Old women are woven through Alice Munro’s fiction like a skein of glinting silver thread: grandmothers who guard family lore; nursing home residents who casually recall long-ago orgies; elderly wives liberated by the onset of Alzheimer’s. They’re hard to avoid if, like me, you’ve spent the pandemic devouring every collection of Munro’s stories, from 1968’s Dance of the Happy Shades to 2012’s Dear Life. At first, I read for pure pleasure—dazzled by what she can do with a sentence, at how she can compress an entire life into a handful of pages. As the months went by, though, reading all of Munro became about something else. Something that had nothing to do with pandemic boredom or literary technique, and everything to do with my own grandmother.
In a review of Munro’s 1998 collection The Love of a Good Woman, Michael Gorra observed that Munro’s fiction forms “nothing less than the portrait of a generation… a generation of women through whom the great turn of our times first quickened into life.” My grandmother, too, was part of this generation. She was born only a few years before Munro, and only a few hours away from Munro’s hometown in Western Ontario. Both women grew up working-class during the Great Depression; both married at age twenty and became homemakers; both raised three children in the suburbs.
The defining difference, of course, is that Munro is a genius. Over the past fifty-odd years, she has achieved, in the words of Margaret Atwood, “international literary sainthood.”
Despite her fame, I’d only read a few of Munro’s stories before the pandemic began, so plunging headlong into her writing was a delicious shock. I couldn’t believe how unsparing it was, how relentlessly it pushed its protagonists toward the most painful truths. These truths often surface, moreover, as her protagonists confront the memories of their mothers and grandmothers.
In her earlier fiction especially, Munro’s old women are figures from the past who come to stand in for that past, ghostly and inescapable.
I first noticed this pattern in “The Peace of Utrecht,” published in 1968 as part of Munro’s first book. “Peace” is narrated by Helen, a woman who returns to her small hometown after her mother’s slow death from a degenerative disease. While back, Helen goes to have tea with her Aunt Annie and Auntie Lou, elderly sisters who give Helen a “fascinated glimpse” of what she and her sister Maddy might be like as old women.
It’s a pleasant enough visit—until, that is, Aunt Annie takes Helen aside and asks, “Did you know your mother got out of the hospital?”
She proceeds to tell Helen how, not long before her death, her mother slipped out a side door of the hospital where she’d been committed against her will. She was caught in the snowy streets wearing only her dressing gown and a pair of slippers. And after she was brought back, a board was nailed across her hospital bed, to ensure she couldn’t get out again.
The revelation is classic Munro. Beneath the story’s deceptively quiet surface lurks an almost Gothic darkness—a tension that slowly rises as the story unfolds, prompting questions with no easy answers.
“Is this the last function of old women,” Helen wonders, “making sure the haunts we have contracted for are with us, not one gone without?”
When I was growing up, my grandmother’s central function—beyond insistently feeding everyone who came into her orbit—seemed to be loving me. My twin sister and I were her only grandchildren, long prayed-for, and we had her delighted and undivided attention. There is a photo I love of the two of us, taken when I was a baby: I’m balanced on her hip, and she’s beaming, her face lit by triumph, an old woman with the victorious glow of a gladiator.
One of the great pleasures of my grandmother’s house was that, while there, I could do all the things that boys were not supposed to want to do. I could arrange the glittering contents of her jewelry boxes into displays for her to admire; I could use her needle and thread to make tiny, airy cushions out of peach-colored tissues. Sewing, playing with jewelry, sniffing the perfumes that clustered atop her dresser in exquisite glass bottles: even as a child, I understood that my parents didn’t approve of these things, and that their disapproval was connected in some way to my being a boy. But my grandmother wasn’t bothered in the slightest, and this—her pleasure in seeing me do what felt completely natural to me—made her love feel different from anyone else’s.
It was her love, and her love alone, that felt genuinely unconditional.
Munro has described “The Peace of Utrecht” as her “first really painful autobiographical story… the first time I wrote a story that tore me up.” The character of Helen is a fairly close stand-in for Munro, whose own mother died after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Much like Helen, Munro wasn’t there when her mother passed away, and she did not attend her funeral. But the next time Munro came home, her grandmother Sadie and great-aunt Maud—the models for Aunt Annie and Auntie Lou—told Munro that her mother had escaped from the local hospital before she died.
The story’s autobiographical elements become even more complex when we remember Munro’s mother’s name: Anne, or Annie. The mother who died not long after fleeing the hospital thus merges, in her daughter’s fiction, with the great-aunt who tells the story of that doomed escape.In Munro, memory functions like a lock on a door; or, perhaps, like a board nailed across a hospital bed.
Munro’s mother haunts her work, but so too do her grandmother and great-aunt. They return in her astonishing story “Winter Wind,” published in 1974. Munro draws even more openly on autobiography here, as her first-person narrator describes staying with her grandmother and great-aunt Madge for a few days during a fierce winter storm in the 1940s. Anchored in vivid details and wry humor from its opening paragraphs (“they ironed everything,” the narrator says of her grandmother and Madge, “down to underwear and potholders”), the story initially seems as though it might simply be an evocation of a vanished time and place.
But—in the space of a single, breathtaking sentence—Munro soon makes it clear she’s up to something much more complicated. As she describes a family portrait on her grandmother’s wall, the narrator leaps forward in time, puncturing the divide between past and present like someone driving a nail through a snow globe: “I did not bother to look at this photograph, except in a passing way, but after my grandmother’s death and Aunt Madge’s removal to a nursing home (where she lives yet, lives on and on, unrecognizable, unrecognizing, completely divested of herself, dried up like a little monkey, past all memory and maybe past bewilderment, free), I salvaged it, and have taken it with me everywhere I go.”
It’s a dazzling move. Munro piles on clause after clause as she describes Madge’s advancing years, trapping us beneath their claustrophobic weight, until at last she liberates us—and Madge—with that that final, unexpected word: free. The sense of release is so compelling that it takes a moment to register that Aunt Madge’s freedom comes at the cost of her memories; indeed, of her very self. If the old women of “Peace” represent the weight of the past and all of its painful ghosts, then those of “Winter Wind” suggest that the only way to escape this weight is to become a kind of ghost oneself.
We’re all trapped, in other words, by the past. In Munro, memory functions like a lock on a door; or, perhaps, like a board nailed across a hospital bed.
What haunts me most about my grandmother is everything I never told her. By the time she died, in 2012, I had known I was queer for more than a decade. But I never once talked to her about my sexuality—and, when the deception bothered me, I told myself that she wouldn’t understand. She had been born, after all, in 1926, into what amounted to a different world: a strongly Catholic immigrant neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. I had grown up hearing stories about Sobieski Street, where my grandparents had both grown up; about how they started dating after my grandfather, newly returned from World War II, saw her at a church dance. She carried a bouquet of orange blossoms at their wedding, and wore a white satin dress whose train she would later use to make a christening outfit for my aunt, her first child. Their marriage would last for more than sixty years.
Some years before her death, I convinced my grandmother to sit down for an on-camera interview. I wanted to record her sharing various family legends, like the time someone’s veil caught on fire during a baptism, and a number of elderly female relatives—confused, but with the unerring Central European instinct for tragedy—began to wail, “They set the baby on fire!”
But though a natural storyteller, my grandmother was not fully comfortable on camera. For much of the interview, she kept cutting the old stories short, saying (in a Polish accent whose strength I always forget), An den dat wasit.
At the end of “The Ottawa Valley,” a story written around the same time as “Winter Wind,” Munro’s narrator stops to observe that her long-dead mother is the reason for the entire story. “And she is the one of course that I am trying to get,” the narrator admits. “[I]t is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken.”
Reading all of Munro over the pandemic meant something similar to me. It was, I came to realize, a journey undertaken to reach my grandmother. She may have struggled to put her life into words, but when I found Munro’s work, it felt like the next best thing—a way back to that quickly-vanishing generation of women.
More than anything, I wanted an answer to the question I was never able to ask her: Is your love for me really unconditional?
It’s why I found myself scouring Munro’s work for queer characters—and, when I found them, holding my breath. Any note of condemnation, any hint of condescension, would have felt like more than a disappointing lapse in a favorite author: it would have been the most painful answer to my question.
Munro’s most explicit treatment of queerness comes in her classic story “The Turkey Season,” first published in the New Yorker in 1980. As the story’s narrator remembers working as a teenage turkey gutter, she pauses to puzzle over the figure of Herb, a dignified but mysterious man who oversaw the Turkey Barn’s operations. Years later, she’s still not certain if he was gay or not.
Homosexuality, she remembers, was understood in very narrow ways in her small Ontario town in the 1940s; it was associated less with same-sex desire than with gender nonconformity. “There were homosexuals in town,” she recalls, “and we knew who they were: an elegant, light-voiced, wavy-haired paper-hanger who called himself an interior decorator; the minister’s widow’s fat, spoiled only son, who went so far as to enter baking contests and had crocheted a tablecloth; a hypochondriacal church organist and music teacher who kept the choir and his pupils in line with screaming tantrums.”
The first time I read it, this sentence made me cringe. The narrator’s catalogue of gays is a parade of stereotypes, and there’s something more than a little cruel in her depiction of them as pretentious, spoiled, and screeching. And yet—and this was what really hurt—it also seemed as though I belonged with them. After all, hadn’t I grown up sewing pillows and playing with my grandmother’s jewelry? The narrator’s stereotypes seemed at once misogynist, homophobic, and uncomfortably close to the bone.
But as I kept reading, I saw that the relationship between homophobia and misogyny is, in fact, exactly what this section of the story explores. The narrator explains that the women of the town, in particular, seemed to think that “a penchant for baking or music…was the determining factor,” the thing that made a man queer, rather than actual same-sex desire. A wish to play the violin, she continues, was seen as more suspect than “a wish to shun women. Indeed, the idea was that any manly man would wish to shun women but most of them were caught off guard, and for good.”
The women of the town, in other words, internalized the misogyny of their time and place. This is why, the narrator implies, they both appreciated gay men with conventionally “feminine” talents (baking, decorating, crocheting), and pitied them. “The poor fellow,” the narrator remembers them saying. “He doesn’t do any harm.”
Harmless. It’s probably how my grandmother thought about my childhood love of sewing and jewelry. A whimsy to be indulged, despite my parents’ disapproval.
But if she were alive now, and knew I was single and queer, wouldn’t she see that as something to pity?
Munro thinks again about the condescension and pity faced by queer men in the 1940s in her story “The Stone in the Field.” Like “The Turkey Season,” “Stone” is narrated by an adult woman looking back on her youth in small-town Ontario. Poppy Cullender, she remembers, was an odd, effeminate man who dealt in antiques before they were as popular as they are today. He would visit farmhouses in search of old furniture, and though some local people would shut him out, others would welcome him, “just as if he had been a harmless weird bird dropped out of the sky, valued for his very oddity.”
Poppy’s fate is a dark one. He’s eventually sent to prison “for making advances on a train,” leading the narrator’s mother to observe that some people simply aren’t allowed to survive in their town.
Looking back, what the narrator can’t understand is why Poppy chose to stay in a place where he’d constantly face “random insults and misplaced pity.” Was he very brave, she wonders—or just misguided? (Her uncertainty echoes the narrator of “The Turkey Season,” who can’t pin down Herb’s sexuality. “He is not,” she observes, “a puzzle so arbitrarily solved.”)
Poppy may have been the most obvious queer man in town, but he wasn’t the only outsider. Soon after telling his story, the narrator begins to remember her six reclusive, old-fashioned aunts, who lived together in their childhood home, an isolated farm in the country. They still used a horse and buggy, and the narrator has a vivid memory of seeing one of them drive it into town: “Public scrutiny seemed to be causing her much pain, but she was stubborn; she held herself there on the seat, cringing… and she was as strange a sight, in her way, as Poppy Cullender was in his.”
This spinster sister is akin to Poppy not only in that both are small-town misfits; they’re also displaced in time. With his prescient antiques-hunting and not-yet-acceptable desires, Poppy is ahead of his time, while the narrator’s aunts—with their outdated mode of transportation, their dogged attachment to their childhood home—are behind theirs. “They were leftovers, really,” the narrator recalls of her aunts. “[T]hey belonged in another generation.”
The more I looked at Munro’s queer men, the more I saw their links to the old women who populate her fiction. Both groups catch her eye as outsiders, pariahs in gossipy towns that patronize and pity them.
Munro, however, refuses to do either. Instead, she observes old women and queer men with both startling insight and a full acknowledgement of this insight’s limits. She treats them, in other words, the way she does all of her characters: balancing all we can discover about another person with all we can never know.
My months of pandemic reading may have helped me better understand Munro, but my grandmother still haunts me. Because despite the parallels, Alice Munro is not my grandmother—not any more than I am Poppy or Herb. And as hard as it is to admit, I’ll never have an answer to the question I was too afraid to ask her.
What I have instead is a memory of the time when, not long after graduating college, I went to teach English in Spain; as soon as I could, I called my grandmother to let her know I’d made it over safely.
Toward the end of our talk, sounding very pleased, she said, “Maybe you’ll find a girlfriend over there.”
I could hear the eagerness in her voice, feel the possibilities she saw unfolding before me: love, marriage, children. All the things that had made up her own life, and that she assumed would make up mine.
I didn’t quite answer—my mouth had gone dry, words shriveling in my throat.
I still thought, then, that staying silent would save me pain. I didn’t know yet that, one way or another, the haunts you’ve contracted for will stay with you. I still thought there was time to make things right, to stop deceiving the person I loved most in the world. I didn’t realize I had already made my choice.