Authors: Alice Munro
“Munro, the hugely gifted chronicler … is fast becoming—like Raymond Carver—one of the world’s great totemic writers, able to excite recognition even in readers who grew up in times and societies very different from hers.… Each short story is a mansion of many rooms.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Each of her collections demonstrates such linguistic skill, delicacy of vision, and … moral strength and clarity … that the notion of her pre-eminence becomes ever more irresistible.”
“Munro’s stories possess almost all the things a reader might desire—anecdotes, shining everyday details, sexual passion, family history, quirky characters, new landscapes, humor, wisdom.”
“Munro is a fine writer, an excellent writer, a gifted craftsman, an inspired strategist of plot and emotional counterpoint. She is … one of the three or four best writers of short stories in English today.”
“Munro is wickedly funny … and she is a consummate stylist. Her sentences, though never gaudy, are always perfectly cadenced, and almost epigrammatically beautiful. Munro is that rarity, an author unafraid to write about people as intelligent as she is.”
“Brilliant … [Munro is] an unrivalled chronicler of human nature.”
—The Sunday Times
ALSO BY ALICE MUNRO
The View from Castle Rock
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
The Love of a Good Woman
Friend of My Youth
The Progress of Love
The Moons of Jupiter
The Beggar Maid
Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You
Lives of Girls and Women
Dance of the Happy Shades
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, MAY 1991
Copyright © 1990 by Alice Munro
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1990.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
The stories in this work were originally published in the following:
The Atlantic: “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass,” “Pictures of the Ice.”
The New Yorker: “Friend of My Youth,” “Meneseteung,” “Oh, What Avails,” “Oranges and Apples,” “Goodness and Mercy,” “Differently,” “Five Points,” “Wigtime.”
To the memory of my mother
WITH THANKS TO R. J. T
I used to dream about my mother, and though the details in the dream varied, the surprise in it was always the same. The dream stopped, I suppose because it was too transparent in its hopefulness, too easy in its forgiveness.
In the dream I would be the age I really was, living the life I was really living, and I would discover that my mother was still alive. (The fact is, she died when I was in my early twenties and she in her early fifties.) Sometimes I would find myself in our old kitchen, where my mother would be rolling out piecrust on the table, or washing the dishes in the battered cream-colored dishpan with the red rim. But other times I would run into her on the street, in places where I would never have expected to see her. She might be walking through a handsome hotel lobby, or lining up in an airport. She would be looking quite well—not exactly youthful, not entirely untouched by the paralyzing disease that held her in its grip for a decade or more before her death, but so much better than I remembered that I would be astonished. Oh, I just have this little tremor in my arm, she would say, and a little stiffness up this side of my face. It is a nuisance but I get around.
I recovered then what in waking life I had lost—my mother’s
liveliness of face and voice before her throat muscles stiffened and a woeful, impersonal mask fastened itself over her features. How could I have forgotten this, I would think in the dream—the casual humor she had, not ironic but merry, the lightness and impatience and confidence? I would say that I was sorry I hadn’t been to see her in such a long time—meaning not that I felt guilty but that I was sorry I had kept a bugbear in my mind, instead of this reality—and the strangest, kindest thing of all to me was her matter-of-fact reply.
Oh, well, she said, better late than never. I was sure I’d see you someday.
When my mother was a young woman with a soft, mischievous face and shiny, opaque silk stockings on her plump legs (I have seen a photograph of her, with her pupils), she went to teach at a one-room school, called Grieves School, in the Ottawa Valley. The school was on a corner of the farm that belonged to the Grieves family—a very good farm for that country. Well-drained fields with none of the Precambrian rock shouldering through the soil, a little willow-edged river running alongside, a sugar bush, log barns, and a large, unornamented house whose wooden walls had never been painted but had been left to weather. And when wood weathers in the Ottawa Valley, my mother said, I do not know why this is, but it never turns gray, it turns black. There must be something in the air, she said. She often spoke of the Ottawa Valley, which was her home—she had grown up about twenty miles away from Grieves School—in a dogmatic, mystified way, emphasizing things about it that distinguished it from any other place on earth. Houses turn black, maple syrup has a taste no maple syrup produced elsewhere can equal, bears amble within sight of farmhouses. Of course I was disappointed when I finally got to see this place. It was not a valley at all, if by that you mean a cleft between hills; it was a mixture of flat fields and low rocks and heavy bush and little lakes—a scrambled,
disarranged sort of country with no easy harmony about it, not yielding readily to any description.
The log barns and unpainted house, common enough on poor farms, were not in the Grieveses’ case a sign of poverty but of policy. They had the money but they did not spend it. That was what people told my mother. The Grieveses worked hard and they were far from ignorant, but they were very backward. They didn’t have a car or electricity or a telephone or a tractor. Some people thought this was because they were Cameronians—they were the only people in the school district who were of that religion—but in fact their church (which they themselves always called the Reformed Presbyterian) did not forbid engines or electricity or any inventions of that sort, just card playing, dancing, movies, and, on Sundays, any activity at all that was not religious or unavoidable.
My mother could not say who the Cameronians were or why they were called that. Some freak religion from Scotland, she said from the perch of her obedient and lighthearted Anglicanism. The teacher always boarded with the Grieveses, and my mother was a little daunted at the thought of going to live in that black board house with its paralytic Sundays and coal-oil lamps and primitive notions. But she was engaged by that time, she wanted to work on her trousseau instead of running around the country having a good time, and she figured she could get home one Sunday out of three. (On Sundays at the Grieveses’ house, you could light a fire for heat but not for cooking, you could not even boil the kettle to make tea, and you were not supposed to write a letter or swat a fly. But it turned out that my mother was exempt from these rules. “No, no,” said Flora Grieves, laughing at her. “That doesn’t mean you. You must just go on as you’re used to doing.” And after a while my mother had made friends with Flora to such an extent that she wasn’t even going home on the Sundays when she’d planned to.)
Flora and Ellie Grieves were the two sisters left of the family. Ellie was married, to a man called Robert Deal, who lived
there and worked the farm but had not changed its name to Deal’s in anyone’s mind. By the way people spoke, my mother expected the Grieves sisters and Robert Deal to be middle-aged at least, but Ellie, the younger sister, was only about thirty, and Flora seven or eight years older. Robert Deal might be in between.
The house was divided in an unexpected way. The married couple didn’t live with Flora. At the time of their marriage, she had given them the parlor and the dining room, the front bedrooms and staircase, the winter kitchen. There was no need to decide about the bathroom, because there wasn’t one. Flora had the summer kitchen, with its open rafters and uncovered brick walls, the old pantry made into a narrow dining room and sitting room, and the two back bedrooms, one of which was my mother’s. The teacher was housed with Flora, in the poorer part of the house. But my mother didn’t mind. She immediately preferred Flora, and Flora’s cheerfulness, to the silence and sickroom atmosphere of the front rooms. In Flora’s domain it was not even true that all amusements were forbidden. She had a crokinole board—she taught my mother how to play.
The division had been made, of course, in the expectation that Robert and Ellie would have a family, and that they would need the room. This hadn’t happened. They had been married for more than a dozen years and there had not been a live child. Time and again Ellie had been pregnant, but two babies had been stillborn, and the rest she had miscarried. During my mother’s first year, Ellie seemed to be staying in bed more and more of the time, and my mother thought that she must be pregnant again, but there was no mention of it. Such people would not mention it. You could not tell from the look of Ellie, when she got up and walked around, because she showed a stretched and ruined though slack-chested shape. She carried a sickbed odor, and she fretted in a childish way about everything. Flora took care of her and did all the work. She washed the clothes and tidied up the rooms and cooked the meals served in both sides of
the house, as well as helping Robert with the milking and separating. She was up before daylight and never seemed to tire. During the first spring my mother was there, a great housecleaning was embarked upon, during which Flora climbed the ladders herself and carried down the storm windows, washed and stacked them away, carried all the furniture out of one room after another so that she could scrub the woodwork and varnish the floors. She washed every dish and glass that was sitting in the cupboards supposedly clean already. She scalded every pot and spoon. Such need and energy possessed her that she could hardly sleep—my mother would wake up to the sound of stovepipes being taken down, or the broom, draped in a dish towel, whacking at the smoky cobwebs. Through the washed uncurtained windows came a torrent of unmerciful light. The cleanliness was devastating. My mother slept now on sheets that had been bleached and starched and that gave her a rash. Sick Ellie complained daily of the smell of varnish and cleansing powders. Flora’s hands were raw. But her disposition remained topnotch. Her kerchief and apron and Robert’s baggy overalls that she donned for the climbing jobs gave her the air of a comedian—sportive, unpredictable.