Admiring Ladette Randolph for her Ploughshares editing and her earlier novels, I was fascinated and moved by her new memoir LEAVING THE PINK HOUSE, which is about her investment in her mid-life marriage and centered on renovating a Nebraska farm house with her husband. From that present she explores her personal history in earlier houses: her hard working mother, her sketchy father who owned a failing gas station and was ordained as a Church of Christ minister; her love of landscape; her fundamentalist faith; work in a nursing home; her young first marriage and husband’s death in an accident; treatment for melanoma at age 22; her twelve-year second marriage to a minister, her parenting three children, and subsequent divorce; death of her father; her “ever-expanding acceptance of broader truths”; her editing career at the University of Nebraska Press, while she wrote fiction; her third marriage to Noel, a sensitive, stalwart, self-realized man, who works as an operations manager in a grain elevator, plays in a band, and does construction as an avocation. Ladette’s character evolves as doughty, soul searching, and resilient, all of which is symbolized by the evolution of the farm house into her and Noel’s hard won and gratefully achieved dream. Their early relationship, she writes, “felt geometric as though we were opening up to each other and into new spaces” and now, she concludes, “as we built an actual house, I saw it as an extension of our love for one another, an expression of our solidarity with the world.”
The earlier stages of her life story prepare her for this solidarity. There are descriptions of landscape worthy of Annie Dillard: “The sky was much more vast than the land…We were erased in that great expanse, and beneath it we knew our place…We didn’t talk about ideas. The grand questions of life and death seemed trivial and absurd beneath that endless, obliterating sky.” Randolph also recalls Dillard in her youthful restlessness: “I craved the experience of other lives, others times, other places. I must have known already that I would eventually relinquish the familiar for the exotic gift of strangers.”
Young Randolph, like Eudora Welty, shows a fascination with grotesques, such as a solitary old woman whom other children fear as a witch, but to whom Randolph delivers ice cream: “She didn’t speak, and in the silence we heard a strange clacking on the linoleum floor as she walked ahead of us. When our gaze followed the sound, we saw her toenails had grown long and thick, yellow and curved like a dog’s claws.” The book offers many such salient glimpses.
The chapters about gutting, redesigning, and rebuilding the farm house are as engaging and detailed as Tracy Kidder’s in HOUSE. We follow the saga of loan and sales negotiations, supply costs and logistics, friends volunteering services, walls demolished, a sagging frame righted with car jacks and winches, wiring, plumbing, inside doors (selected, planed, cored for knobs, and hung), sheet rock and dry wall hung and “mudded,” tile laid, floorboards replaced and sanded, all performed, for the most part, by Noel, Ladette, friends, and family. And as each special, incremental challenge finds its solution, in the face of necessary skill sets, weather, and an all-important loan inspection deadline; so also does Ladette Randolph’s heart and the book itself, though some elements of her story’s human burden are deliberately scanted and avoided.
One later chapter, “The House of Pain,” about Randolph’s cancer treatment, can’t really substitute for a full account of her second marriage and divorce, and particularly of Ross, the minister husband. The analogy seems forced, as she herself disarmingly admits: “My staying in that second marriage for twelve more years sometimes can feel like those twenty-four hours in the basement recovery room of a big cancer research hospital….But I can’t leave it there, on such a sour note, such a despairing analogy, for it’s not like that at all. There is a happy ending, there really is. Time passes. We endure. We survive even when we’ve been told it’s not possible….And with time I’ve also learned this lesson: gratitude is the sum of what you have lost and in some way found again.” For a more direct expression of this ordeal, readers should turn to Randolph’s fiction.
–DeWitt Henry 10-6-14