32 pages 1 hour read

Eudora Welty

Why I Live at the P.O.

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1941

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty

“Why I Live at the P.O.” is a short story written in 1941 by Eudora Welty, an author and photographer from the American South. The story’s narrator, Sister, narrates her family’s reaction as her sister, Stella-Rondo, leaves her husband and returns to the family’s home in China Grove, Mississippi, surprising her family with a young child in tow. As conflict unfolds among the family members, Sister moves into the post office where she works, seeking independence. The story explores themes of independence, family conflict, and truth and perception.

First published in the Atlantic in 1941, the short story was released later that year as a part of Welty’s first short story collection, A Curtain of Green. Welty claimed that she was inspired to write the story by a photograph she found of a woman ironing at the post office. It remains one of Welty’s most renowned short stories and is even the basis of an opera with music composed by Stephen Eddins.

This guide references The Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty published by Mariner Books in 2019.

Content Warning: The source material includes outdated and offensive language, including racist and misogynistic slurs that are replicated in this guide only in direct quotes of the source material.

Plot Summary

As the story opens on the Fourth of July, the narrator, Sister, declares that she “was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo” until her younger sister, Stella-Rondo, arrives at the family’s home in China Grove, Mississippi, having just left her husband, Mr. Whitaker (43).

Sister explains that she was the first to court her sister’s future husband. After Mr. Whitaker, a photographer, arrived in China Grove, Sister posed for some “Pose Yourself” photos. Sister explains that Stella-Rondo was the cause of the breakup between herself and Mr. Whitaker, having made snide comments concerning Sister being “one-sided.”

Sister says that Stella-Rondo, who is exactly one year younger than herself, is “spoiled.” Once, their grandfather—Papa-Daddy—had given Stella-Rondo a pearl necklace, and she carelessly discarded it during a baseball game a year later.

The family is not only surprised that Stella-Rondo has moved home from Illinois so soon after being married, but that she has in tow a two-year-old blonde child whom she calls Shirley-T.

Mama is flabbergasted that Stella-Rondo had a child without telling her family and says the situation “like to made her drop dead for a second” (43). While Mama says she is “ashamed” of Stella-Rondo, the narrator explains, “but of course she wasn’t” (43). Stella-Rondo informs Mama that Shirley-T. is adopted.

Meanwhile, Sister is preoccupied with “trying to stretch two chickens over five people” with the addition of a new person, Shirley-T., at the last minute (43).

When Sister opines that the child looks like Papa-Daddy, minus the beard, Stella-Rondo responds in ire, telling Sister not to bring up the subject again. Sister darts back with a comment comparing Shirley-T.’s appearance to Mr. Whitaker as well, referencing the child’s frown.

Mama defends the child’s adopted status and states that the child looks exactly like Shirley Temple.

At the dinner table, Stella-Rondo stirs up a conflict when she tells Papa-Daddy that Sister thinks he should cut off his beard, which he proudly claims he’s been growing since he was 15 years old. Irritated, Papa-Daddy calls Sister “a hussy” and “the postmistress” (44), informing her that her own job at the “bird’s nest”—one of the smallest post offices in Mississippi—is a result of his personal maneuverings with the government.

Sister protests and leaves the table, and Papa-Daddy does as well, heading outside to spend time in the hammock. He makes a final comment letting his family know that he will never remove his beard and that he doesn’t “appreciate” the interference.

In the hallway, Sister runs into Uncle Rondo, who is wearing one of Stella-Rondo’s kimonos and who has downed an entire bottle of “prescription,” as he does each Independence Day. He claims that he’s “poisoned” as he heads outside in search of the hammock, and Sister warns him about Papa-Daddy’s mood, blaming Stella-Rondo.

Papa-Daddy stirs with a “horrible yell,” and Sister hears him ranting to Uncle Rondo from the hammock about Sister’s lack of gratitude for the job at the post office he got her. He notes that she didn’t learn to read until she was eight, but that Stella-Rondo is “brilliant” and did the right thing by leaving home. Uncle Rondo is too dizzy to pay attention.

Stella-Rondo throws open a window with a dramatic cry. Sister checks on her, only to find that she isn’t “mortally wounded,” just upset that Uncle Rondo is wearing her kimono. Sister defends him and again brings up Shirley-T., angering Stella-Rondo.

As Sister makes green-tomato pickle in the kitchen, Mama criticizes her, saying it isn’t good for Uncle Rondo or Shirley-T. Exasperated, Sister claims that had she shown up with a child after leaving home, the reception would have been very different, sparking another argument with Mama about the child’s parentage.

Sister wonders in a hushed tone if Shirley-T. can talk, so Mama yells for Stella-Rondo and asks. Soon, they receive confirmation in a loud “Yankee voice” that shouts a tagline from Popeye the Sailor. Stella-Rondo points out that Shirley-T. can tap dance as well.

Stella-Rondo next pits Uncle Rondo and Sister against each other by telling him that Sister—not herself—claimed he looked like a “fool” in Stella-Rondo’s robe. The first thing the next morning—after the “prescription” wears off—Uncle Rondo responds angrily by throwing a package of fireworks into Sister’s bedroom, triggering the narrator, who is “sensitive to noise” (45).

Sister determines this is the final straw. She decides to go “straight down to the P.O.” where “there’s plenty of room there in the back” (49).

She storms in while the family is in the midst of a game of Old Maid, gathering the fan, a needlepoint pillow, and other things she declares belong to her, including the fern that she “watered.”

After calling Sister ungrateful, Mama implores her to sit down and play a game with the rest of the family, but Sister declares that “It’s too late to stop me now” (51). Papa-Daddy, Stella-Rondo, and Uncle Rondo all declare their intent to stop using the post office.

Sister requests help moving nine wagonloads of belongings to the post office. She explains that she hasn’t been in contact with any of her family members for five days. Since her family comprises most of the town, there isn’t much mail to sort. Sister explains that some of the other townspeople are on her side, while others have “turned against” her, anxious to win points with Papa-Daddy, who is influential in the town.

Sister says, “But here I am, and here I’ll stay. I want the world to know I’m happy” (52). Even if Stella-Rondo were to show up and explain everything that happened with Mr. Whitaker, Sister concludes, she would simply refuse to listen.