By Reg Thompson
At ten o’clock on a fine morning in late September, I arrived at Alice Munro’s house in Clinton, to pick up Alice and her friend Sally Gregson. We were taking a day trip to Grey County.
This excursion came about from a request Alice made a few weeks earlier. She asked if I would take her to visit the Mannerow Cemetery again. This was a trip she and her late husband Gerry had done several times. I had not been there before, though I had meant to go for years, ever since they had first told me about it.
Alice does not drive. All their years together it was the team of Gerald Fremlin the geographer, driving, and Alice Munro the writer, riding shotgun. From that vantage point, she was free to observe, remark and absorb as they explored the countryside. And what has come out of that exploration of the landscape and the life on it is well-known to the world now in the works of Munro.
Alice and Gerry used to travel around with a set of maps that showed in great detail the landforms of southern Ontario. She wrote a fine essay called “What Do You Want To Know For?” about their exploration of Grey County and its varied and interesting terrain, and their chance discovery of the Mannerow Cemetery, the object of our day’s quest. Drumlins, eskers, moraines, glacial till: the evidence of the ice age is easy to spot on the face of Grey County. That essay was published in 1994 in the PEN Canada travel anthology called Writing Away. It is one of my all-time favourite Munro pieces.
I drove north and east through the counties of Huron, Bruce, and Grey. It was a warm day, some harvest still going on, just the edge of autumn so far, the beginnings of fall colours. We discussed the evolving countryside, the changes in buildings, how rare it is to see a big elm now.
We detoured and explored in the towns along the way. In Wingham – the old Lower Town road, Alice’s childhood house, the sites of various old remembered neighbours, the fairgrounds with the metal banner over the gate: To the Fallen Heroes of Turnberry Township – 1914-18, 1939-45.
Alice asked me stop a minute beside the overgrown empty lot where the school used to stand. “The kids beat me up at that school,” she said, and I heard the six-year-old girl and the hurt that has lasted forever.
On to Teeswater we drove, where we saw interesting spires in the skyline, and followed side streets to see the impressive churches they mark. You can tell a lot about a town’s culture and the commitment of its founders and fortunes by the churches they built, and how they stand now.
Then on through Mildmay and Neustadt. The territory becomes noticeably Lutheran. Alice spotted a small cemetery by the roadside and asked if we could stop, so we did, and spent a good half-hour walking among the monuments and history of St. John’s Lutheran.
These people, names, stones were utterly unknown to us, yet we could see the community, the heritage, the family connections between repeated surnames on monuments – the progression of the generations. And as always in an old cemetery, the short lives and early deaths that mark the tragedies and sadnesses of another time.
Then we drove ahead to the very busy town of Hanover. We stopped and lingered over a late lunch. Leaving Hanover I misread a road sign and mistakenly headed east. It was some time before I discovered the error. We then had to go north, but now were in unanticipated territory. I became pressingly aware of the shrinking afternoon. I was now racing to catch up for meandering time.
Eventually we got to the right area, Sullivan Township, the road to McCullough Lake. Surely we were near the cemetery. But the road wound through a wooded area and around the south end of the lake. I concluded this was a mistake. We looped east on another road, to approach from the extreme north end of the road we had already travelled south on. This was Concession 4. The cemetery’s geographical location is Lot 19, Concession 4. Still no cemetery.
We passed a driveway sign advertising Accountant Services, and I realized we had seen it a while ago. We had covered the whole length of the concession with no siting. In frustration, I turned west onto a sideroad, which should not have been the right direction. Over a small hill there was a bend, and near the road, a bungalow. There was a man working at a utility trailer beside the garage. I parked, walked over to him. I explained we were looking for an old cemetery called Cedardale. He said he was from Cambridge and didn’t know the area, but he’d ask his mom.
He fetched mother. I said it’s a small cemetery, called Cedardale, used to be called Mannerows. Mother - God bless her! – said, yes, there’s a cemetery, she’s not sure of the name, but it’s just back down that hill, and around to the right, cross a little bridge, then another right turn, and cross another bridge, and that’s where the cemetery is.
So we did that, and within three minutes we crossed the second bridge, up a slight rise past creek-side cedar trees (hence Cedardale) and there it was. The little cemetery, with the famous earth-mound tomb. I have had the picture of it in my head nearly 20 years, and here it is. Like a giant barrel lying on its side in the middle of the cemetery, covered in long grass. No gravestones near it.
Alice was overcome with joy. “Oh, I didn’t think we were going to find it,” she said. “I thought it was getting too late, we were going to have to go home.” And I said, “We came to see the cemetery. It’s not dark yet, Alice; we were not going home without finding it.”
We got out of the car. I grabbed the camera. This was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I asked Alice to go over and stand under the iron arch that says Cedardale, and I took her picture. The proof. Then I undid the chain and opened the gate.
We explored the cemetery. I took pictures of the grassy tomb, the big cedar in front of it. Almost identical to the photo of years ago. Maybe the tree is a little bigger? The strange mound is about 20 feet long, seven high at the arc of the rounded top. No names, no dates. Stone blocks supporting the rising curve of the mound, and a stone arch in the east end filled and sealed with bricks at ground level. So the burial chamber must be nearly as deep below ground as the rounded mound rises above it. Think of opening it for a funeral, another occupant, every few years, until it was full. Then sealed up permanently. Never to be opened again. And unlike graves with tombstones, no names, dates, nothing to say who is spending eternity in there.
This was the Mannerow farm. This is a Mannerow family tomb. There is a similar smaller tomb in a corner of the cemetery, more Mannerows, no names or marker there either.
Was this an idea the first Mannerows brought from their native Germany? The rest of the cemetery looks as old cemeteries usually look – a variety of styles of monuments, the changing eras in fashion. Many here have German inscriptions, showing the origins of the community.
I took a picture as Alice walked among them, reading the ages, the years, the German words. And I had this thought, as I sometimes do in her company: many people would give anything to be in my shoes right now, to be spending time with Alice Munro. Fans who would be beside themselves with joy at being in the presence of this famous writer. But I am never stunned into amazement; Alice and I have been friends too long for that.
This was 16 days before she won the Nobel prize. She did not change after that. In one of the interviews after the award was announced, she said she is “a straightforward Canadian woman”.
It was a full day. As we drove home across this ordinary wonderful landscape that Alice has made quietly famous to the world, we were appropriately driving into the sunset. Deceptive ordinariness. When Alice wrote her piece 20 years ago about their discovery of the cemetery and unravelling its history, she ended it by saying “Back where nothing seems to be happening, beyond the change of seasons.”
It turned out, when I checked the old Grey County atlas from 1880, there was a problem with the 4th Concession location. Lot 19 is a corner lot, so it happens that the access to it is not from the concession road, as you would expect, but from the sideroad that runs along the south side. The cemetery is not even visible from the 4th Concession.
There is a funny aspect to our difficulty in finding the cemetery. Alice and Gerry had first discovered it by chance, just driving by on the road. When they tried to find it again over a year later, they drove around and could not locate it. They made several visits to the area but without success. A frustrating puzzle.
Alice happened to be in the Clinton library checking the old Grey County atlas for church and cemetery locations when I dropped in. She explained the problem to me. Well, she had forgotten that they had told me about this cemetery with the strange tomb when I was visiting them shortly after the original discovery. And they had given me some directions how to find the cemetery – the names of small places nearby. I had written down a few key words on a piece of paper that I thought I could find in my papers at home. I went home and found it. The words were Peabody, Scone, McCullough Lake.
That was all it took. They realized they had been fixated on an area just south of the right terrain. They found the cemetery with the help of their own directions which they had intended for my future use. After that, Alice was able to write her marvelous essay - “What Do You Want To Know For?” Then on this fine fall day 20 years on, we lost the cemetery and had to rediscover it all over again.
• • •
Two days later Alice came to see me at work. She told me what a wonderful day it was, how much she and Sally had enjoyed it. “Can we go again?” she asked, and I said “Of course we can” and she told me she was leaving in a few days for Victoria for the winter, and I thought: Come, Spring. ◊