By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
With no fanfare or media attention, Alice Munro’s house was bid on by three potential buyers on October 16. Asking price was $269,000.
I was one of the three but my offer was not the winning bid. I feel both relief and regret.
Alice is, of course, a writer of international acclaim. She has won the International Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for English and the big one, The Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Author of over 15 short-story collections and a Huron County native, Munro lived in Clinton for decades.
Walking the streets at night, a streetwalker of a fitness kind, I would often walk down Dunlop street and pass her charming house on part of a seven-kilometre route that pretty much encompasses most of Clinton..
If you had to imagine a writer’s home, this would be it. White siding, angled roof, a copse of walnut trees in the voluminous backyard, the place screams character, albeit in a cottage way. It’s super cute, is what my daughters might say. I agree.
“If this place ever comes up for sale, I will bid on it,” I told myself. It was a delicious little dream, a highlight of my walk as I imagined living in this dream home, even though it could be described as being on the wrong side of the tracks. The house across from it is sagging and abandoned, hydro lines cut and dangling.
Munro’s house, though, was lovely. I wanted to look inside but did not. I am not a voyeur. However, it is true that I stalked her in the most benign of ways. Alice Munro was also a walker when she lived in Clinton. I would see her gadding about the town with a friend in tow. In winter, she would walk the track at the YMCA. Her white hair and hunched back made her immediately recognizable. Sometimes I was skating when I saw her. I would wave but she did not wave back. She would not remember me from the one time we met face to face.
That chance meeting occurred at Knechtels. It is the only time I actually spoke to her. I saw her grocery shopping with her husband, Gerald Fremlin, a geographer and cartographer. He was bagging fruit. She was looking at condiments in the first aisle. I recognized her instantly but I was nervous so I went up to him instead. “Is that Alice Munro,” I asked, knowing full well the answer. “Yes it is,” he said with a smile. “I am such a fan,” I gushed. “Well then go tell her!” he exclaimed.
As I pushed my cart in her direction, I tried desperately to remember a clever snippet from one of her works. Nothing. A book title then. Think, think! I could not remember a single one, though I had a few on my book shelf at home and had read ALL her words as found in the red-bricked Clinton library.
I started to sweat. I was going to sound like an idiot and I knew it. But her husband was watching and I truly wanted to express my gratitude. I had to make the most of this opportunity.
“Hello,” I said, greeting her with a smile. “My name is Lisa and I just wanted to let you know I am a great fan of your work.”
She smiled back, friendly-like, and said, “Of course you are! You have such intelligent eyes!”
I have forgotten many things in my life and I take copious notes so I do not forget more things but THAT I have never forgotten. More than that, I believed her. She may have said that to a thousand fans in her lifetime but I felt in that moment, it was the most clever and flattering (to both of us!) reply EVER.
If anything was said after that, I don’t remember it. I have treasured that line my entire life, and reread her books through said “intelligent eyes” combing her earlier stories for descriptions of places I visit in Huron County and her later ones for the sheer joy of the layered stories that just get richer with the familiarity.
I’m clearly starstruck so I was amazed that I would be allowed to traipse through her Clinton home as a potential buyer. While the outside was a writer’s dream, the inside was unexpectedly plain and dated. No matter – we each get to choose how we want to live. I had fun imagining where she might have written her Nobel prize-winning short stories. I finally picked a spot and then, viewed a New York Times photograph which showed Alice’s desk in that very location. Another fan thrill!!
The house, as a friend of hers describes it, “is what it is.” It needed an overhaul to meet the AirBnB, Alice Munro museum, writing-nook dreams I had for it. I also saw vermiculite in the upstairs rooms and fearing a costly asbestos abatement issue, I did not bid over the asking price. Someone else with courage and vision did. Maybe it’s for the best?
I wish I had more resources to fund an expensive renovation that would honour the essence of the home. At the very least, it would be nice to save the walnut grove which I suspect the next owner will cut down or sell, as it was surveyed as a separate lot. Again, their choice!
I have since wondered if my relief is because I was hoping by owning her house, I might yet be able to write a story that would make another reader pause and say, “Holy crap, I did not see that coming.” But a house cannot do that. Only a gift can do that. And Alice Munro was gifted.
No use dwelling on it. Alice Munro’s home in Clinton has been sold and I am not the owner. I am, thrilled, however, that I gave it a shot. I’m proud that I followed up on a dream to own her house one day. I’m tickled to have seen the inside of the home where she wrote her stories. Three of her dictionaries were still in the closet. Huge, they were. I am not surprised that she left them.
The only thing better would have been to sit down and interview Munro herself. I did ask once but did not receive a reply. However, Reg Thompson has! His story about a day hunting down an old cemetery with Munro can be found in this issue!
I won’t see Alice Munro walking anymore. As far as I understand, she is now living in British Columbia full time, near to her daughters. She got old, as all of us will do. It was time to be closer to family.
This is my Alice Munro story. I cherish it. If you get a chance, read some of hers. They are about people you know, in places you recognize, feeling things you have felt. They will move you and maybe frighten you a little, to think such darkness lives in simple, rural people.
The inside of something is, after all, never quite as you imagine when you only see the outside.
All in all, having this experience was a gift. Since it is the season, I would like to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas, joy on Jesus’ Birthday and a very Happy New Year.◊