Afternoons, she left her writing table, cooked supper and helped with homework.
It’s hard to imagine anyone with Alice Munro’s talent going about the daily tasks of grocery shopping and picking up dry cleaning, but the life she led gave her the experience to fill notebooks with stories of women whose outer lives did not reflect their inner longings.
In the late 1990s, Munro wrote a short story titled “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” It is a love story of sorts with words stitched together, etched in devotion and kindness, a template for how most relationships survive over time.
In the story, Grant and Fiona are a couple, living an uncomplicated, quiet life on a farm in a place of ice and snow, surely a Canadian landscape. Grant is a retired professor and Fiona is his wife, a woman with a quick mind and easy nature, an interesting companion.
But, at 70, Fiona changes, losing her way as she drives to town, leaving notes on furniture, naming it. “Chair” and “table” become daily records of surroundings in her confused life.
After Fiona is found walking down the middle of a road, Grant admits she needs more hands-on care and takes her to “Meadowlake,” a place of nurses and porches, of other patients and activities to stretch the mind.
On visits, Grant finds Fiona in a sun room, watching bridge games, a card experience in which she has shown no interest in the years he has known her. She explains a man she knew growing up is playing and sees her as his lucky charm, wanting her nearby as he bids and wins.
Grant is concerned, but a nurse assures him new patients often form attachments to one another and Aubrey, the bridge player, is only a temporary presence at “Meadowlake,” spending time away from home so his wife can have a break from his daily care.
Fiona is happy, finding pleasure in her friendship with Aubrey, but after he leaves “Meadowlake,” she stops eating and won’t get out of bed. Her nurse alarms Grant by telling him Fiona will be moved to an infirmary floor if she doesn’t improve.
After weeks of Fiona’s silence and depression, Grant goes to Aubrey’s home and asks his wife to return her husband to “Meadowlake.” She does not have the income to keep him there, she explains.
But she is interested in Grant’s company, sharing stories of her married life with a man who has no memory. She is lonely and asks Grant to a local dance.
As Fiona declines, Aubrey’s wife finds a way to be free, bringing her husband back to “Meadowlake.”
Grant decides he will not stand in the way of Fiona’s dependence on Aubrey, but will give her what she needs, a return to being a lucky charm in a stranger’s life and to days she finds worth living.
And Munro, a writer of stories, (churning in readers’ minds for years) visits us with a question. Would we, like Grant, stand aside, giving up a relationship to bring a measure of happiness to someone, knowing the reasoning powers of that loved one are gone?
The story ends when Grant visits Fiona in her room at “Meadowlake.” He tells her Aubrey is back. ‘You could have just driven away,” she says to her husband. “Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.”
“Not a chance,” he replies.
A short story of Alice Munro’s carries the weight of a novel. She began her writing life intending to turn typed pages into books. Then she found she could bind up scarred lives, leaving them to find a greening spring on their own, in fewer pages. For her fine body of work, respect is due.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.