In one of my earliest memories I am standing on a beach with my father and we are sculpting the shape of a woman’s body out of sand. In my mind it is winter—Avalon in the off-season—and I see us huddled in coats, wrapped in wool, bracing ourselves against the salt wind that blows in from Port Philip Bay. It is just the two of us—I see no others on the shore. I don’t remember how long I’d been apart from my mother, but I know that I was sad and that I missed her and that’s why my father suggested we make a mermaid-mother on the shore with seaweed for her long black hair, Neptune’s pearls around her neck, and scallop shells to decorate her breasts.
It is generally believed that children form memories between the ages of two and three, and it was during this time of my life that my parents were separating. They tell different stories about what led to this rupture in our family, and so I, too, have become an unreliable narrator. It could be that the beach was empty that day because of the weather, which I’m certain I have not invented—in Melbourne, where I was born, and the city’s surrounds, that wind can be felt year-round, especially on the coast. Or it could be that, looking back, I see a world briefly reduced to my father and me. The coats, too, could be an embroidery, signifying a longing for warmth or protection or shelter that might be carried with us that I now imagine we must have been feeling at the time.
I remembered the mermaid recently when I returned to Housekeeping, the first novel by Marilynne Robinson, in celebration of its fortieth anniversary and the publication last month of her fifth book of fiction, Jack. First published in 1980, Housekeeping is the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are raised by a rotating cast of eccentric female family members after their mother drives a borrowed Ford off a cliff and into the lake that dominates the fictional town of Fingerbone. Abandoned on the porch of their grandmother’s home, the girls left in her care until she is replaced in the house by two great-aunts, and then eventually, by their mother’s itinerant sister Sylvie.
Sylvie is one of my favorite heroines, and the first female vagabond I encountered in contemporary American literature. She keeps newspaper clippings and a twenty dollar-bill pinned to the underside of her lapel and shops at the five-and-dime “not because she was close with money. . . but because only the five-and-dime catered to her taste for the fanciful.” When she walks through the neighborhood, dogs follow at her heels, baying in recognition at a fellow stray. After years of drifting, Sylvie can’t seem to settle in a home—she sleeps fully dressed on top of the covers, shoes beneath her pillow, her few possessions stored in a cardboard box under the bed.
While Lucille resists anything to do with transience, Ruth, the novel’s narrator, comes to find kinship with their aunt. In one scene, the two row across the expanse of the lake to the ruins of a house where Sylvie is convinced that waiflike children dwell. It is here that Ruth imagines building a woman out of snow, a mother for all the “wild, orphan things” that brought back to me the mermaid effigy from my own childhood.
A mother made of salt and snow in a fictional Idaho town, or a mermaid built from sand on a beach with a mythical name—longing can cause this kind of transfiguration. “When do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it?” Ruth asks. “For to wish for a hand upon one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back again.”
Housekeeping is a story about three generations of women. Ruth and Lucille grow up in a world of mothers and daughters, sisters, widows, unmarried aunts and divorcees. Since that first catastrophe of their grandfather’s death, all men have been elsewhere—the girls never knew their father, and the whereabouts of Sylvie’s husband are similarly unknown.
Unlike Robinson’s heroines, I grew up in my father’s world. From the ages of four to fourteen, he was my primary carer, and he was adept at the kind of tenderness and nurturing we still tend to think of as “mothering.” Though he had lived an unconventional life as the singer and songwriter for an underground Australian punk rock band, my father was also raised for a time by his maternal grandmother and so his housekeeping traditions harked back to an earlier generation of British immigrants. He baked cakes with golden syrup, could sew a button by hand, braid hair into tight plaits that wouldn’t come loose and recall a variety of old-fashioned homeopathic cures—cinnamon toast for a stomach ache, a nip of brandy for a cough.
He showed me love as an act of daily care; but safety, as my father and Robinson knew, can’t be assured by domestic rituals. No amount of starch or shoe polish can stop a life from coming apart or guarantee that the ones we love will always stay with us, within an arm’s reach. Yet still we sweep the floors and wash the sheets and hang them out in the sunlight. All this, like a sprinkling of salt around our boundaries, a spell to protect ourselves against abandonment, separation, loss. What else is housekeeping but a kind of magical thinking, a wish against the things we fear the most?
Robinson based elements of the novel on her own upbringing in Sandpoint, Idaho, including the setting of Fingerbone—an isolated place “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” Its main feature is the lake, which is also the source of the family’s loss—it was into these waters that Ruth and Lucille’s mother sailed in her neighbor’s car and also where their grandfather, decades earlier, plunged to his death in an extraordinary train derailment.
Each spring, the lake rises up through the soil. You can taste it in the air and the drinking water, it floods the town when the snow melts too quickly before the earth has had time to thaw. Soon after Sylvie’s arrival, the family home is steeped in water for the first time.
The water wreaks quiet damage on personal artefacts and treasures of the domestic world: “the losses in hooked and braided rugs and needlepoint footstools will never be reckoned. Fungus and mold crept into wedding dresses and photograph albums, so that the leather crumbled in our hands when we lifted the covers.” Memory, Robinson seems to suggest throughout Housekeeping, might be something like water in the way it rises and recedes. But the memory of loss is particular in its ability to flood, to warp. It turns the familiar strange and shows us the world inverted, trembling. Like the lake of Fingerbone, the memory of loss permeates everything.
Robinson began working on the novel in the mid to late 1970s when she was establishing housekeeping herself, presumably in Seattle, Washington, where she was a student in the English PhD program. She also had two young sons and worked on the book at night, writing by hand while they were sleeping. Her notebooks from this period, housed in the archives of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, offer a sense of her life at the time. There is no neat separation here between scholar, mother, writer, wife. Here, early descriptions of Ruth, Lucille and Sylvie appear amongst notes for her dissertation on Part Two of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, hastily jotted phone numbers for child-care centers, and drafts of letters to friends or family that discuss everything from the impeachment process against Richard Nixon to the progress of her garden. Most striking are the drawings that appear on facing pages opposite Robinson’s looping, elegant cursive: a shock of blue crayon, a series of circles that might be illustrating the seeds of a fruit or the rings of a tree in a child’s shaky hand, scribbles of early penmanship from a two or three-year-old.
One might imagine them at the kitchen table, mother and child working side by side—one of her sons drawing on the left while Robinson worked her way down the page on the right. What her notebooks illustrate to me is that an artist’s work is inseparable from the larger circumstances of the life that circumscribes it. It seems fitting that alongside this daily collision of creativity and domesticity emerged a book about housekeeping—about the ways we inhabit a home, the rituals and routines that shape it, and how this impacts our sense of belonging in the world.
The collision of creative work and domestic life is something that feels close to my own experience of home, though the textures of my parent’s work were very different to the quieter pursuits of reading, writing and scholarship. Growing up as the daughter of a visual artist and a musician, I was surrounded by my mother’s cigarettes and turpentine, and my father’s guitars and amplifiers and rock n’ roll. Both my parents worked from home—there was no money for studio spaces or child-care—and while art-making was inseparable from daily life in both households, the places we inhabited were always temporary. In the years after their separation, we all moved frequently, cycling through a series of rented rooms in Melbourne and then Sydney. Like Ruth and Lucille, my routines were erratic, reshaped by my different care-givers as I shifted back and forth between them. It was through reading Housekeeping that I came to understand this transience as a response to loss.
As I grow older, I notice both a fear and desire to relive aspects of my parent’s story, especially as I consider the possibility of motherhood myself. I am often haunted by certain parallels—my mother had been nineteen when she met my father, the same age I was when I started seeing the boy who would become the man I would marry. I was twenty-five on my wedding day; my mother had been twenty-four on hers. Repetition might be another spell of sorts, a way to retrace our steps, reverse time and undo the damage that was done if we could only figure out where it all went wrong.
“[I]t must have seemed to her that she had returned to relive this day because it was here that something had been lost or forgotten,” writes Robinson of Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother, as caring for them recalls the absence of her own daughters, who all left home and never returned to her. “[S]he whited shoes and braided hair and turned back bedclothes as if re-enacting the commonplace would make it merely commonplace again, or as if she could find the chink, the flaw, in her serenely orderly and ordinary life, or discover at least some intimation that her three girls would disappear as absolutely as their father had done.”
If I were to have a child of my own, might I collect the dropped stitch that led to my family’s unraveling? Might that heal the rupture, like the ice shards knitting together across the surface of lake Fingerbone the morning after the train crashed through its waters?
The disasters that shaped my early childhood are far less spectacular than those Robinson writes of in Housekeeping. My mother never drove one of her beat-up cars into the lake waters of her childhood, and nobody I loved ever slid off a railway bridge in a train car in the middle of the night. Our catastrophes were far more common, the stuff of ordinary human drama: separation, relocation, divorce. Still, I remained convinced throughout my childhood that tragedies of such proportions were possible, if not probable, with the over-anxious imagination of one who fears abandonment. My mind veered towards the sensational and sudden, concocting any number of events that would conspire to take one of my parents away from me permanently. I worried particularly that such a fate would befall my mother when I was at my father’s house, or vice versa, as if my very presence was enough to keep them safe—as if, if I took my eyes off either one of them, they might disappear. I thought of myself as a rock or an anchor keeping my parents in place, the small weight of my existence the only stay against the drift.Repetition might be another spell of sorts, a way to retrace our steps, reverse time and undo the damage that was done if we could only figure out where it all went wrong.
I don’t think it’s unusual for those who have experienced loss to engage in this kind of superstitious thinking, and I recognized this anxiety the first time I read Housekeeping. Fearing another abandonment, Ruth and Lucille watch Sylvie with keen attention for signs that she intends to leave, as if predicting this possibility would help them prepare for it: “Lucille and I still doubted that Sylvie would stay,” states Ruth. “She resembled our mother, and besides that, she seldom removed her coat, and every story she told had to do with a bus or a train station.”
But if people could disappear as if by magic—over a cliff, into a lake—then might they not somehow just as suddenly be returned to us?
“Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection,” writes Robinson. “Perhaps we expected a train to leap out of the water, caboose foremost, as if in a movie run backward, and then to continue across the bridge. The passengers would arrive, sounder than they departed, accustomed to the depths, serene about their restoration to the light, disembarking at the station in Fingerbone with a calm that quieted the astonishment of friends.”
The influence of Robinson’s Calvinism on her work has been widely noted, and while some have argued that the emphasis on resurrection in such passages of Housekeeping reveal a compulsion towards the Christian afterlife, she has resisted being labeled as a “religious writer.” This might be because her beliefs preclude such easy categorization. As Mark O’Connell wrote in the New Yorker, “Her spiritual sensibility is richly inclusive and non-dogmatic. There’s little talk about sin or damnation in her writing, but a lot about forgiveness and tolerance and kindness.”
In interviews, Robinson has spoken about how Housekeeping was born from a series of metaphors inspired by the voice and language of 19th-century American writers, and as in Emerson or Thoreau, the book is suffused with a sense of awe that springs primarily from the natural world. “Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me,” she said in the Paris Review. “There is a visionary quality to all experience.”
Growing up, all I knew of Christianity was whatever worked its way into the stories I read. I knew the Bible the same way I knew the Greek and Roman myths. To me, it was all the stuff of literature—allegories and metaphors and morality tales—and perhaps unsurprisingly, it is literature rather than religion that I have continued to turn to for solace when life feels lonely or incomprehensible or lacking in meaning.My mind veered towards the sensational and sudden, concocting any number of events that would conspire to take one of my parents away from me permanently.
To see what we’ve loved and lost returned to us, for wounds to be healed, and families be made whole—I don’t need to believe in an image of the Christian afterlife to recognize that desire is a true one. To be in the presence of what has vanished, to briefly brush hands with it again—maybe some would call that heaven, but when I read those passages about ascension and restitution, I see them more as a metaphor for memory, which might offer something close to a secular resurrection.
“There is so little to remember of anyone—an anecdote, a conversation at a table,” writes Robinson. “But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanders will find a way home…”
This is the dream at the very heart of Housekeeping—that need will “blossom into all the compensation it requires” and that what we’ve lost might be returned to us by force of sheer longing alone.
After Housekeeping debuted in 1980, Robinson would not publish another novel for twenty years. What happened in those years? one might be tempted to ask. Life. The dailiness of work and raising children and watching them grow up and come of age. A move abroad to London, where she would complete research that would become her first book of non-fiction, Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), an investigation into the environmental impact of the Sellafield processing plant on the coast of the Irish Sea, and then a collection of writings, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998).
In the decades that followed, Marilynne Robinson would become one of the most significant contributors to contemporary American letters, receiving a National Humanities Medal awarded by President Obama in 2012 for “her grace and intelligence in writing.”
It was in 2004 that Robinson published her second novel, Gilead, and a year later it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Set in another fictional Iowa town, Gilead is the story of the seventy-seven-year-old pastor John Ames, who is writing an account of his life to leave behind for his young son. She would return to world of Gilead in her subsequent novels, Home (2008), Lila (2014), and most recently, Jack. “After I write a novel or a story, I miss the characters,” she told the Paris Review in 2014. “I feel sort of bereaved.”
Yet it seems significant to me that Robinson has never returned to Fingerbone, that isolated place soaked through with the memory of water, or the beloved characters in Housekeeping that make the novel so enduring and indelible forty years later. For all its dwelling on resurrection and return, Housekeeping suggests to me the impossibility of homecoming when the very foundations of that home have been reconfigured by loss or grief. It is memory instead that might offer this kind of return and perhaps, if the novel can be read as Ruth’s testimony, the act of writing.
“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it,” writes Robinson, and like a wake in water, we follow after, telling ourselves stories to try and reclaim what we’ve lost.
With special thanks to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.