Leaving the Pink House, by Ladette Randolph. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press. 238 pages. $18.00, paper.
Ladette Randolph’s memoir tells of how she and her husband purchase a Nebraska farmhouse the day after 9/11 and spend the next eleven months renovating against the ticking clock of a bridge loan. It would be too pat to say they’re building their dream house; Randolph already lives in a home she loves. Instead this is a book about loving another person enough to make his dream your own, or if not make it your own, respect it enough that you’ll enable him to follow it. Leaving the Pink House is also a book about saying goodbye to something you’ve loved and nurtured, and learning to accept change even when you’re fine with the status quo.
The book begins in September 2001 and follows, month by month, through to July 2002, when Randolph and her husband must pass the bank’s inspection to satisfy the financing conditions for the purchase price and cost of renovations. This adds drama and tension to the home repairs—although to call them “repairs” seems to understate the case: “Everything, except the exterior shell, the frame, the basement, and the floors would go.”
The story of the farmhouse is interspersed with essays on the other homes in Randolph’s life—her childhood farm, the single bed she shared with her first husband, the rental house she and her children lived in after she left her second husband, and of course the pink house she and Noel will need to leave if they finish renovating the farmhouse. These places are vehicles to explore the larger themes of commitment, compromise, dreams, and independence.
While mostly chronological, the home essays do leave some gaps, most notably from January 1978 to January 1980, 1980-1984, and 1989-1991—times that revolve around the story of Randolph’s second husband, a Christian fundamentalist and the father of her three children. The absence of these years could easily feel like an omission, but instead it works to shape the memoir, which focuses not just on houses but on homes. One of my favorite essays in the collection comes toward the end, “The Doll House on Everett Street, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1991-1992,” where Randolph lives with her three children during the terrible custody battle with her soon-to-be-ex-husband. Even though it’s a rental property, she takes the time to scatter grass seed on the snow at the advice of her aunt in hopes of someday starting a lawn. It seems a hopeless gesture toward an unlikely ending, but come spring, the grass does grow.
Faith and religion are also thematic lines in the memoir as Randolph struggles to figure out how her own beliefs have been shaped and reshaped, and once she leaves organized religion, what or whom is left that she believes in. Often it comes down to the family and friends with whom she surrounds herself. During renovations, it quickly becomes apparent to the couple that the only way they can hope to complete the project on time is by accepting the help of others, but those good deeds, so easily given, aren’t always easily received. Part of the problem is how self-sufficient Randolph and her husband are: one of the original draws of the farmhouse after 9/11 is the combination of a well and twenty acres to grow their own food; another is that they want things done a certain way, from selecting hardware to sanding the floors. They are not perfectionists so much as visionaries with an ideal house in mind, and watching them struggle to accept offers of help is a lesson in kindness and humility.
Most importantly, this is a book about what makes a marriage work, or at least this one. Randolph notes “how this project had thrown into relief the real differences between us. Clearly neither of us would have or could have done this work alone. It was the marriage that had allowed it to happen. We were stronger together than we were apart.” The house becomes “an extension of our love for one another, an expression of our solidarity in the world.”
The book is also an exploration of how Randolph becomes the woman she is: a wife, writer, philosopher, editor, mother, and a thinker in the world. Trekking through old homes and memories, Randolph isn’t easy on herself, claiming, “but really, this is the story of my life—moments of crystalline perception followed by a sluggish indecision and an eager willingness to talk myself out of my own best interest, or by the interference of some well-meaning or ignorant person.” She claims to be a person who the truth keeps moving past, and maybe it feels that way living her life, but for the reader, there are crystalline moments of insight into what it means to be human, to love other people, and to be loved in return. The beauty Randolph sees in the world—“snow-covered fields stark against the blue winter sky; a dead tree that looked like a woman standing in a canoe; a man on a Lincoln street walking simultaneously a Rottweiler and a Chihuahua of the same color”—paints every page.
Toward the end, Randolph writes, “For months I’d hoped for an epiphany, some burst of understanding, but now at the end I experience instead only a feeling of simple well-being.” Only. By now the reader has spent enough time with Randolph to know that “only” is loaded, and that the simplicity of a gesture—a helping neighbor, grass seed on snow, a man walking his two dogs—is more than enough beauty to sustain us.
Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press:The Usual Mistakes (2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (2013). Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, The Connecticut Review, the Best New American Voices anthology series, and elsewhere. She’s held fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences, and this summer served as faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.