"Life of Ma Parker" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) was included in the collection of her work, The Garden Party and Other Stories published in 1922, after first being published in 1921.
"Ma Parker" is a very dark work, the darkest of Mansfield's stories I have yet read (out of about 40 so far). Ma Parker seems a very ancient (no doubt very much old before her time) woman. She has given birth to twelve children half of whom are already dead. Her eldest daughter is a widow in early 20s with one child.
Every Tuesday Ma Parker cleans the house of a man described simply as a "literary gentleman". He knows that her only grandchild has been sick so he inquires after his health and is told he has passed away since her last cleaning day. He feels he must say something to condole her before going back to his morning paper.
“Oh, dear me! I’m sorry to hear that,” said the literary gentleman in a shocked tone. He was in the middle of his breakfast. He wore a very shabby dressing-gown and carried a crumpled newspaper in one hand. But he felt awkward. He could hardly go back to the warm sitting-room without saying something—something more. Then because these people set such store by funerals he said kindly, “I hope the funeral went off all right.”We can see how little the "literary gentleman" knows about people and his inability to see Ma Parker as a full person in this fatuous remark. The literary gentleman lives alone and makes no efforts to keep his place clean during the week. When his friends asks him about his housekeeping methods here is his response:
"“You simply dirty everything you’ve got, get a hag in once a week to clean up, and the thing’s done."
As Ma Parker leaves the man's house after completing her work she wants to cry for her last grandson. Here we see Mansfield's supreme artistry in painting for us the world of Ma Parker:
She couldn’t go home; Ethel was there. It would frighten Ethel out of her life. She couldn’t sit on a bench anywhere; people would come asking her questions. She couldn’t possibly go back to the gentleman’s flat; she had no right to cry in strangers’ houses. If she sat on some steps a policeman would speak to her. wasn't there anywhere where she could hide and keep herself to herself and not be not disturbing anybody, and nobody worrying her? Wasn’t there anywhere in the world where she could have her cry out— at last? Ma Parker stood, looking up and down. The icy wind blew out her apron into a balloon. And now it began to rain. There was nowhere."Life of Ma Parker" is a powerful disturbing work.
This story can be read online at the New Zealand Electronic Text Center.