In the past few posts regarding Munro’s middle stories in The Beggar Maid I have complained about how far we meandered away from Rose’s roots in West Hanratty, in particular how far we meandered away from Rose’s step-mother, Flo. The gap is no doubt deliberate. It’s a separation that Rose herself wanted and fostered carefully, if at times guiltily, after moving away. But in “Spelling,” Rose comes back to West Hanratty (not really known by that anymore, the principle vestige of division and poverty being Rose’s old home) and to Flo. For several stories, Rose has been relatively alone, wondering what would come next in her life, wondering who would be there. She would never have chosen this particular step, and yet . . .
The story begins with Flo, bringing back to us Flo’s cynical personality while ushering us to Flo’s ultimate fate: “In the store, in the old days, Flo used to say she could tell when some woman was going off the track.” Flo, considering herself to be quite the keen observer, is proud of her ability to perceive when another woman is losing her mind; she enjoys looking for the tell-tale signs, particularly if someone in the family was already afflicted:
Mothers and daughters often the same way. It was always in them. Waves of craziness, always rising, irresistible as giggles, from some place deep inside, gradually getting the better of them.
But now it’s Flo who’s exhibiting the signs. Flo’s son, Brian, and his wife do call Flo every week, but this is not enough for them to see. Rose only returns once in a great while, usually in a kind of guilty panic, but the last panic was some ago. Neither expect, then, the letter they get from some of Flo’s neighbors — “we are not so young ourselves anymore” — saying that “maybe the time has come.” Rose, just a step-daughter, assumes Brian, Flo’s real son, will take care of Flo, but when that does not come to pass, Flo goes back to Hanratty and confronts the massive gap between who she was and who she is — or who she thinks she is.
“Spelling,” for its rather dull title, is a remarkable story about life, life from a few perspectives. First, we know that Flo is on her way out, and Rose is there to see the end. Second, Rose is in Hanratty again, reconciling her present with her distant past, granting her a new perspective on her life. Flo, West Hanratty, the past — these are practically one and the same thing for Rose, and now she is dealing with them in the present after years of dealing with them in stories that, in their revelations of ignorance and squalor, are meant to entertain others. But here she is, seeing life as a whole, not as something that has yet to begin.
It could almost be sentimental, but Munro does not let it get there. Rose’s shift in perspective come naturally, believably, and not easily, when watching Flo and others in her generation living out their final days in a rest home. But wait, it also doesn’t get depressing, which, in a way, if taken just far enough, is the flipside of the coin with sentimentality on its face. Indeed, rather than depressing, rather than sentimental, “Spelling” is comforting, perhaps even inspiring. Rose, finally, and not necessarily by choice, has found herself where she wants to be, and the scatter-shot nature of the last several stories settles down beautifully.
“Spelling” is a great story about aging. Munro triumphs with observation after observation, each one better than the last: aging, the old age home, independence, frailty, care-taking, taking advantage — all addressed, and each one dead-on, so to speak.
As to the home, in a long riff, Munro catalogs the floors: the first, where the “bright and tidy ones” lived and socialized; the second where there was a lot of television watching; and the third, where some had given up moving and others had given up speaking. There were cribs. This was where Aunty was, Aunty being the old old woman who could still spell, and for whom the most interesting thing in her day was when she was able to bring up a word and spell it.
There she was sitting waiting; waiting in the middle of her sightless eventless day, til up from somewhere popped another word . . . . A parade of private visitors, not over yet.
Flo is failing and Rose must be around fifty. Having come home to help, Rose goes out to survey the County Home. Rose has a bad dream afterwards — one in which there are all kinds of cages, some of them quite elaborate, cages being a recurring theme in Munro. All the same, despite being finally confined to a crib, Flo defies the incarceration.
Munro also catalogs how Flo appears when Rose first returns: she comes “lumbering through on her two canes”; she loves anything sweet, she craves her mounds of brown sugar on the cereal or by the spoonful, and she drinks maple syrup out of the bottle; she hides things like the bread knife is in the flour bin and a big pan behind the refrigerator.
Brought a trinket from the Home, Flo says to Rose, “Stick it up your arse.”
There is a pitch perfection to the tone in this story: masterful, deft, and right on.
Munro is brutal in her assessment of how over two years Brian and Rose managed to lose track of what was going on out there in West Hanratty. But what happened is not so different than what happens in many families; there might be some estrangement, there might be some independence, and there might be ordinary life intruding. Rose sort of thought that Flo being Brian’s real mother, the real care-taking should come from him. Brian thought, given his work, that his wife should take of things. Phoebe, Brian’s wife, thought everything sounded alright when she called once a week. Things got to such a pass that Rose and Brian finally each got a letter from someone probably almost as old as Flo, someone who writes, “so it looks like the time has come.”
I think this story is spectacular. Munro’s observation of aging is greatly respectful in its detail. It’s hard to pick and choose among the many very good bits. But here’s one:
[Flo] made Rose think of a woman who had started in labor. Such was her concentration, her determination, her urgency. Rose thought that Flo felt her death moving in her like a child, getting ready to tear her.
But death is not as simple or as predictable as childbirth. It took Flo a while to die.
In the meantime, Rose is very aware of how she was able, with an actress’s skill, to dine out on stories about Flo. But Rose was sometimes “deeply, unaccountably ashamed.” In her work, she met a lot of people, did a lot of interviews, and was often invited to dinner. “She couldn’t remember any of the people she’d met . . . to whom, over drinks in various cities, she had told intimate things about her life.”
Coincidentally, in a long letter, Flo actually accosts Rose on the topic of shame. It was when Rose had misadvisedly agreed to bare one breast in a televised version of a Greek classic. Who knew that anyone watched these things, let alone anyone in West Hanratty? Flo says in her letter, “Shame.”
The real shame, though, is not the breast baring. It’s that Rose performed the letter aloud for dinner guests, proud of how it showed off the “gulf” she had overcome:
Half way through she had to stop reading. It wasn’t that she thought how shabby it was, to be exposing and making fun of Flo this way. She had done it often enough before; it was no news to her that it was shabby. What stopped her was, in fact, that gulf; she had a fresh and overwhelming realization about it, and it was nothing to laugh about.
This story is as much about writing as it is about acting; over and over, Munro must use what she has observed, and she must tell it in a vivid manner. Where is the line between comedy and shabbiness? Where is the line between respect and disrespect? It’s not an easy determination, especially when you have the wherewithal to be very funny or witty or satirical or ironic. Munro says that sometimes, in private, Rose “shivered and moaned” over this dilemma, “as if she were having an attack of fever.”
Not knowing how to “use” your personal material is probably as important a problem as not knowing how to set up a plot, or not knowing how to establish a personal voice.
Just to up the ante, Munro starts her story (“Spelling”) with one of Flo’s best. “In the store, in the old days, Flo used to say she could tell when some woman was going off the track.” The boots, the trousers held up with twine, the headgear, the crazy hair. This masterful riff begs to be performed, given how much there is to it — what the old women said, how they looked, and how one of those women had hair all “grown out like a haystack,” a remark that Flo follows up with a Whitmanian catalogue of things that might have been found in it or were actually found.
How could a writer not use this? How could an actress not perform it? That’s a delicate line, though, knowing when it’s okay to use a piece, and knowing how to shape it. It’s craft and judgment and experience and soul, really. Munro succeeds, though. To me, in this story, Flo gives Death a run for his money, and that’s the respect she deserves. This story is funny and honest, touching and respectful, sad and true — all things fair and necessary when you take up the topic of aging.
Neatly, Munro ends the story with an anecdote about Flo’s wig, a wig that frightens aged, hospitalized Flo.
What is that you got in your hands, is it a dead gray squirrel?
Rose says no and plops it on her own head, and they both laugh hard. Given the wig had made an earlier appearance in the story, and given that the story had started with a riff about old women’s hair and how hair can be a sign of “going off the track,” it is just right.
Flo’s grit and Rose’s visions: all honored here.
I loved this story.