"Gunnar's Sword" is a story about eighty-two year old Harriet White facing aging and suddenly facing death. She's an energetic lady who keeps herself busy and maintains her standards of being alert and productive. We see her roommate at the Lutheran Home respond to Harriet's always having to do everything better than anyone else. "'I am sick of you doing everything like you were better than everyone else. Speech for Marge! Why couldn't we of got a printed card like everyone wanted?'"
Harriet's husband has had a stroke and has been motionless in his room at the Lutheran Home for fourteen months. Their son, Larry, has sold the family farm and has again asked Harriet to come live with him and his wife, Evelyn, in Edina. A funeral and a birthday celebration are occurring on the day the story takes place. There are several
This story has about the best ending I've ever read. Bly captures, so eloquently, that feeling of eagerness for what comes next, that we never lose, even if what comes next is death. "Tomorrow morning, word would have got around the whole community, and the simpler, the very aged, or the less acquainted people would take to hobbling by room number 211. They would want to have a look at someone who had stirred the community by getting a notion to go back home. From their flagged, lifeless expressions it would be hard to understand that actually their hearts were rather aflutter with this Harriet White's doings--the way the hearts of young women feel roused, and unstable, and prescient, when the first of their friends is going to marry."
The title of the story, "Gunnar's Sword," alludes to a Viking story Harriet tells to two of the old codgers at the Home. As a person is dying, he must tell a joke to "death" to show that he is better than Death.
Some of my favorite parts:
"The trouble with being at the end of life, Harriet thought, was that body and mind get too close together: that is, when the mind takes a blow--such as from Larry's selling the farm--the body takes the blow as well."
"Senility, she suspected, arrived the day you forgot to laugh at these incidents."
"But those television characters don't seem like real people at all--and you know, they never show where the people are--they're always in a room somewhere--you never see a real place that counts, like a farm or anything like it--it's as if none of them had any place to belong to."
"Gunnar's Sword" is the last story in Bly's collection, Backbone.
28 December, 2016
|Sept 24, 1979 cover|
One of the my favorite sections of the story, "Anyone who used the visiting psychotherapeutic services offered once a week by Lutheran Social Services was crazy or nervous. If they had a decent job, they had nerves; if they were on welfare, they were crazy. Mary Gravling was just nerves, they guessed."
I found a copy of Backbone: Short Stories by Carol Bly at a used bookstore. It was published in 1985 by Milkweed Editions. "The Last of the Gold Star Mothers" is the first story in the book.