“Love is holy because it is like grace”: Excerpts from Gilead

I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

I told her I could not add a moment to my span of life, and she said, “Well, I don’t want you to go subtracting one from it, either.” A year ago she would have said “neither.” I’ve always loved the way she talks, but she thinks she has to improve for your sake.

***

Your mother came up the road to tell us our supper was ready. It was a cold supper, she said, so there was no hurry. She agreed to sit with us for a few minutes. She always has to be coaxed to stay in company even a little while, and then it’s all I can do to get a word from her. I believe she worries about the way she talks. I love the way she talks, or the way she talked when I first knew her. “It don’t matter,” she would say, in that low, soft voice of hers. That was what she said when she meant she forgave someone, but it had a sound of deeper, sadder resignation, as if she were forgiving the whole of the created order, forgiving the Lord Himself. It grieves me that I may never hear just those words spoken by her again.

***

I told them, If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul. They all did ponder a good while, and I did, too, listening to the evening wind and the cicadas. I came near alarming myself with the thought of the loneliness stretching ahead of me, and the new bitterness of it, and how I hated the secretiveness and the renunciation that honor and decency required of me and that common sense enforced on me. But when I looked up, your mother was watching me, smiling a little, and she touched my hand and she said, “You’ll be just fine.”

How soft her voice is. That there should be such a voice in the whole world, and that I should be the one to hear it, seemed to me then and seems to me now an unfathomable grace.

***

She began to come to the house when some of the other women did, to take the curtains away to wash, to defrost the icebox. And then she started coming by herself to tend the gardens. She made them very fine and prosperous. And one evening when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, “How can I repay you for all this?” And she said, “You ought to marry me.” And I did.

Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. I might well be leaving her to a greater happiness than I have given her, even granting every difficulty.

***

“I am sick with love.” That’s Scripture. It makes me laugh to remember this— I turned to the Bible in my crisis, as I have always done. And the text I chose was the Song of Songs! I might have learned from it that such miseries as mine were beautiful in the Lord’s sight, if I had been younger and if I had known that your mother was not a married woman.

She was there every Sunday but one, and I wrote all those sermons, I confess, with the thought of pleasing her, impressing her. I struggled not to look at her too often or too long, but I would convince myself nevertheless that I saw disappointment of some kind in her face, and then I would spend the next week praying, right down on my knees, that she would give me another chance.

So I couldn’t admit to myself that I simply wanted to see her, to hear her voice again. She said, “Good morning, Reverend,” that was all. But I remember trying to retain the sound of it, trying to hear it again in my mind.

She shook her head and said, very softly, “I don’t have family at all.” I felt a surge of sadness for her, and still, in my wretched heart, I thanked the Lord.

***

He said, “Reverend Ames still hasn’t warned you about me?” She found my hand and took it between her two warm hands. “He don’t speak unkindly. He never does.”

He said, “When I was young I thought a settled life was what happened to you if you weren’t careful.” She said, “I always knew better than that. It was the one thing I wanted. I used to look in people’s windows at night and wonder what it was like.”

Only thinking back on it did I realize that she was speaking as if from that settled life she said she had always wanted and as if it could not be lost to her, though in every practical, material sense she knows it will be. That pleased me, too. Remembering when they said what they did about looking in windows and wondering about other people’s lives made me feel companionable with them. I could have said that’s three of us, because, as the Lord knows, for many years I did exactly the same thing. But in that moment, the way she spoke, it seemed that all the wondering about life had been answered for her, once and for all, and if that is true, it is wonderful.

***

And your mother has found that sermon I was wondering about, that Pentecost sermon, the one I gave the first time I saw her. It was beside my plate, wrapped in tissue paper, with a ribbon on it. “Now, don’t you go revising that,” she said. “It don’t need revising.” And she kissed me on the top of the head, which, for her, was downright flamboyant.

I hate to think what I would give for a thousand mornings like this. For two or three. You were wearing your red shirt and your mother was wearing her blue dress.

I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am.

***

Your mother has sent you off to the neighbors, so you won’t pester me, she says, but it makes me wonder about the impression I must be making on her this morning. The poor woman is very pale. She has not slept any better than I have.

I fell asleep in my chair and woke up feeling so much better. I missed eight and a half innings, and nothing happened in the bottom of the ninth (4 to 2, Yankees), but the reception was good and I look forward to watching the rest of the season, if God wills. Your mother was asleep, too, kneeling on the floor with her head against my knees. I had to sit very still for a long time, watching a movie about Englishmen in trench coats who were up to something morose involving Frenchmen and trains. I didn’t really follow it. When she woke up, she was so glad to see me, as if I had been gone a long time.

– Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel (c) 2004

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