A Critique of Henry Alford’s “Vacationing with Mom”

The title of this piece captivated me. Vacationing with Mom conveys a somehow comforting message in a dreadfully nagging tone. Author Henry Alford’s style of writing then quickly sucked me in with his lead about his mother inviting herself along on the ten day trip to Italy he was planning with his boyfriend of four years. He very effectively expresses his initial feeling of worry when he notes that his mother is “a voluble, 60-something bird-watching Republican.”

After sucking in the reader with a lengthy lead in that most everyone can relate to, he quickly changes to a tone of lighthearted humor. Alford threw caution to the wind and let her come along for the trip. He starts off by telling us some of the nice things that come along with your mother when she travels with you such as folding maps, getting sympathy from hotel clerks, but most importantly being able to see aspects of her personality that you had no idea existed.

When I read the header “My Mother the Art Critic” I did not know quite what to expect. Would it be something funny or something serious? Did he not realize that his mother was well versed in art history, or is she devoid of any artistic appreciation? It doesn’t take long to figure out. Alford starts off with slight humor as he recalls his mother saying that the neck pain from looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was not a problem for her because she is a bird watcher and warbler season is quite the same. Then he hits you with her line about Bernini’s sculpture of Pluto raping Proserpine; she said ,”That’s not much of a rape. He ought to drop his loincloth and really get at it.”

As soon as you’ve been shocked with the rape line you’re handed a new header: “My Mother the Literary Critic.” Based on the previous paragraph’s content I expect to find humor, which I do. He comments on her use of a French word “jamais” when trying to speak Italian before going into a narrative about an embarrassing exchange his mother has with a guard at St. Peter’s about the Pope’s book, its sales, and whether or not her son the writer could meet the Pope to discuss these things.

Next headline: “My Mother the Adventure Traveler.” The change from calling his mother a critic to calling her an adventure traveler here alerts the reader that there is something different up next; something that was worth saving for the finale. As expected, the stories that follow are descriptive and longer than those that have followed. Alford starts with the bit about them renting Vespas in Rome and his mother being the crazy speed racer that almost clipped some Asian tourists. The big finish in terms of stories from this trip with his mother and boyfriend is the one about her desire to see a Sicilian “taken care of”, her comment about the police at the Palermo train station who had submachine guns being “on the take” and finally when she pointed out a man in a caffe who she believed to be in the Mafia.

Alford concludes this short, sweet piece with an expression of his appreciation for his mother inviting herself along on the Italy trip. He says he discovered that beneath the placid exterior of his mother lurks a Maori warrior. Then the reader is surprised because instead of being left with a sweet notion about loving your crazy mother and knowing there is more to her than you realize, he hits you with another funny story about Mom.

When he asked whether she had developed the film from his boyfriend’s camera that had gotten mixed up in her luggage, she had not. She expressed that she was worried to get them developed because of the mystery pictures that had been taken prior to the trip. When Alford assures her that his partner had started the trip with a new roll of film she exclaimed “Oh phew, I thought there may be some gay orgy scenes and I wasn’t sure the Bristol Pharmacy could handle that.”

Overall I really enjoyed this piece.  Most of the time, I am not a big fan of headers in pieces of writing that are meant to be read for enjoyment. I tend to reserve those for academic and professional pieces and only when necessary. However, each header in this piece gave you a clue to what kind of experience would follow which made you want to keep reading. Also, the word repetition and sarcasm in the headlines added to the humor and lightheartedness of the piece as a whole. The content and wording were provocative and provided great imagery while being concise and straightforward. Also, everything in the piece was relatable to nearly every reader because it is based on something as common as a relationship between a mother and child. The message I got from this story is a positive one, which is a far cry from the last piece I critiqued. It leaves you giggling to yourself, thinking of your mom and a surge of optimism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s