Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” is told in the first person by a woman we know only as Sister. Sister is the postmistress of the smallest post office in Mississippi, but at the beginning of the story she lives at home with her mother, grandfather, and uncle. Her younger sister has married and moved away, and Sister is basking in her new role as only child.
The fact that she’s never had this much attention before can be seen from her nickname— “Sister.” During her childhood, she has obviously existed in the shadow of the family’s favorite child, Stella-Rondo, and her only role in the family is that of Stella-Rondo’s sister. Nor is Stella-Rondo’s popularity confined to the four walls of their home; Sister claims Stella-Rondo stole her boyfriend too, and married him. Sister’s resentment bristles from every sentence.
But life has gotten better for Sister until Stella-Rondo leaves her husband and moves back into her mother’s house with a two-year-old child, Shirley-T. Stella-Rondo insists the child is adopted; Sister doubts this. A new world war has begun.
In a functional family, the question of whether Stella-Rondo’s child is or is not adopted would seem to be irrelevant; all it could possibly prove is whether Stella-Rondo had sex before marriage. But Sister and Stella-Rondo need something to fight over in their endless struggle for dominance. Just as she “stole” Sister’s boyfriend, Stella-Rondo now maneuvers to steal the family’s affection away from Sister. In the middle of dinner, Stella-Rondo suddenly tells her grandfather that Sister thinks he should cut off the beard he’s been growing all his life (there is no evidence Sister has ever said any such thing). In every scene, Stella-Rondo manages to make herself look increasingly innocent, while making her sister look increasingly viperish.
But Sister figures two can play that game. In a conversation with her mother, she manages to plant a tiny seed of doubt about the ancestry of Stella-Rondo’s so-called “adopted” child. No one has ever heard Stella-Rondo’s daughter speak; and on Sister’s prompting, Mama recalls that Stella-Rondo’s estranged husband drank like a fish. In fact, she says, “I believed to my soul he drank chemicals.” Mama rushes downstairs to determine for herself whether Shirley-T might possibly be brain-damaged. But this is a game Sister can’t win. Not only can Shirley-T speak; she can sing “Popeye the Sailor-Man.”
The family continues to bicker over one thing or another, until Sister packs up all her possessions and moves to the post office, feeling very much abused. Despite the fact that “Why I Live at the P.O.” is a hysterically funny story, Sister’s dispossession is all too real. We’ve read Sister’s side of the tale; it would be interesting to hear Stella-Rondo’s.
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