On June 15, 2005, I went 1500 miles from my home to sojourn for a time in the wild and unfamiliar territory of Wyoming. On the anniversary of that departure I sat at my kitchen table and, by way of Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical prose, spent part of the next ten days in Fingerbone, Idaho. From Housekeeping:
. . . she was a religious woman. That is to say that she conceived of life as a road through a broad country, and that one’s destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting. . . . She set out upon her widowhood, and became altogether as good a widow as she had been a wife.
In the summer she kept roses in a vase on the piano, huge, pungent roses, and when the blooms ripened and the petals fell, she put them in a tall Chinese jar, with cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon. Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill with the wind.
It is difficult to describe someone, since memories are by their nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows.
Fingerbone had a tall red-brick junior high school. It was named for William Henry Harrison. It stood on an expanse of uneven concrete, surrounded on three sides by a hurricane fence which had been placed there, perhaps, to catch wind-borne paper bags and candy wrappers. It was a square, symmetrical building wioth high windows that had to be worked by long poles. There we did elaborate multiplication and division, working on pulpy tablet paper with thick black pencils.
. . . why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abadoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?
For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?
Memory is the sense of loss, and pulls us after it . . . . There is so little to remember of anyone — an anecdote, a conversation at table. 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 wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.