It was in a portable classroom building, a sort of mobile home, where I first learned words and names for the power of story. While my junior high classmates sighed when asked to diagram a sentence for its grammatical parts, I flew to the board to help (Yes, I was that student). I read Tom Sawyer on vacation by the lights of cars behind ours. I couldn’t put it down. It turned out there were tools and names for all the ways reading turned into magic: symbol, synecdoche, meter, repetition, syntax, stylistics.
And it was in a tiny two-story house-turned-classroom at college where I sat in another plastic seat — the day unremarkable — and read of home. I would learn later to follow the trajectory of the homes of American literature: the first shanties of American settlers, the houses in the early republic haunted by their European past and American future, the watching windows in Hawthorne, Thoreau’s shack in Walden, the large plantation estates of southern literature, and the constant move westward for more space, more land, more house. Then the way postcolonial texts turned those houses upside down and inside out. This house we read about was different. It was a home as watery as memory and as stable as dreams. That day we were quiet as we cupped sentences in our hands. We were reading Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.
Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and Lucille, girls raised by their mother until she sailed off a cliff in a neighbor’s borrowed car, and then raised by their grandmother, until she died of old age. Finally, their maiden aunt, Sylvie, takes up housekeeping in the same house built for her mother (the girls’ grandmother), in the town of Fingerbone, a place stuck between Midwest and West — where everything (including houses, lives, and dreams) is at the edge of being swallowed by the lake. Geography and story seep into one another in a similar way to the wet otter-like slip of the train that carried the girls’ grandfather into the watery deep of the lake in a “spectacular derailment.”
As the girls grew, Lucille pines for a normal life, away from eating in the dark, the burnt curtains, soggy sofas, and collection of tin cans. Ruth follows Sylvie’s habits; she grows increasingly solitary, she spends her evenings in the dark orchard, until finally, facing another abandonment (where she’s likely to be removed from Sylvie’s house) the only hope for Ruth is oblivion. She must choose to drown herself in convention or to remove herself totally from community. She must become, like Sylvie, a transient. A woman with no home.
At least in American literature, we tend to see the house as the substantiation of the American Dream, yet houses always are haunted by the past. They hold our collective national sins of oppression, violence, and slavery. We cannot get away from time and space simply by erecting structures to keep our families safe and warm. Houses hold our sins of omission and commission. Houses gather larger presences than the furniture that fills them, than their windows of leaded glass, or their yellow wallpaper. So it is with the home in Fingerbone.
To maintain some level of freedom, of self-sufficiency, it is not building a house that substantiates the self in the novel, it is rather the tearing down of the house that constitutes agency. But what is lost in destructing the house is community. All that is left is drifting. There is nowhere and no one to belong to. So, in the middle of the night Sylvie and Ruth set the house ablaze. Because they must cross the perilous watery bridge in the dark, it is only in Ruth’s imagination that she is able to look back and watch it burn. What happens is she and Sylvie cross the bridge, are thought to be dead, and the book ends in the grip of the imagined future: Ruth imagines watching Lucille years later, her thumbnail making a circle in the mark from a water glass, her sister’s thoughts bookended by all the leave-takings. They all are women without a home.
It turns out — for us and for the novel — it is not the house or housekeeping that is the problem. It is, rather, that we cannot escape ourselves.
Like Sylvie and Ruth, many of our heroes, pioneers, and prophets stand outside of conventional homes to comment, critique, or rise above the mundane. Even so, the house today promises the hope of creating a refuge, a haven, a purely privatized space, and an individualized kingdom full of ease and leisure.
Yet, our homes — and our families — are as complicated as that burning house in Robinson’s novel. When do we build, and when do we tear down? When do we retreat and when do we open up?
For, when it comes down to it, how can we separate the home from the family, the family from the home? How can we begin to retell the stories of our places and the stories of belonging without the physical structure that houses a family? We cannot forget our houses or they may rise to haunt us. We’ll be left with nothing else than to burn it down, or, like Huck Finn “light out for the territory (or in a suburban modus operandi, move up to bigger and better). What does it mean for family to stay put?
Recently my husband and I sat on our old greenish couch — the one we bought on sale at a shop miles down the road from our first apartment — and spoke of leaving our last home two years ago. How it may have been our favorite. The one with the renovation dreams. With refinished wood floors, and dreams of new hardwood and new carpet. The one with a climbing wall and bookcases lining the staircase. With space and character and walking distance to hipster pubs. So we mourned that house. And we praised God for the provision of a new one — not with all the bells and whistles but one that is utterly sufficient.
Since we now find ourselves in a suburban box, I wonder how our spaces will shape and mold our family here. How we needn’t follow the dream, the good life, of our place without reservation. We’re free to build dreams again in new terrain, and we’re free to tear down — but if we’re not careful even lovely houses can haunt. We fixate on “what might have been.” What could be. What once was. And then, we lose now and we all become ghosts.
Houses always rise, unbidden, to our consciousnesses. They always form the routes and roots of family interaction. They always are as much a player as any one family member. So now we start with small things: we paint walls, we vow to hang pictures. I learn to love the boring gray tile when my soul yearns for hardwood. I practice the fine art of dishwashing — investing elbow grease into this place — so that all that was will not take over all that is.
Perhaps it’s time to learn to love my suburban box, to find it’s little piece of glory. Perhaps instead of festering on the past, it’s time to let this house, and this family, pour itself out like wine. That is the good life after all.
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