William Melvin Kelley

A Visit to Grandmother

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A Visit to Grandmother Summary

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William Melvin Kelley’s short story “A Visit to Grandmother” (1964) was published in his collection Dancers on the Shore. The story is told by Chig, a seventeen-year-old boy whose father, Dr. Charles Dunford, takes him on a trip to visit his grandmother, a woman he barely knows, while visiting Nashville, Tennessee for a college reunion. The story is told in the third person limited, meaning the narrator illuminates only Chig’s limited knowledge of the scenario, building tension and suspense. Kelley uses a clipped, simple style—his short, clear sentences heightening the sense that Chig, has no idea what is about to happen or what is wrong with his father. Despite this, Kelley uses foreshadowing to build suspense, as in the first paragraph when he makes it clear that Dr. Dunsford is unsettled, though Chig is unsure why.

Chig watches his father greet his grandmother in her house in Nashville. Chig notes that he knew something was wrong with his father by the way he kissed his mother – he claims that though his father, a doctor, is kind and caring, those feelings weren’t apparent in his kiss. Chig then goes back in time to explain the circumstances that led father and son to this house in Tennessee. Ten days before the event, Dr. Dunford decides he wants to attend his twenty-year college reunion in Nashville. Chig’s younger brother and sister are planning to attend camp during his father’s trip, but Chig, who is older, has no summer plans. His father invites him along for the reunion, suggesting that they visit his mother, whom Chig calls Mama, while they are in the area. As he watches his father greet his grandmother, Chig suspects his father may have used the reunion as an excuse to visit his family to resolve some underlying issues, though Charles claims it is the other way around.

At Mama’s house, Chig is welcomed by warm relatives and attended to by his Aunt Rose and others, who ask him dozens of questions about his life in New York. Charles, however, is withdrawn and distant, seeming to become more angry and uncomfortable as the evening wears on. The family begins to tell stories about Charles’s brother, GL Dunsford, who is not present but whom they obviously adore. Charles appears resentful of his brother, becoming more upset the more they talk about him.

The family sits down to dinner; during the meal, Charles finally explodes and his feelings come out. He expresses to his mother the resentment he has carried in his heart for years, which led to the distance between them. He tells his mother that he never felt loved by her, that she spent all her time and gave all her kindness to GL while beating him for his wrongdoings. He claims that she was always too busy to spend time with him, though she made time for outings with GL. Mama is surprised and confused, assuring Charles that she loved him just as much as GL, though she treated the two boys differently. But Charles, inconsolable, tells her that it’s too late to be forgiven.

In the final scene, Charles gets up from the table in a rush and runs upstairs to his room. Tragically, at that moment GL, smiling his carefree and innocent smile, arrives at the door, thrilled at the chance to reunite with his beloved brother.

William Melvin Kelley was an African-American novelist and short story writer, most famous for his first book, A Different Drummer, published in 1962. In 2008, nine years before his death, he received the Ansfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement for his use of comedy to examine American attitudes toward race, and particularly toward blackness.

Though he was noted for discussing race in his work, “A Visit to Grandmother” notably does not put race at the forefront, for which it has received criticism by some. Kelley comments on this in the forward to the collection, saying that he meant, with his writing, to depict real people and real scenarios, not to use people as symbols for larger themes. That being said, in this story Kelley manages to use only briefly developed characters to depict the nature of family, unity, and estrangement in a way that is both tragic and universally understandable.