28 pages 56 minutes read

William Melvin Kelley

A Visit to Grandmother

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1964

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Summary: “A Visit to Grandmother”

“A Visit to Grandmother” is a short story by American author William Melvin Kelley, first published in his collection Dancers on the Shore (1964). The story centers around Chig, a 17-year-old boy, and his father, Dr. Charles Dunford, as they visit Chig’s grandmother in Nashville, Tennessee. During their visit, Charles challenges issues that have long damaged his relationship with his mother, and the confrontation reaches a breaking point when he exposes his long-held resentment over the way he was treated compared to his favored younger brother, GL. “A Visit to Grandmother” explores an estranged relationship between mother and son and highlights how unvoiced emotions and pent-up conflict can ultimately result in long-lasting estrangement between family members.

This guide refers to the paperback version of Dancers on the Shore, published by Howard University Press in 1984.

The story opens with the moment Chig and his father, Dr. Charles Dunford, arrive at Chig’s grandmother Eva’s house, and Chig notices a shift in his father’s demeanor. Charles’s expression changes into “something new and almost ugly” when he greets her (53), which contradicts his usual compassionate and kind-hearted behavior.

The story then shifts to 10 days before their visit, when Charles unexpectedly invited Chig on a trip to Nashville for his college reunion. Charles suggested visiting Chig’s grandmother after the reunion ended, and they drove farther south to her house. Chig suspected that the reunion was simply an excuse his father had given to visit his grandmother. His father had always been secretive about his family, only ever discussing his younger brother, GL, whom he described as a scam artist, a charming ladies’ man, and a playful troublemaker.

When Chig and Charles arrive, Eva Dunford is sitting in the living room. At first, Eva mistakes Charles for his brother, Hiram, and doubts he came to visit her: “Charles wouldn’t never send my grandson to see me. I never even hear from Charles” (54). Rose, GL’s wife, confirms that it is indeed Charles and his son, and Eva is overjoyed to see them both. Eva gives Charles a heartfelt hug, which prompts his unusual and disturbing change in expression.

Eva, Chig, and Charles sit down to talk while Rose makes dinner. While Chig eagerly tells his grandmother about himself, his father grows increasingly withdrawn. Chig’s uncle, Hiram, and his wife, Mae, join the family at the dinner table, and they begin recounting stories “as it had been thirty years before” (57). The family begins to discuss Charles’s brother, GL Dunford, who is not present.

Eva details a time when GL traded an old chair for an allegedly half-Arab, half-Indian horse. Despite Eva’s warnings, GL kept the horse, unable to return it to its seller, and tried to convince her to go for a ride in a white family’s buggy that his father was fixing up. Eva’s initial hesitation did not stop GL from assuring his mother that the horse was tame, and he ultimately rode along with her through the center of town.

As they rode into the woods, the horse suddenly started to gallop, causing GL to lose control. After GL pleaded for his mother’s help, Eva promptly stood up, jumped onto the horse’s back, and stopped it. She explains away this feat, saying “Don’t ask me how I did that; I reckon it was that I was a mother and my baby asked me to do something, is all” (61).

When asked about the incident, Charles reminds his mother he was already living in Knoxville at the time and only remembered reading about it in a letter she had sent him. Charles voices his disapproval of the horse’s acquisition and notes that she would have punished him if he had been the one to bring it home. Charles appears frustrated that his mother would allow such behavior from GL but not from him and that she would find the incident humorous. He tries to hold back but eventually confesses to feeling neglected by his mother, who in his mind always favored GL: “Nobody loved me, Mama. I cried all the way up to Knoxville. That was the last time I ever cried in my life” (62). His mother tries to console him, but Charles stops her, stating that it’s too late.

Eva assures Charles she did all that was needed to ensure her children’s safety. Although she assures Charles she loved all her children equally, Eva admits to devoting more attention to GL since she saw him as the more troubled child. Charles accuses his mother of favoring his brother due to his lighter complexion: “You know it. GL was light-skinned and had good hair and looked almost white and you loved him for that” (63), after which he gets up from the table in tears and storms to his room. At this moment, GL unknowingly enters the home and calls for Charles: “Say now! Man! I heard my brother was in town. Where he at? Where that rascal?” (63). GL smiles while he stands in the doorway, thrilled at the chance to reunite with his beloved brother.

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