A man named David Turner goes to the grocery to pick up food for dinner, and he is disappointed by the service he receives, given how often he uses this particular store. He returns to his third-floor apartment, where he notes that his neighbor Marcia is not at home. David happily enters his own apartment, and Jackson describes in detail the various aspects of his home which indicate the care and joy David receives from maintaining his apartment in good condition.
David leaves a note for Marcia to remind her of their 6:00pm dinner date, entering her apartment with a spare key he owns. However, Marcia does not possess a key to David’s apartment: “it pleased him to have only one key to his home, and that safely in his own pocket; it had a pleasant feeling to him, solid and small, the only way into his warm fine home” (28). David does not like to be inside Marcia’s apartment, which is unkempt, bare, and dirty.
After leaving the note in Marcia’s apartment, David returns to his own home to prepare dinner and meticulously set the table. Marcia arrives to dinner late, as usual, but David remains very courteous and welcoming. They enjoy dinner together, during which Marcia expresses admiration and envy for David’s home, while he tells her that she should make more of an effort to maintain her apartment in better condition. At the end of dinner, David offers her a cherry pie, his third attempt at ever baking a pie. David expresses his concern that the pie is too sour, but Marcia insists that the cherry pie is not sour enough.
After dinner, David clears the table and prepares coffee, when he and Marcia hear her doorbell ringing. Marcia buzzes the guest into the building from David’s apartment. The guest is Mr. Harris, Marcia’s co-worker, and he joins them in David’s apartment. Upon Mr. Harris’s arrival, Marcia usurps David’s role as host and acts as if the apartment belongs to her. She offers Mr. Harris pie and pretends to have baked it herself, mentioning that David found “her” pie too sour.
David is greatly annoyed by Mr. Harris’s intrusion and wants him and Marcia to leave his apartment. He tries to clean up, but Harris and Marcia invite themselves into the sitting room. However, David cannot stand the sight of his dining table cluttered with dirty plates and silverware, so he clears and washes the dishes. He puts away every single piece of dishware and silverware in its appropriate location.
When David returns to the living room, Marcia invites him to sit down. “David recognized her tone; it was the one hostesses used when they didn’t know what else to say to you…. It was the tone he had expected to use on Mr. Harris” (33). As David hesitates, Mr. Harris lights up a cigar, and David almost succumbs to the urge to tell Mr. Harris to leave. Instead, however, David goes along with Marcia’s charade and leaves. She hands him the key to her own apartment, warning him not to forget “his” key, and David thanks Marcia for the dinner.
David lets himself into Marcia’s dirty, empty apartment, in which he can still hear Marcia and Mr. Harris conversing across the hall. Miserable, he begins to clean her apartment.
This story clearly highlights Jackson’s recurring theme of homes and their relation to the homeowners’ identities and individuality. David, the protagonist, clearly leads a highly ordered life; he cares about every small detail in his apartment, every kitchen utensil belongs in an exact place, and so on. Jackson spends much of the exposition describing the various rooms and features of David's apartment and his domestic habits. "Tonight, as every night when he came home, the apartment looked warm and friendly and good; the little foyer, with the neat small table and four careful chairs, and the bowl of little marigolds against the pale green walls David had painted himself" (27). David's pride and identity are tied to the maintenance and décor of his apartment. Thus, the apartment serves as a symbol of David's self or identity.
However, David loses his footing and his individuality when he allows Marcia to pretend the apartment is hers. In fact, he is complicit in this loss of identity. Instead of correcting Marcia and telling Mr. Harris the truth, David plays along with her charade and allows her to usurp his home. "[W]hat he actually said, finally, with both Marcia and Mr. Harris looking at him, was, 'Guess I better be getting along, Marcia'" (34). While Marcia plays hostess and guides Mr. Harris in conversation, David plays the part of the polite guest and washes the dishes. She also speaks to David as one would to a guest. "David recognized her time; it was the one hostesses used when they didn't know what else to say to you, or when you had come too early or stayed too late" (33). Instead of countering Marcia and demanding that she and Mr. Harris leave his home, David complies with her charade.
As a result, he finds himself pushed out of his own home, bereft of his true identity, and he is forced to relocate to Marcia’s apartment. This signifies more than a physical displacement but also a psychological displacement. David is not simply doing Marcia a social favor by allowing her to pretend to Mr. Harris that his apartment is her own. By allowing the charade to go on, David loses his sense of self, physically represented by his home. "Wearily, David leaned over and picked up a paper from the floor, and then he began to gather them up one by one" (34). In beginning to clean up Marcia's apartment, David is attempting to reconstruct his identity.
Marcia’s character, the antagonist, is also of significance in “Like Mother Used to Make.” She is a young, unmarried woman who is irresponsible (she mentions that she is always late for dinner appointments and in paying rent) and rude to David. More importantly, Marcia fails to maintain her home in a neat or respectable manner. In other Jackson stories, as in “The Daemon Lover” or "The Villager," such single women are susceptible to changing identities; they either fantasize alternate realities and lives or attempt to take over someone else’s life, as Marcia does to David here.
The conflict between Marcia and David only arises when Mr. Harris arrives to see Marcia. In an example of dramatic irony, Marcia and David continue the apartment swap charade, of which the reader is aware, though Mr. Harris honestly believes that he is in Marcia's apartment.