Mavis Gallant’s “The Legacy” (1954)

Inheritance: a common literary theme. Here, Mrs. Boldescu has died, leaving behind four grown children and a family grocery shop on St. Eulalie Street in Montreal: “Rumania Fancy Groceries”.

Grocery Shop 1935 Gallant

Small shops in 1935, imagine “Rumania Family Groceries” on the signClick for source details

Carol and Georgie are the older brothers, and the youngest boy is Victor, who is married to Peggy Ann now and living in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Marina is sandwiched between the boys. And it quickly becomes apparent that she has felt the squeeze her entire life.

“She remembered at last what her brothers were like – not the somber criminal of sociological texts, denied roller skates at a crucial age; still less the hero-villain of films; but simply men whose moments of megalomaniacal audacity were less depressing than their lack of common sense and taste. It was for their pleasure, she thought, that people manufactured ashtrays shaped like little outhouses, that curly-haired little girls in sailor suits were taught to tap-dance, and night-club singers gave voice to ‘Mother Machree’ and ‘Eli, Eli’.”

There is a calendar in the kitchen, unturned from 1937, which is the year that Marina was supposed to travel to Grenoble for a scholarship, but something went wrong. (Readers do learn the details.)

So, the story is titled for the legacy of the family grocery store, with “Rumania Fancy Groceries” on the glass, “Mrs. Maria Boldescu in smaller letters beneath on the window”.

But it is also titled for the sense of confinement which all members of the family felt, but which both mother and daughter experienced intensely.

“Twenty, fifteen years before they had avoided each other like uncongenial castaways, each pursuing some elusive path that led away from St. Eulalie Street. Considering the way they had lived, crowded as peas in a pod, their privacy, she now thought, must have been a powerful act of will. In the darkening room, she saw herself ironing her middy blouse, the only one she owned, a book propped insecurely on the ironing board. Georgie and Carol came and went like cats, and Victor shouted outside in a game of kick-the-can.”

Gallant 1937 Calendar

When time stopped for Marina in “The Legacy”Click for source details

Victor’s life has turned out differently. He now works as a C.P.A. and he owns his own home south of the border. (He has also become a Protestant. Tsk tsk.)

The family grocery shop has no place in his life now, and Peggy Ann would never dream of running such a business. Yet, that’s exactly the future which Victor imagines for his sister, Marina.

““For me?”’she cried again. ‘I’m to live here?’ She looked around as if to find, once more, the path away from St. Eulalie Street, the shifting and treacherous path that described a circle, and if her brothers, after the first movement, had not held her fast, she would have wrecked the room, thrown her chair out the window, pulled the shrine from the wall, the plates from their shelves, wrenched the curtains from the nails that held them, and smashed every one of the ten tiny glasses that were her brothers’ pride.”

The images in this story establish the setting firmly and colourfully: the long black car hired for funeral, the wreath with “Good to You, Mama” on a violet horseshoe from the older boys, the radio with wood cut in a waterfall pattern, a shrine with a Madonna and her blue glass eyes, a pearl-and-diamond pin shaped like a daisy, a Persian lamb coat, Victor’s Buick, tin Pepsi-Cola signs, crepe on the window of the grocery, the 1937 calendar with the phone numbers of Sergeant-detectives Callahan and Vronsky on the back, and tins of chocolate empire biscuits.

Like a haze around all of these things, Marina’s anger is palpable. Possibly she imagined a kind of escape would await her, following her mother’s death.

Instead, she seems to feel the event is a death sentence for her as well.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the eighth story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “One Morning in June” (sometimes titled “One Morning in May”, as though one summer month is as good as another).

2017-07-24T18:10:57+00:00

2 Comments

  1. Booker talk May 2, 2017 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    That sign over the doorway in your image evoked memories for me – Ricci was the name of the cafe in my home town (there were only two cafes) and it was where we went for a saturday afternoon treat after the cinema. Most of the cafes in my area were run by Italians so names like Ricci, Ferrari. Sidoli were very common

    • Buried In Print May 2, 2017 at 4:09 pm - Reply

      I’m glad the photo sparked a good memory for you. Mavis Gallant would approve too, I suspect, given the significance of memory and memories in her stories, this one included!

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