Keeping House to Stave Off Grief
On Marilynne Robinson and Finding Comfort in Domestic Rituals
The house at the center of Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping initially appears as a haven of stability. Set atop a hill in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho, the Foster house stands up to the “outsized landscape and extravagant weather” better than most.
Fingerbone is a town built on terrain that “once belonged to the lake”—a large lake that sighs as its waters thaw in the spring. The lake in Fingerbone is omnipresent, inescapable: its smell wafts through the wind, its taste permeates the drinking water. In the spring, the lake grows back to its old size, ignoring human efforts to set down roots and establish order. When the “old lake” returns, Robinson writes, “one will open a cellar door to wading boots floating tallowy soles up and planks and buckets bumping at the threshold, the stairway gone after the second step.” But not in the Foster house, which “rarely had more than a black pool in [the] cellar, with a few skeletal insects skidding around on it.”
The house was built by Edmund Foster, who grew up in a dugout house in the Midwest, a house that was “a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave.” Craving something more than “perfect horizontality,” he took a train west and landed in Fingerbone. Edmund’s granddaughter Ruth—our narrator—tells us that the house Edmund built gives off an “appearance of relative solidity”: “It was an impression created by the piano, and the scrolled couch, and the bookcases full of almanacs and Kipling and Defoe.” Yet Ruth acknowledges that this appearance is, like all appearances, “deceptive.” She knows how unstable life can be under a placid surface.
After all, Ruth and her younger sister Lucille came to live in this house when the ordered surface of their lives churned, threatening to throw everything into entropy. One Sunday morning, their mother, Helen, drove from their small Seattle apartment to Fingerbone and left her daughters on her mother’s screened porch with a box of graham crackers “to prevent conflict and restlessness.” She then drove off a cliff “into the blackest depth of the lake.”
In succumbing to the lake’s depths, Helen joined her father in his resting place. When Helen was 15, Edmund’s “mortal career” ended in a train derailment on the bridge that spans the lake. The only recoveries were “a suitcase, a seat cushion, and a lettuce,” the lettuce being, as Robinson reminds us, “perishable.”
The groaning lake in Fingerbone is a giant symbol of this impermanence, the ever-present potential for change; the house stands in for our feeble attempts to fight against these forces. A house can only seem stable. A life can only seem immortal. I’m being reductive, of course, in distilling Robinson’s finely wrought and hypnotic prose down to these overarching symbols. Reading Housekeeping, though, felt like an exercise in seeing my experience of grief projected back to me via a story unfamiliar yet deeply resonant.
I learned Robinson’s lessons on perishability long before I read Housekeeping.
I didn’t grow up in a town with extravagant weather. Though there was a small pond, none of my family members came to their ends in its depths. But my parents did die—or as Robinson might put it, did “eschew waking”—when I was entering my teenage years, and when I lost them, I found that my home was not the shelter of stability I had always believed it to be.
I have long felt that losing my parents and losing my childhood home were experiences inextricably bound—one would not have occurred the way it did without the other, one compounded the other, and one made the other a practical and psychological necessity. But in reading Housekeeping this summer, 37 years after its publication and 15 years after my first loss, I found in Robinson’s writing the words to describe how keeping house can be a way of protecting oneself from mortality, and how grief and the elusiveness of home are enmeshed.
The house my family kept on Long Island—like the Foster house in Housekeeping—sheltered three generations of my family. My mother’s father did not build it, but he did bring his family there in 1956 in search of something different from Brooklyn: more space, more privacy. He found that in West Hempstead in our small, dormered Cape Cod, which resembled all the other houses on the street, built in the late 1940s as part of the post-World War II suburban housing boom.
My mom spent almost all her life in that house, save for her early childhood (in Brooklyn) and her first years of motherhood (in an apartment a few towns over). In 1988, her father died, leaving her mother alone in the four-bedroom house. In 1989, her second child—me—was born. She and my dad, needing more space—and perhaps wanting to relieve my grandmother, who we called Nanny, of her surplus—bought the house.
Nanny kept her bedroom on the first floor, with its cigarette smoke–yellowed walls and doily-adorned dresser and its TV that needed to be thumped to clear up the picture during Jeopardy!. With the exception of that bedroom, my parents made the Cape their own—our own. Over the years, they finished the basement, creating a forest-green carpeted playroom for my older brother, John, and me. They painted my second-floor bedroom baby pink and plastered a teddy bear wallpaper border around its crooked, sloped walls; John got baby blue walls and a trucks-and-trains border. In the alcove of their bedroom, they placed a vanity table (for Mom) and a leather armchair the color of a well-oiled baseball mitt (for Dad).
Each of these changes was a signifier of the “substance and solidity” particular to middle class 1990s suburbia. And each change seemed permanent, even as it marked the impermanence of my grandparents’ decor and their way of life—their lives. Even as the pile in the basement’s green carpeting snagged, even as the Japanese maple tree in our front yard died and its roots had to be dug up, even house decayed in a million tiny ways, it was easy enough to keep house around the decay, to stave off these reminders of impermanence as I helped my mom dust our living room furniture with Pledge.
Then, in the early fall of 2001, my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer. When I think of the four months between her diagnosis and death, I cannot remember the state of our house, which must have suffered as my parents struggled to uphold normalcy amid chemotherapy and radiation appointments. What I do remember are my mom’s efforts to maintain her own appearance: the wig she set on a stand and brushed each night, the trips to ULTA to shop for makeup to help her look more like herself. She fought the disorder within her body by masking its outward signs until the morning she fell out of bed and could not get up, landing her in the hospital. She never came home.
“A few months after my mom’s death I started to notice that our house was showing signs of mortality.”
In the two years between her death and my dad’s, I came to realize the monumental effort required to keep house. With Mom gone and Dad sick—his prostate cancer surged out of remission around the time Mom was diagnosed—all the tasks they performed to keep up our household’s appearances were laid bare. I would like to say that my brother and I took on additional chores to help out, but instead, Dad’s mom moved in, and Dad’s four sisters took turns visiting on weekends, carting toilet paper and groceries, vacuuming and scrubbing and dusting.
Even with this upkeep, a few months after my mom’s death I started to notice that our house was showing signs of mortality. The living room’s popcorn ceiling had minute cracks. The wallpaper border in my bedroom was starting to peel, and chips of pink paint loosened as I pulled down the boy band posters I had taped to my walls. All of the second-hand couches in the basement slumped into their broken frames.
Back then, I did not connect the metastatic disorder that raged in my parents’ bodies with the disorder that my grandma and aunts were tasked with staving off in our home. But now I can’t help but see the link. Once my parents—the real keepers of our home, the people who knew how to keep it stable—began to fall apart physically, it became clear that our days in our home were numbered.
And then, without our parents, our home was no longer ours. It felt haunted by them, its rooms reminders of what we lost and what would never be restored, even if we had taken the trouble to touch up the paint and fix the cracks in the ceiling. Our home as we had once known it would remain elusive to us even as we lived in it.
The year after my dad died—after we had left our house behind and moved in with one of my aunts—I learned about the concept of entropy in chemistry class. As it pertains to thermodynamics, entropy is a measure of a system’s disorder. Entropy never decreases; it can only increase or stay the same. All processes tend toward entropy.
It’s a word I think of now when I remember the last few years of my parents’ lives—the last few years of my family’s near-50-year run in that house on Long Island. And it’s a word that remained in my mind as I read Housekeeping.
In Robinson’s novel, the Fosters keep entropy in check for the first few years after Edmund dies. Ruth, narrating from an omniscient standpoint as an adult, speaks of the calm that overtook the house when only Edmund’s wife Sylvia and his three daughters remained: “Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle, breakfast time, suppertime, lilac time, apple time. If heaven was to be this world purged of disaster and nuisance, if immortality was to be this life held in poise and arrest . . . it is no wonder that five serene, eventless years lulled my grandmother into forgetting what she should have never forgotten.” With their grief tranquilized by mundanity, living life within the vacuum of their haven of a home, Sylvia and her daughters move forward through the seasons as though Edmund’s death—the “event had troubled the very medium of their lives”—never occurred. After the aftershocks of the derailment, “the dear ordinary had healed as seamlessly as an image on water.”
And even after Helen careens into the lake and leaves her mother with two little girls to care for, Sylvia keeps house with urgency: “She whited shoes and braided hair and turned back bedclothes as if re-enacting the commonplace would make it merely commonplace again.” Attending to ordinary needs can be a salve, a means for forgetting our mortality and the arbitrary forces of our world. I think that’s why my aunts always seemed so eager to vacuum our wall-to-wall carpet when they visited: this was something they could control, something that hadn’t changed.
After the death of this woman who kept the house—and who kept up the illusion of “the commonplace”—the house’s appearance of safety and stability fades. Like my parents, Sylvia was her home’s true housekeeper, in both senses of the word: she owned the home and she cared for it. When her replacements—first her sisters-in-law Lily and Nona, then her transient daughter, Sylvie—“take up housekeeping,” the entropy of the system ratchets up. Mere months after Sylvia’s death, the barriers between the Foster house and the vagaries of the world outside falter when a massive flood overtakes Fingerbone. Snow melt and spring rains combine to prove Sylvia’s boasts that “the floods never reached our home” wrong: “Water poured over the thresholds and cover the floor to the depth of four inches . . . Fungus and mold crept into wedding dresses and photograph albums, so that the leather crumbled in our hands when we lifted the covers.”
Robinson writes of the losses suffered in the flood in a matter-of-fact tone: these are not losses to be mourned. The hardest loss has already occurred. As Ruth later notes, “even the illusion of perimeters fails when families are separated.”
Sylvie is a woman who has given up the fight against the forces of nature, who instead invites them home. A house is meant to provide barriers between humanity and the world outside, but Sylvie collapses them. In the evening, she leaves the lights turned off and lets the outside in: “She preferred [the house] sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude. We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic.”
At first, Ruth and Lucille are both concerned by their aunt’s strange behaviors—they realize that Sylvie is “not a stable person”—but they adopt them anyway, spending truant afternoons at the lake’s edge, submitting to eating dinner in the dark. There is an allure in sinking into the elements like their mother sunk into the lake.
But once the girls go too far and spend a whole night in the woods, away from the civilized world, Lucille snaps back to reality. Newly obsessed with self-improvement, Lucille sets her sights on hair gel and sewing patterns for coordinated outfits. She “[sees] in everything its potential for invidious change”—the threat of impermanence, transience, decay—and seeks to barricade herself from that change with the niceties of decorum. She still believes in the “illusion of perimeters.”
“In ceasing to care for the markers of civilization, Ruth flirts with the world of the perished, where her mother now lives.”
Lucille tries to drag Ruth along with her, but Ruth cannot make herself care: “Lucille would busy herself forever, nudging, pushing, coaxing, as if she could supply the will I lacked, to pull myself into some seemly shape and slip across the wide frontier into that other world, where it seemed to me then I could never wish to go.” The chasm between Sylvie’s way of life and civilization has grown so wide that the latter is another world entirely. Ruth sides with Sylvie’s world: “It seemed that something I had lost might be found in Sylvie’s house . . . It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost . . . Sylvie, I knew, felt the life of perished things.”
Here, a little more than halfway through Housekeeping, grief finally comes to the surface. In ceasing to care for the markers of civilization—in giving up the fight against entropy and instead inviting it in to stay—Ruth flirts with the world of the perished, where her mother now lives. She accepts that “all our human boundaries were overrun” when her mother died. It’s no wonder that once sunk into this state of grieving, a grief so deep that one ceases to truly live, the lake’s siren call grows harder to ignore, until Ruth and Sylvie spend an entire night bobbing in a rowboat near the bridge. Ruth ponders what would happen if they capsized, for this would be a natural ending: “It was the order of the world, after all, that water should pry though the seams of husks, which, pursed and tight as they might be, are only made for breaching.”
The water that would breach their rowboat was the same water that held her mother: “here she was, wherever my eyes fell, and behind my eyes, whole and in fragments.” Haunted by her mother in the lake, Ruth can see and care for nothing else.
Throughout Housekeeping, I found myself annoyed by Lucille, who fights to keep up the boundaries around her and wants to insulate herself with “worsted mittens, brown oxfords, red rubber boots.” Soon after Lucille decides to “improve” herself, she moves in with her home economics teacher—a symbol of the imposition of order if there ever was one. She jumps ship from the house that has ceased to bear any mark of her grandmother’s efforts to “re-enact the commonplace” and make life go on.
I couldn’t stand this character who clung to the lie that her mother was “orderly, vigorous, and sensible…killed in an accident.” I couldn’t stand her ability to move on, to will herself to forget that her mother had abandoned her, to behave like a normal girl who imagines all the ways other women in Fingerbone must be judging Sylvie. I was drawn, instead, to Ruth and her desire to stay close to her mother by ceasing to live in the world of the commonplace. I found myself re-reading the lines of Ruth’s grief-addled magical thinking, filtered through Robinson’s huge, accumulative sentences: “If I could see my mother, it would not have to be her eyes, her hair . . . It was so very long since the dark had swum her hair, and there was nothing more to dream of, but often she almost slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished. She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished.” Ruth holds two opposing thoughts in her mind: her mother was long ago claimed by the lake, but she is not perished—she rings in Ruth’s mind still.
Perhaps I find myself so drawn to Ruth because in real life, I am a Lucille. I have chosen to live, to believe in human boundaries, even though I saw how little the walls of my house protected my family from the entropy that lurked within.
Since I left that home, I have lived in a dozen others; now that I am an adult, I’ve kept a few myself. Though none of my adulthood apartments have felt permanent—they are places I know I will pass through in a year or a few years, outgrowing the space or wanting something different—with each move I have scrambled to get books on shelves and pictures on walls, to soothe myself with “substance and solidity.” I choose furniture that will stand up to my cats’ claws and time. I want solid wood; I want heft to anchor me until I’m ready to leave on my own terms.
And each week I find myself housekeeping, sweeping and vacuuming the dirt and dust that has breached our human boundaries. I hasten to scrub scuffs from walls and scum from tile grout, amazed each time by how a little effort can erase these marks of disorder. But each time I restore the white of the walls or the tile, I also note decay—how the paint layers are rubbing off, how the grout is beginning to crack—and know that I will never be able to outrun death.