Harriet White is an active, energetic 82 year old resident of the Lutheran Home. We follow her through a winter day: a birthday party for a staff member, the funeral of another resident, a visit from her son, and her daily visit to see her husband who had a severe stroke and lies, uncommunicative, in the hospital ward. Mrs. White's son asks her, as he has before, to come and live with him and his family. He also reveals that he has sold the family farm. She is devastated that he had not discussed it with her, but she puts up a good front, saying it was the only sensible thing to do.

Later, she decides to walk several miles to visit the old farm. She does so, and in the evening a search party from the Lutheran Home find her there. As they drive her back, she realizes that her status has changed: she is no longer a stalwart helper, but has turned into a difficult old woman who is liable to wonder away.


A beautifully written story about aging and the pain of loss. The title derives from an old Norse tale, told to two old men at the Lutheran Home by Mrs. White. In the tale (whose protagonist is named Gunnar), the punch-line is: you should try to tell a joke when you arrive near death, because it shows Death that you are not afraid.

Mrs. White moves through her day with such good-humor and reasonableness that we are caught off-guard when we find her, late in the story, trudging miles along the highway on a bitterly cold day to visit the old farm. This is obviously something that a reasonable person would never do. Could it be that Mrs. White, despite her facade of vigor, is really approaching the edge? At the end she realizes the strangeness of her performance, but accepts it good-naturedly. Like Gunnar, she is nearing death with a stout heart.

Primary Source

Full Measure: Modern Short Stories on Aging



Place Published

St. Paul, Minn.




Dorothy Sennett