For the Sunday Salon
There’s nothing like reading about life a mere century or so ago to realize what a soft, feeble, risk-averse lot we have all become. Alice Munro’s collection of family tales, handed down in fragments or retained in memory but elaborated and altered by the dictates of fiction, is oddly fascinating. Particularly the stories from the early generations of her family who settled in Canada. How can we possible conceive of the courage and strength of purpose of those family members who struck out, not just overseas, but into the Canadian wilderness to clear the land for farming, build the first houses, found brand new communities? Munro includes lengthy quotations from the letters and journals her ancestors handed down through the family, and the account of constructing the first shelters in fledgling townships provided oddly hypnotic reading. Two brothers and a cousin, armed with no more than a few cooking utensils and a box of bedclothes (of which the latter had to be left behind en route when the going got too tough) set out on a walk that lasted almost a week to a community of five settlers, where they erected a shanty out of logs and mud, slept on branches of hemlock, and nearly burnt the whole place down when they sited the chimney wrong on their first attempt. Were they bothered? Previous generations were made of much sterner stuff: ‘we expected to have some hardships to endure and we made the best of them we could.’ These people were up against their mortality all the time, but they didn’t cringe in fear from it; they didn’t expect life to be easy or fair or understandable; and when something went wrong (as it so often did with extreme consequences), no one ran about looking for someone else to blame.
Even when Munro reaches the era of her own childhood, the difference in the way we live nowadays is notable. Munro was given the belt by her father if she misbehaved, and much as she disliked it, and was convinced that injustice ruled and that at such times her father detested her, she survived without psychological scarring: it was the way things were. ‘If he were alive now I am sure my father would say that I exaggerate, that the humiliation he meant to inflict was not so great, and that my offences were perplexing and whatever other way is there to handle children?’ For parents to intervene strenuously in their children’s behavioural patterns was the norm; by contrast, when it came to neighbours, people kept themselves to themselves. Munro recalls a local family in which it was clear that the brutish husband abused his wife and children. What might nowadays alert the compassionate outsider to ring social services was ‘regarded in fact as a source of interest and entertainment. It might be said – it was said – that nobody had any use for him and that you had to feel sorry for her. But there was a feeling that some people were born to make others miserable and some let themselves in for being made miserable. It was simply destiny and there was nothing to be done about it.’ For all that social history suggests to us that prejudice and discipline were far more ferocious than they are nowadays, and that there was a strong sense of what was normal, and what was not, people were nevertheless allowed to keep their eccentricities in a way that would be considered utterly outlandish to our modern eyes. Is this better or worse? The generation that followed on from those brave-hearted settlers contained one extraordinary family branch of nine brothers and sisters who all lived together in the same house for the extent of their lives, except for one brother who built his own house on land directly opposite and was considered to have broken rank in a way that went beyond the pale. He was ostracized by his siblings and it took five or six years before anyone visited him. The sister who made that visit then moved in with him to keep house until she died. How can it be that one generation will cross an unchartered ocean, whilst another refuses to permit its members to move five steps away? What broke their spirits, or changed their minds about the benefits of travel, freedom or independence?
I cannot help but picture the ranks of Alice Munro’s family stretching back into time, and to see the qualities of her ancestors rolling forward in waves. Perhaps every seventh wave contains the adventurous souls, those who want to strike out and away, to make their mark or leave their name inscribed on history’s pages. Perhaps it takes another six generations to settle into the changes, to feel comfortable enough to feel bored or discontent. When I look backwards through the amassed legions of my own family, I envisage a river of genetic inheritance flowing down through the ages, to which all the members have contributed something I might recognize within myself. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side drove ambulances in the war, not wishing to fight, and I can fully identify with that; my grandfather on my father’s side worked with the infirm of mind, and to both of them I ascribe the desire, a kind of moral duty almost, to help people who suffer that I know very well. My grandmother on my mother’s side was an ambitious dreamer; from my mother I inherited (or maybe just learned) the ability to listen properly to others, and her skill in creating neatness and order (only with me it comes out in the compulsion to tidy up messy thought), from my father I get the quiet dedication to complete mastery of whatever subject interests me. What do I add to the genetic mix? The need always to question, to get behind the misleading surface, the conviction that anything can be changed if you set your mind to it, the compulsion to communicate? Only subsequent generations will tell. My son came home from school last week with a certificate of commendation for his work on the ‘buddy’ scheme whereby older children help the younger ones; so one strand of my family inheritance carries on through him at least.
For the intrepid traveling gene we have to look to my husband and his family. He was wondering out loud yesterday whether he would ever travel properly again, and as I, imagining his retirement, said I was sure he would, he added that if anything were to happen to me, he would certainly take up traveling. Being of that questioning frame of mind I so recently mentioned, I did wonder what was going to happen to me, so that my husband could go on a lovely long cruise. I pointed out that there would be many household items he would be unable to locate in my absence, and he said, rather touchingly, I thought, ‘All the more reason to have nothing but a few essentials in a rucksack. I couldn’t bear to be somewhere that reminded me I’d lost you.’ And I said, having never even contemplated such a thing before, that if he were not there I would have to find him again by writing him. I would tell his story, all about his family and who he was and of our life together. It would be the very best memorial I could produce. As Alice Munro’s book so rightly reminds us, generations come and go, and we cannot stop the progress of time, but stories last forever.