The only thing constant about life is that it changes. The conditions under which we live our daily lives alter subtly from day to day, and some events shatter our conceptions so profoundly that the routine of yesterday has no place in a tomorrow.
This analysis will investigate how the characters of Tera’s Tale respond to both the breezes of change as well as to the landslides. How are they affected by their attitudes towards the world? Are they equally struck by the same events, or could a different survival technique lend support where another gives none? On what basis or assumptions are these methods based and what skills do they require to be successful?
The short story contains a number of more or less important characters, but this essay will focus on three of them. The first will be Tera, the character around which the plot revolves. The second is her sister, Bess, who returns from Australia to clean up and set things right when Tera is dying. And last, but most important, there is the narrator, who is Tera’s neighbor and biographer.
All of these characters will be analyzed with regard to Apps’ model of transformation as well as Bridges’ model of transition. These two methods will be weaved into the text, which will deal with one of the characters at a time, and end in a summarizing comparison.
Tera – the remains of a decision
Tera fell in love one day, and it changed her life so completely that it would determine the outcome of her future. His name was Hank, and she packed her things and left home just to live close to him. She was supposed to join her sister Bess in Australia, but rather found herself waking up in Madison one morning. Sadly, there was one problem: Hank was already married. Tera didn’t let that affect her feelings though, and after a promise from Hank that he loved her, she decided to wait for him, giving him the time he needed to leave his wife. From that moment on, Tera put her life on hold, thinking that life would start when her romance could begin. Hank, however, for reasons unknown to the reader, never got around to leaving his old wife, but rather visited Tera several times a day in secrecy.
Tera lived her life without stirring. She relied on routines to help her through the day, a remainder from her unhappy childhood perhaps, where her parents used to force her home straight after school to do chores. Her upbringing was very strict and sometimes abusive, which put its mark on her adult life. She relied on her day to day activities, which were always the same (feeding the birds, going for walks, visits from Hank…), to offer her some stability and sense of place in the world, a world she felt never quite accepted her. In the end, Tera stopped stirring her life completely; stiffening into the routine she had set up to help her, distancing herself from her surroundings completely. She thought that she had no power over the world and therefore the world should have no power over her either. Sadly, it was a one way relationship, and the surroundings were not quite aware of the details of the deal.
Already when the narrator moves in, the first sign of Tera’s incompatibility of changes in the neighborhood shows itself. She complains that the new houses have disturbed her idyllic life on the hill, and that she didn’t want them there. Unfortunately for Tera, this was only the first of the many changes she had to, but couldn’t, quite cope with. The second was the building of the highway bridge, which forced her to abandon the routine of waving to truck drivers from the river. It also meant that Tera’s house became the refuge for colonies of rats, squirrels and other rodents, which slowly infested and broke down her home. The third strike came when Hank died. They were still lovers, even though he had not kept his promise to her, and she loved him dearly. This made her into even more of a recluse than she was already, as all the routines she had set up over the years had been torn from her, until she had nothing left. There were no birds to feed, no truck drivers to wave at, and now there wasn’t even Hank to visit her.
The breast cancer was the final blow from the world on Tera. She had tried to ignore it for as long as she could, but in the end it caught up with her. In her nursing home, she tried to achieve a new routine, but it was built around a failing heart, and one by one the visitors were crossed off her list.
Tera’s life was lived in silence. She was the remains of the decision she took long ago, when she made up her mind on how she wanted to live. In her utopia, there was no room for change, and when it came knocking on her door it brought down her life. She lived according to a Newtonian ideal, where a static world is possible and order could be achieved if the details were in place. But the new, dynamic modern world intervened and did not let her continue. In relation to Bridges’ model of transition, Tera took the first step in the transition process by seeing her old life ending and losing what she valued, only to be caught in the vacuum of the limbo where she stayed until the day she died.
Bess – a breath of fresh air
Tera’s sister Bess moved to Australia in flight from their childhood home. She made a new start for herself and found a husband almost immediately. From her new home in Perth, she was able to get away from all the stifling memories and start another life for herself, a life free from the influence of her destructive upbringing. When she arrives in the story, Tera is already dying in cancer, and the contrast between the two sisters is so profound that one could hardly imagine they were sisters at all.
Bess is a self made woman, who takes charge of her life and makes the most of it. She realizes that the world is not constant, and that she needs to change with it if she is to lead a happy life. Perhaps this is due to her moving to a different country at a young age and starting on a blank page, or perhaps she just had a different attitude from the start. Even so, not even she is quite prepared for what she is to experience when so goes back to the US to take care of her weakening sister. Bess had imagined that she could live with Tera in her house and nurse her from there, but as soon as she steps into the door she realizes that her decision was a bit rash. The house is in a worse condition than anyone ever could prepare themselves for. It is molding, there are rodents everywhere and the walls are covered in cat urine. When Bess sees this, she knows that she has to move Tera into an assisted living, and that she herself has to clean out the house and salvage whatever she can. Even though the memories from her childhood must still hurt, she still wishes to rescue some of the artifacts from her parents’ home, and a few from her sister’s as well. Only by being confident in her new life is she able to muster the forgiveness necessary to cherish the memories of her old, and fight for her right to keep them.
Bess’ way of responding to change is “like a sailboat crossing a bay” (p 14), by constantly adapting to the new situations and trying to make the best of them. Paradoxically, by letting herself be swept away by the winds of change she is hardly affected by them at all, at least not in any uncontrollable way. She keeps herself clean and fresh by moving all the time, which is starkly contrasted to Tera by the look of her home. There, day after day and year after year has piled itself on top of each other, adding up until there is only just enough space for a woman and a cat to sit down in a predefined place.
Bess moves quickly through the transition process discussed by Bridges, and finds herself seeing the new beginning almost before the change is complete. However, even though she recovers the dignity of Tera’s house, she does not simply do it to gain the most of the situation as she is also strongly motivated by a sense of duty towards her sister. So, in a way, it is her strong link to the past which makes her propel forward through life’s unpredictable path.
In her line of actions, Bess follows App’s model of change fairly consistently, by first realizing the acuteness of the situation. She then moves on to considering the alternatives before deciding that Tera has to move and that she has to take care of everything. All of this leads to a new realization about the life she once fled and gives it closure for good.
The Narrator – an outsider’s view
Though not actually mentioned by name, the narrator plays a very important role in Tera’s Tale. She is the neighbor who moves into an old area, where customs have been established long ago. She is the first needle that will puncture that ideal, yet she is mesmerized by and eventually welcomed into that society. She is the outside perspective necessary to tell the tale in its entirety, free of the constrains a lifetime of details has put on the people living it. But, she is not separate from the story she is to tell as she gets more and more tangled in its cobwebs and dark secrets. She is even forced to reevaluate her own life as she walks along the steps of Tera, all the way into death.
In the beginning, the narrator is kept at a distance from Tera, which is the custom for all newcomers. She accepts this, and is therefore gradually over the years let deeper and deeper into Tera’s world. It is not, however, until Tera has to move and Bess asks the narrator for help to clean her house that she really begins to understand the true mystery of her reclusive neighbor.
In a sense, the narrator is as secluded and secretive as Tera is, and this may possibly be why they got along so well. The reader learns almost nothing about the narrator’s life, even her name remains a mystery. She is horribly afraid of the change Tera’s death will mean to her and compensates for not seeing Tera as much as she should by working and helping Bess in every way possible. By lending a helping hand physically she escapes what she deep down feels is her true duty to Tera, which is being there for her, sitting next to her bed and listen. The important difference between Tera and the narrator is however, that the narrator is not dependant on an unchanged reality, and therefore better suited to deal with change.
The narrator fits in somewhere between Tera and Bess in her ability to adapt to new situations. She responds by being afraid, and is temporarily paralyzed by the new rules which are set before her. She rocks to and fro between alternative reactions, much like the stage in App’s model, but is ambiguous to which she must follow. She goes to visit Tera in the nursing home, and eventually overcomes her fear of the cancer and holds her hand, but she also works long days at the house to relieve some of the pain she is feeling. In the end, she experiences the closure she so desperately seeks when she spreads Tera’s ashes into the river as a final act of friendship. This ritual helps her through the limbo phase of transition and allows her to go on with her life. With the death of Tera, the narrator is the character which most profoundly experiences a transformation as described by Bridges, as her attitude towards change, friendship and life are refined and incorporated in a new view of the world.
John Lennon once said that “[l]ife is what happens to us while we are busy making other plans”. This is most true to the story of Tera and the people around her. No one could have accounted for the future when they set out to live their lives. No one knew that a highway bridge would cause rodents to swarm Tera’s house. No one had planned for Hank to die. And no one had accounted for Tera’s death. The real question is how dependant people are to their original plans and how much change they can withstand. Tera was unable to look away from the dream she had begun when she fell in love with Hank. As a result of this, she had to live through a constant deterioration of that dream until there was nothing left but death. Bess, on the other hand, led a life built on changes, and her plans were easily rearranged to allow her to be with her sister when she was needed. And then there is the narrator, who made plans but gradually and ambiguously had to divert from them, while realizing new truths about life. They all had their ideas on how to live their lives, but the circumstances favored Bess and the narrator over Tera, who stiffened halfway and never completed the processes of change.