“Memorial”
by Alice Munro
from Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You

Something-I've-Been-MeaningTrevor

Eileen is aimless and irresponsible, she comes out of the same part of the world accidents come from.

“Memorial” follows the thoughts of this Eileen while she’s staying with June, her sister who has attempted to organize her life and live with a strong sense of control. Indeed, when the story begins, Eileen is waking up in bed when June comes in to serve her coffee and toast in bed. Eileen tries to be gracious while telling June that she should be serving June, as that’s the primary reason for her visit. It doesn’t take long before we learn, almost as an aside, why June has come to a home she finds so solicitous and, therefore, uncomfortable. She says of June, “Bereavement had heightened her color, if anything.”

An accident has happened: June’s seventeen-year-old son, Douglas, has died in a car wreck. Eileen has come to do what she can to help, but what she finds makes her feel irrelevant — and worse, it makes her feel deeply disturbed.

She found that she disliked even the tone of June’s voice on the telephone. Good morning, hi! Hi, it’s June! Such a cheerful buoyant matter-of-fact voice, and wasn’t there in this very buoyancy some challenge, some lively insistence on control? Could it be said that June wished for admiration? Well, why not? If it will help. If anything will help.

Nevertheless Eileen disliked this tone, she was discouraged by it.

Here she finds her sister, and by extension her sister’s husband Ewart, slaves to order in a world that is chaotic. She finds a sickness. Of course, though she may be right about her sister, Eileen can’t help but feel some degree of judgment and resentment. She’s ostensibly there to help, and yet she’s allowing it to become personal:

Occasions were made the most of.

Was this another occasion?

[. . . .]

An occasion, why not? An occasion to display, to air, to test those values that we live by.

Whether or not June is playing a kind of game, or using the death of her son to posture, Eileen is going to look at it that way, and she is going to respond in kind:

I have not worked through anything, Eileen thought. And further: I do not believe things are there to be worked through.

People die; they suffer, they die. Their mother had died of ordinary pneumonia, after all that craziness. Illness and accidents. They ought to be respected, not explained. Words are all shameful. They ought to crumble in shame.

The relationship between June and Eileen, as conveyed by the unreliable, embittered, Eileen, was fascinating to me and leads to a devastating, if strangely hopeful, resolution.


Betsy

“Memorial” is to me a great story.

Douglas, seventeen, has died in an accident. Eileen, his aunt, arrives in Vancouver to offer her sister June comfort, but it is an uncomfortable time.Eileen and June had been close as children, but as adults, June’s wealth, and her predilection for orderliness and accomplishment and position separate the sisters. June has had a family of seven; two of them adopted Indian girls, something that Eileen finds a bit of a performance. Now June’s response to death is also a performance.

Eileen saw that she had been naïve to have expected a change. She thought June’s body might have loosened, in her grief, that her voice might have grown uncertain, or been silenced.

Eileen notices the way wealth has distorted June, the way “there was a morality of buying and use, a morality of consumerism,” everything bought for its message, the way people now buy cars as totems. Eileen is the divorced mother of one daughter, and she “had never had any money, so she was able to be spendthrift, slipshod, content.” Eileen is uncomfortable with June, uncomfortable in the house and uncomfortable with the Unitarian Church Memorial Service, at which someone read from The Prophet. This provokes Eileen. “Such fraud, she thought, such insolence.”

Grief will out, but in each of  the sisters it takes a very different course. June is the mistress of a perfectly ordered life. Wealth has allowed her to indulge in an appetite for control. It is almost as if June wishes to be “admired” for the controlled manner in which she is managing the disorder of her son’s death and the disorder of her emotions. Many people gather at June’s house after the service, a gathering which one of the teenagers calls a “memorial party,” and the teens smoke weed. A guest at the house says of June that she has been “magnificent.”

There is throughout the story the sense of people searching for the means to deal with death — now that we don’t believe, now that we must manufacture meaning.

Eileen gets very drunk and retreats to her room early, only to get up later for a glass of water after all the guests are gone and June had gone to bed.

Ewart, the quiet, awkward source of all the money, is up as well. Earlier, he had shown Eileen his Japanese garden, as if displaying his garden to her was a proper for the “occasion,” and in a way it is, since Douglas had just this past week had helped his father install another shrub.

That night, in the kitchen, Eileen allows Ewart to embrace her, allows the embrace to become actual sex, something that matters not very much to Eileen, something that she suspects matters to Ewart only as sex matters to a “man in pain.” Eileen is finally comfortable, having offered solace in a way that comes somewhat easily and undramatically to her. Although it is very clear to me that with the sex Eileen has also balanced the scales with her sister’s wealth and perfection, the sex is not meanly done or calculated. It is just what Eileen can do, what her sister cannot do.

The next morning, the sisters have a short conversation in the bedroom, when June is finally honest, finally talks about the death. Eileen listens, says something comforting, and is nevertheless uncomfortable, “feels cold and tired” and she “mostly wants to get away.” But the expression on her face, which she can see in June’s vanity, is “wonderfully appropriate.” And she puts out her hand.

Munro has Eileen think, “Acts done without faith can restore faith.”

The story is great because it shows sisters, once so close, can grow so apart. It is great because it has Eileen remember their father’s death, their mother’s strange reaction to it, the poverty of their childhood. It is great because it shows how death separates, how it confuses, how it freezes. The two sisters and the husband are pushed to their core selves — a core selfishness — and still, and still, they bumble through. The story is also great because it operates on different planes: material, sexual,  psychological, and theological. Eileen, in her own way, ministers in this minister-less world.

And it is great because somehow, despite the fact that what Eileen feels is somewhat selfish, and what she does is somewhat careless, the reader senses she has not done the wrong thing. Death is impossible. Sex is one of our answers to death. People are human.

Munro has a respect for the transformative power of sex, for the differences in men’s and women’s experience of it, and also in its necessary part in our lives. Here she makes that perfectly clear.

Munro’s capacity for capturing divided motives, divided emotions, divided people works at its best here. Eileen is uncomfortable with her sister, she may be somewhat judgmental, she may even be envious on some level, but she also is June’s and Ewart’s necessary minister. I have to say that I sense Munro’s theology is at work in this story. Just as Munro does not approach feminism in any overt or bombastic way, she also does not approach theology is any programmatic way. But I feel in many stories a soul working on a theology that is appropriate to life, appropriate to nature, appropriate to pain after the death of dogma.

It is ironic that the story appears in a decade when Ingmar Bergman was confronting the silence of God, and Munro in this story has Eileen say that it is people who should be silent in the presence of death. “Silence the only possible thing,” says Eileen.

Ironic also is the fact that story-telling is the opposite of silence. “Memorial,” as do many of Munro’s stories, uses memory, has characters talk and think about the past, has them tell stories about it. Here, June says she’s “worked through all that [. . . and is] finished with it” — all the difficult memories about their poverty and their mother’s “craziness.” Eileen has worked through nothing; she thinks, awkwardly, that difficult memories should be “respected.” Eileen suspects words, believing as she does in silence. Munro, obviously, is the mediator between these two positions, trying over and over again, as she does again here, to express — with respect, but in words — the craziness of certain mothers.

And the story is great because it demonstrates how perfectly lost the killed boy was. He was hard to know, he is barely spoken of.

And the story is great because it perfectly captures the emptiness that American perfectionism can be.

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