The image of the father in this story, unable to sleep, counting his sons-in-law instead of sheep, makes me smile. The way that he matches his memory of their faces with the litany of names, his uncertainty about the fifth, his debates over which of them is married to which of his daughters. The blur of relations.
And there he stands, at the end of the story, in a doorway, with his youngest son, Léopold, who has just celebrated his ninth birthday.
But the story begins with a funeral, a procession which the man’s older son, Gérard, observes as he moves through the city, grumbling so much that I was convinced Gérard was the old man.
Rather, Gérard is a man young enough for his mother to be nagging him about the woman he is dating. And also young enough for him to hesitate about passing on his old toys (including a prized train set) to his younger brother, Léopold.
Observing the funeral, Gérard notes that the coffin is not wooden, but cardboard, as impermanent a structure as one can imagine constituting a container for burial. The way Gérard sees it, this is an “eccentric” choice.
Readers wonder whether what Gérard is associating with choice has much (anything?) to do with freedom. Perhaps this comes down to economics. Or perhaps we are simply to note the fragility of things, the fragility of life: impermanence.
In winter, Montréal is not black and white, as one might think. Gallant describes the colours of the city in winter, and they are the same in the recent photo of Montréal above by Justin Bisson Beck. Even this seasonality is a kind of threshold.
The man in the coffin is on a threshold too, not unlike the father standing in the doorway, not unlike Gérard who is “choosing” whether to heed his mother’s warnings about the girl Gérard has been seeing.
The women in the story, however, are not depicted on any threshold. Not that their mortality is of no significance (and, indeed, the man’s mother appears at the graveside for the funeral). But their choices do not appear to be active, real.
The mother carries the conviction of having married against her will. And she warns Gérard about the young woman he is seeing, a young woman presumed to be eyeing the family fortune, angling for a proposal.
Perhaps this says more about the mother’s position as a young woman. Maybe she now wishes that someone had warned her husband against marriage. Certainly she claims to have wished for something different for her daughters:
“Her passionate ambition for them is her own affair. They have chosen exactly the life she tried to renounce for them: they married young, they are frequently pregnant, and sometimes bored.”
(Isn’t “bored” a surprise here? I mean, we are post-Friedan with this story. But it seems more likely for a woman to lament the traditional choices of young marriage and repetitive pregnancies for the physical or economic repercussions. Our mother must have been an intellectual, perhaps with her own passionate ambitions.)
She is an unconventional woman, which readers learn from her struggle to renounce traditional Catholic beliefs and community. A struggle which seems to have been for naught.
For her daughters all attend church now, in accordance with their husbands’ — those seemingly endless sons-in-law’s — beliefs:
“Now that they are Protestants they go because their husbands want to; so, their mother thinks, this is what all the fighting and the courage came to, finally, all the struggling and being condemned and cut off from one’s own kind: the five girls simply joined another kind, just as stupid.”
What is there to hope for, then, in the end? A nice train set on your ninth birthday? A tender moment with a parent in a doorway?
“But, as she likes her stories cruel, so that her children will know more about life than she once did, unhappy endings are her habit.”
Perhaps the mother in this story does prefer unhappy endings, for their instructional value.
But Mavis Gallant leaves us with a kiss.
Home Truths Stories: Thank You for the Lovely Tea / Jorinda and Jorindel / Saturday / Up North / Orphans’ Progress / The Prodigal Parent / In the Tunnel / The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street / Bonaventure / Virus X / In Youth is Pleasure / Between Zero and One / Varieties of Exile / Voices Lost in Snow / The Doctor / With a Capital T
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the final story in Home Truths. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next collection: Overhead in a Balloon.