Keeping Home

I had that dream again last night, the one where I suddenly discover a room in my house that I had forgotten or hadn’t realized was there. The first time I had this dream was the night after I turned in my dissertation: I opened a door in my hallway that I’d never noticed before and inside found everything I’d had to put metaphorically in storage while I finished my Ph.D.

Lately these dreams are less about reunion than about finding more space in my life for things that are important, like creative endeavors or spending more time in contemplation than in motion.

The essential feature of all these dreams, though, is that these rooms are already in my house, just waiting for me, like Dorothy finding she’s always had the power to go home.

I’ve always been pulled to the idea of home, of inhabiting a place where I feel rooted. Home for me is both inside and outside a physical structure; without a garden around it, a house wouldn’t feel like a home.

In the novels Housekeeping and Home, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson creates opposing ideas of home. In the earlier novel Housekeeping, the old house in the western (Idaho?) town of Fingerbone must be abandoned when the novel’s young narrator Ruthie and her aunt Sylvie can’t meet the domestic and social expectations of their neighbors, who suspect that leaves blown into corners and the remnants of swallows and sparrows on the parlor floor do not make a proper home for an adolescent girl:

So they had reason to feel that my social graces were eroding away, and that soon I would feel ill at ease in a cleanly house with glass in its windows—I would be lost to ordinary society.

Because Sylvie and Ruthie can’t make their house a home—and in fact can’t stay home because they are both drawn to the natural world—they are “cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping.”

In Home, published 28 years later, a middle-aged brother and sister return home to care for their ailing father, a former minister in a small Iowa town, amidst the background of the civil rights movement that the son defends and the father resents. Younger sister Glory is escaping a failed love affair; her older brother Jack, their father’s favorite, is returning 20 years after the disgrace that drove him away.

By caring for the neglected house and garden in their father’s final days, they invent a temporary refuge from the painful pasts they’re trying to leave behind:

The old prairie came back the minute a spot of ground fell into neglect. Suddenly there would be weeds head high, gaunt shafts of plants with masses of tiny flowers on them, dusty lavender, droning with bees. And there would be black-eyed Susan, and nettles and milkweed and jewelweed and brambles and some avid vine that wilted in sunlight and broke at the slightest touch, leaving tiny whiskers of thorn in the hand that touched it. The roots they put down were deep and tough. It was miserable work to get them up. And here was Jack in the new morning light wrestling weeds out of the ground for all the world as if something depended on it.

In the 28 years between these novels’ publications, Robinson’s idea of home seems to have shifted from domesticity as prison to home as the continuation of family from one generation to the next. Yet in both works, it’s the outside forces of society that threaten the safety and sanctity of home.

When women or people of color or anyone considered “different” don’t or won’t follow the rules for “proper” social behavior, they are denied the possibility of home by the very structures of power that prescribe propriety in the first place.

In both novels, the characters must choose between limiting their lives or leaving home. Neither choice is ultimately fulfilling, but both novels end with the fantasy of return, Ruthie to the sister she’s left behind, and Glory to the dream of Jack’s son finding the old house—and his aunt—waiting for him.

We dream of home as a piece of ourselves that exists even in our absence or outside our awareness. Home contains us in both the best and worst sense of the word, for from home, we long for release even as we are rescued by it. Home is what we most fear losing but most want changing. Never perfect, always yearning, we keep our home so that we can keep ourselves.


Filed under memoir, women's writing

2 responses to “Keeping Home

  1. A wonderfully eerie story! Reminds me of The Yellow Wallpaper but with a much better ending.

  2. Carol

    Do you know this story, The Little Room? In the spirit of today’s post you may enjoy it

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