A Storyby Alice Munro
Once Peter had brought Greta’s suitcase on board the train he seemed eager to get himself out of the way. But not to leave. He explained to her that he was just uneasy that the train would start to move. Once on the platform looking up at their window, he stood waving. Smiling, waving. His smile for their daughter, Katy, was wide open, sunny, without a doubt in the world, as if he believed that she would continue to be a marvel to him, and he to her, forever. The smile for his wife seemed hopeful and trusting, with some sort of determination about it. Something that could not easily be put into words and indeed might never be. If Greta had mentioned such a thing he would have said, Don’t be ridiculous. And she would have agreed with him, thinking that it was unnatural for people who saw each other daily, constantly, to have to go through explanations of any kind.
When Peter was a baby, his mother had carried him across some mountains whose name Greta kept forgetting, in order to get out of Soviet Czechoslovakia into Western Europe. There were other people, of course. Peter’s father had intended to be with them, but he had been sent to a sanatorium just before the date for the secret departure. He was to follow them when he could, but he died instead.
“I’ve read stories like that,” Greta said, when Peter first told her about this. She explained how in the stories the baby would start to cry and invariably had to be smothered or strangled so the noise wouldn’t endanger the whole illegal party.
Peter said he had never heard such a story and would not say what his mother would have done in such circumstances.
What she did do was get to British Columbia, where she improved her English and got a job teaching what was then called Business Practice to high school students. She brought up Peter on her own and sent him to college, and now he was an engineer.
When she came to their apartment, and later to their house, she always sat in the front room, never coming into the kitchen unless Greta invited her. That was her way. She carried not noticing to an extreme. Not noticing, not intruding, not suggesting, though in every single household skill or art she left her daughter-in-law far behind.
Also, she got rid of the apartment where Peter had been brought up and moved into a smaller one with no bedroom, just room for a fold-out couch. So Peter can’t go home to Mother? Greta teased her, but she seemed startled. Jokes pained her. Maybe it was a problem of language. But English was her usual language now and indeed the only language Peter knew. He had learned Business Practice—though not from his mother—when Greta was learning Paradise Lost. She avoided anything useful like the plague. It seemed he did the opposite. But she clothed her avoidance in contempt, which he never would have thought of doing.
With the train window between them, and Katy never allowing the waving to slow down, they indulged in looks of comic or indeed insane goodwill. She thought how nice-looking he was, and how he seemed to be so unaware of it. He wore a brush cut, in the style of the time—particularly if you were anything like an engineer—and his light-colored skin was never flushed like hers, never blotchy from the sun, but evenly tanned whatever the season.
His opinions were something like his complexion. When they went to see a movie, he never wanted to talk about it afterward. He would say that it was good, or pretty good, or okay. He didn’t see the point in going further. He watched television, he read a book, in somewhat the same way. He had patience with such things. The people who put them together were probably doing the best they could. Greta used to argue, rashly asking whether he would say the same thing about a bridge. The people who did it did their best but their best was not good enough, so it fell down.
Instead of arguing, he just laughed.
It was not the same thing, he said.
Greta should have realized that this attitude—hands off, tolerant—was a blessing for her, because she was a poet.
Peter’s mother and the people he worked with—those who knew about it—still said poetess. She had trained him not to. Otherwise, no training necessary, nothing like what she would have had to go through with the relatives she had left behind in her life, or with some people she met now, in her official role as a housewife and a mother. He thought it was fine. Poetess or poet.
It’s hard to explain it to anybody now—the life of women at that time. What was okay and what was not. You might say, well, feminism was not. And you would have to say feminism did not exist, you had never heard the word. It wasn’t just the round of housework and children, either. That was nothing. It was the way any serious idea, let alone ambition, was seen as some sort of crime against nature. Even reading a real book was behavior that was suspect, leading possibly to a child’s pneumonia, and making a political remark at a party might be said to be the cause of your husband’s failure to get a promotion. It wouldn’t have mattered what politics, either. It was the shooting off of your mouth that did it.
That was what Greta told people years later. Of course she exaggerated, but not altogether.
One thing, though. When it came to writing poetry it was maybe safer to be a woman than a man. That’s where the word poetess came in handy. Like a load of spun sugar.
She didn’t know for sure how Peter would have been about a man writing poetry, but she thought that there too he would have said, Sure, okay. Perhaps just having been born in Europe instilled an ease about some things?