One of the weaker stories in The Moons of Jupiter, “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd” is one of Munro’s earliest ventures into the halls of old age. She’s often touched on old age and senility in prior stories, but primarily when one of the characters has a parent suffering from the brutality of time. In “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd,” the two protagonists are themselves in a rest home. This will not be the last time Munro explores old age, which is a good thing because in “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd” she seems to mostly be interested in how relationships in old age can be like those in grade school.
Perhaps that’s unfair. “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd,” as it begins, does take these two octogenarians out of the collective “old people” designation. They are individuals, have always been individuals, and will continue to be individuals, distinct from each other and with distinct needs. Though they’ve known each other for nearly their whole lives — for over 80 years — and have now come to the same rest home in old age, they are not even that similar.
In the first couple of pages, Munro establishes these characters well. However, the narrative doesn’t do much of interest to them, though it promises to. A man named Jack also enters the home, but he’s only 59 years old — this is a home for people with many restrictive ailments — having suffered a debilitating stroke. Jack cannot talk, but it seems he is aware and busy in his mind. Mrs. Cross, the more austere and controlling of the two women, decides to befriend Jack, envisioning herself as a kind of savior who does not patronize — ironically, just the way she feels children should be treated.
This introduces a degree of separation in Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd’s relationship, and Mrs. Kidd also befriends someone else, a woman named Charlotte.
As in the school days we read about in the opening pages of the story, the relationships in the rest home cause jealousy and pain. And through it all remain Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd. The final image of the story — of Mrs. Kidd nearly killing herself to push Mrs. Cross away from a painful situation — is powerful, but it’s a bit little a bit late.
I’m thrilled to say that we’re moving to some of the book’s finest stories, though, so this is not a place (there is no such place!) to give up.
“Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd” is about mastery.
Long ago, Mrs. Cross was the queen of the playground with her confidence and her dancing; Mrs. Kidd was the princess of the classroom with her elocutionary wonders.
Now they are both in the nursing home, weakened by heart disease and prone to blacking out if they bend over. They are on the floor where an almost normal life might be pursued, not placed on one of the floors with the senile or the crazy or the continually incontinent.
Mrs. Kidd has given up on her old intellectual pursuits — botany and collections and books — but she does still love a game of Scrabble or a hand of rummy, and she does like to have an ally. Munro points out that this area of the nursing home is like the schoolyard, where everyone has a best friend, where everyone pairs up. So when she arrives at the home, it is no surprise she gets adopted, although it’s a bit of a surprise that it is Mrs. Kidd who adopts her, given the divisions of class and education that had formerly separated them.
In “Labor Day Dinner,” the teenager (the aspiring writer) keeps a journal and passionately declares, “I want to have a truthful record of my whole life.”
In “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd” story, Munro approaches old age and the nursing home with a similar spirit, but I would say the tone tilts more toward the defiant than the passionate.
Munro adores the blind spunk of girls, reverences the intellectual aspirations of those same girls when they become teenagers, and she empathizes with their sensual longings as they become women. She understands the trap they have set themselves in marriage, when all of these impulses (for independence and autonomy, for accomplishment, for love and intimacy) fight for air like cats in a bag. Munro can tell the story of the woman who must get out from under whatever mess it is that she has created, and she can tell that story with the respect and sorrow the story deserves. She can explore the difficulties that the woman who is an artist must endure, and in the face of trends and cultural enthusiasms such as free love and high feminism, she can hold women responsible for themselves. Throughout, Munro tries to tell the truth, and it often feels like this truth telling is also love.
But when it comes to talking about very old women, the truth of the story is sometimes overwhelmed by fear. Now, I will admit that “The Bear Comes Over the Mountain” surpasses all complaint. That’s a story about infirmity and old age in which truth telling rises above brave litany of what is scary about becoming old. “Bear” is brilliant.
“Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd,” however, is like “Spelling.” In both, I feel the 50-year-old Munro daring herself to face what Winston Churchill called the “shipwreck” of old age. So we readers must reckon with numerous varieties of speechlessness, whiskered old ladies dribbling food down their chins, and nursing home wards that smell as if urine had been put on a stove and heated in a pot. The shipwreck of old age requires so much defiance on Munro’s part that respect and love get lost in the tight-wire act.
There is authorial love and respect and wonder in “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd,” but the appearance is so nearly in the periphery that the reader remains overwhelmed by the rubble in the foreground. Just past all the rubble of old age is Munro’s life-long interest in the necessity we all have for autonomy. She notices, in this story, the way some people cannot resist making themselves someone else’s slave, or the way some people cannot resist attempting to master others.
Mrs. Cross becomes fascinated with unlocking a man who has been rendered speechless by a stroke; she makes of him a project. She thinks of him day and night; she seems to me to be a kind of intrusive and ruthlessly superior “Teacher” to his Helen Keller. Mrs. Cross thinks of herself as managing him the way she would have managed one of her six children; the reader gets the sense that he is being infantilized. Munro makes clear that what this (younger) man wants is not a slave, not a master, not a Methodist with a method, and not a mind-reader, but possibly a lover, when he suddenly allows himself to be taken up by the even younger woman who has been confined to the home by her multiple sclerosis.
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is a great and brilliant accomplishment, and it is possible that Munro was not able to write it until she had mastered her disgust at the terrible disadvantages that old age imposes upon us. “Spelling” and “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd” seem to me to be throat clearing in the service of mastering that disgust; they seem less than successful, given how frightening aging appears to be in both. “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd” story is interesting in its power plays; but the Charlotte and Jack story, although it is where Munro’s love and respect is situated, is almost swamped by Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd.
Mastery, for Munro, is to have mastery of yourself. When Jack manages to tempt Charlotte into wheeling him away from the games of Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd, he has mastered the situation. It is just that the reader almost doesn’t notice his victory, given how much of our attention has been forced to look upon the level of degradation he must escape. As my husband would say, “I get it! I get it! Enough, a-reddy!”
The same elements are present in “Bear” (the quest for mastery and autonomy and the need for love and intimacy), but in “Bear” Munro has managed to telegraph to us the losses of old age without swamping us.
My daughter once wrote a short story about an older sister, but when she read it to her college writing group they all wanted “more little brother!”
I would say that “Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd” requires more Jack and Charlotte. And that is what, twenty years later, Munro gives us in the magnificent “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”