.

    To me, the wish to pray for Lora’s daughter is Pril putting responsibility on the daughter for Lora’s burns, just as others might blame Pril and Pril might blame herself for her trauma.

    As for Prufrock, I’d forgotten she used that, and I’m a little amused. She was not an Eliot fan. She liked that poem more than his others, simply for the music of it, but disliked the world view of it. It may be more that the poem fit the story. She was thinking of social masks, perhaps, and that reminded her of the line from Prufrock–and then she saw how other lines would appeal to Pril and give her a voice.

  6. Th.

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    I think your points are evidence of the story’s inherent strength. The more alternate hypotheses that can be proved the better, imho.

    Did you mother leave any notes about her fiction?

  7. Cynthia Sillitoe

    Special Collections at the University of Utah has a number of her papers. I suspect most of them have to do with Salamander. Notes for her fiction were probably on scraps of paper, in turquoise or purple ink, with names and perhaps keywords, connected by arrows, a few crossed out, others circled. She would have thrown them out both because she no longer needed them and because she had no desire for anyone else to see them.

    As both a reader and a writer, she liked enough ambiguity for discussion and reflection. She’d agree with you about multiple hypotheses. She’d also like that I’ve spent days turning the story over in my head, trying to solve it.

    The biggest puzzle to me is Lora and the mask. It’s so specific a detail that I wonder if she wrote an article either at the Deseret News or for Utah Holiday about a similar case and the idea of the mask stayed with her.

    Around the time she wrote the story, she spent some time teaching writing to students at an alternative high school in Salt Lake City. I’m certain Pril’s origins are there. Only today did it occur to me that with that group she would have done what she always did when she taught writing, especially poetry. She would have brought in examples showing all of its dimensions. It’s very likely she read Prufrock to the students, first letting the music and imagery enchant them, and then started dissecting it. She loved that poetry required truth, but allowed it to be in code, and made poets less vulnerable as they poured out their souls. Now I wonder if much of the story came out of a discussion about Prufrock with those students. But I’m still not sure about the mask…

    Thank you for taking the time to feature her work. Her absence is so profound that it’s comforting to know how much of a presence she left behind. We are still in the process of getting her later work out. Expect a novel published by Signature Books, hopefully as soon as this autumn, and a volume of poetry, also published by Signature, in the next couple of years.

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