“Sticks” is a short story by George Saunders that famously contains only 392 words but packs an emotional punch. The narrator’s father builds a “kind of crucifix out of a metal pole” in the family backyard and puts it in costume for various holidays (Saunders 63). After the children move out, the father starts dressing the pole in more absurd and elaborate constructions. One autumn, he paints the pole yellow and hammers in six crossed sticks to represent his children. He runs a string between the pole and six sticks, taping “letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards”, and “dies in the hall with the radio on” (Saunders 63). The children sell the house and leave the poles on the road for garbage collectors.
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The father’s last-minute attempts to reconcile with his family prove vain. His stunt with the poles only confirms his inability to connect with his children. He was an authoritarian, distant parent who worshipped objects. On Christmas Eve, he “shrieked at Jimmie for wasting an apple slice” and hovered over the children to ensure they did not use too much ketchup (Saunders 63). The children were “allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time”, meaning the father prioritized the integrity of cheap crayons over his children’s entertainment (Saunders 63). After their mother’s death, we can infer that the father did not provide any emotional support and retreated into himself, “dress[ing] the pole as Death” (Saunders 63).
Perhaps the father genuinely regrets his mistakes by the end of his life. However, he expresses that regret through the medium of objects, instead of talking to his children directly. He is unable to overcome his limitations, and the children remain ambivalent to his pleas for forgiveness. After all, they have had children and “found the seeds of meanness blooming also within [them]” (Saunders 63). Growing up with an emotionally absent father led to closed-off adults, and ultimately this dysfunctional family is incapable of true unity and reconciliation.
Saunders, George. “Sticks.” Story, vol. 43, no.1, 1995, p. 63.