An early image in the book describes an unprompted gift from her parents to the adult siblings: a lithograph of their familial home (the estate mentioned in the title), commissioned from Walter DuBois Richards, a popular commercial illustrator famous for his many stamp designs. Later chapter names even follow the general floor plan of the stately home, with each vignette devoted to some object or impression related to a specific room.
The figure who loomed largest — larger even than the house — in Murphy Marshall’s childhood was her father. In one chapter, Murphy Marshall descends into the “rathskeller,” the partially finished basement that was her father’s near-sacred domain. After years of absence, working first for the FBI and then in the Missouri legislature, her father devoted himself not to his own children but to his miniature train collection. More than a typical railfan, Samuel B. Murphy could be described as an amateur ferroequinologist, or “one who studies iron horses” (the fancy term preferred by some train buffs). As his daughter recollects:
[M]y father ensured nothing impeded the running of the trains. […] His interest lay in the mechanics, in the degree of curve the train could handle, in the gradient of the cars’ climb, in the production of steam for his eventual, much larger, rideable locomotives outside. […] Looking around me now […] I know my siblings and I had little chance of competing against all of “this.”
Examining the holes unceremoniously drilled through the paneling separating the finished and unfinished portions of the basement, Murphy Marshall seems to sigh as she writes, “Why didn’t [my mother] object to the explosion of trains throughout this subterranean crypt […] or to the ever-shrinking space she was allotted in the basement to wash and iron everyone’s clothes?”
Murphy Marshall uses her skills as a professional translator to decode everything left unsaid, claiming in the final chapter that “[t]ranslation involves more than the deciphering of words” — it “also involves making sense of what’s left unspoken, those ellipses, blank spaces, the dot-dot-dots when you have to guess what’s happening in the person’s mind, what the silent messages mean.” She remembers when, as a teenager, she tried to engage her father by helping him assemble scenery for his beloved trains: “After a few months of pulling the kit out of the box, reading, rereading the instructions (Is this truly English? I wondered), filled with anxiety about the prospect of letting him down, I confessed to my father […] that I didn’t think I could complete the kit.” His response? A curt “I’ll take care of it.” Instead of the reassurance another listener might feel at being let off the hook, she despairs at her translation of his comment, “his having given up on me, his low expectations now confirmed.”
When Murphy Marshall likens her family’s home to a Tower of Babel, with each member speaking a different language, it calls to mind Tolstoy’s pronouncement at the opening of Anna Karenina about happy and unhappy families — or, in this case, family members. In the chapter “Breakfast Nook: Stand-In Family Room,” Murphy Marshall describes the hours she spent, alone, watching fictional families on sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best solve their problems by discussing their feelings. She contrasts these sanitized, scripted conflicts with the way her father and oldest brother (her father’s namesake) never really spoke the same language: “[A]ll the dinnertime arguments between him and our father formed a code, Sam’s personal code, a language our father never deciphered, one asking him to pay attention to his eldest son.” In desperation, Sam enlists in the Marine Corps, embracing the possibility that he will be sent to fight in Vietnam. When he is wounded, Murphy Marshall reports that it is one of the only times she remembers seeing her mother cry.
Overseeing the daily workings of Ivy Lodge with exactitude and sometimes shocking emotional cruelty, Murphy Marshall’s mother epitomizes the overeducated, trapped, but fiercely loyal housewife of the era. Strait-laced and svelte, Barbara Murphy demonstrates more tenderness toward the plants on her kitchen windowsill than toward her own progeny. She keeps a written inventory of the clothes she irons for the family each day and an alphabetized list of vanity license plates she spots. As the author reflects, these habits “signaled that she existed beneath her wardrobe of tiny skirts and dresses, behind her perfectly coiffed hair. That she’d been imprisoned despite her predictable comments about having a model marriage with my father.” During one celebration, Barbara brushes aside in seeming embarrassment her daughter’s sentimental gift (a framed poem she wrote in elementary school, dedicated to her mother on Mother’s Day). Here, Murphy Marshall’s intimate knowledge of language shines through:
Listening to my mother I’d been reminded of my Spanish studies, of the choice to use the formal Ud. form for “you” versus the more informal tú. Even though English was her first — only — language, when she was around others, my mother normally used formal speech, creating distance between herself and those to whom she spoke, even family members.
The object that most reflects Barbara’s inner life is a necklace she commissions from an artist in Arizona. Murphy Marshall describes this showstopping “knight’s chain mail” as
the most personal piece of jewelry she owned, an unusual, beautiful piece of wearable art containing tiny mementos from all four of my grandparents, from her parents and my father’s. […] She selected more than sixty charms from her own collection, ones she’d bought or been given over the years […] with multiple strands of semiprecious beads of various sizes — blue lapis, orange carnelian, red coral, yellow tiger’s eye, green jade, to link the sixty-eight charms. […] [But] [n]othing on the carefully crafted necklace, none of the sixty-eight charms, hints at her role of mother.
It is after her children grow up and move away that Barbara Murphy embraces the multifaceted life this necklace promises, becoming a sought-after coin appraiser and amateur archeologist who once found a “Clovis point […] almost fourteen thousand years [old]” on a family property near the Meramec River. The narrator describes how her mother — towards the end of her life, after a medical procedure usurps her ability to speak — seems most calmed by having her hair brushed with wordless tenderness, like a child: “She never nodded or gestured, but I knew I was doing it right. I had years of trying to guess, of anticipating my mother’s moods, forced to interpret expressions and gestures when no words had been spoken.”
The girl who lived in Ivy Lodge — Murphy Marshall’s own voice of innocence — always felt dwarfed by her parents’ expectations, which were simultaneously too much and not enough for her. No reason is ever definitively given for her parents’ active quashing of her attempts at self-improvement, at recognition, at mastery. This narrator is simply seen as loving too much, as with her childhood Raggedy Ann doll that ends up with bright orange hair: “My kisses had stained her cloth face brown, and I had inadvertently pulled out all her yarn hair by loving her.” She secretly rescues injured wild animals, despairing when she cannot conjure the veterinary skill to rehabilitate them, and burying them in elaborate, solitary ceremonies behind Ivy Lodge’s stone porch.
Ultimately, this memoir chronicles the narrator’s endurance. There are no answers, but as Murphy Marshall admits in the opening chapter, “I lead a completely different life than people close to me probably expected,” a life as an accomplished translator and world traveler. Murphy Marshall is a clear-eyed raconteuse, translating her early life faithfully while preserving the mysteries of her family’s first language — silence.
Liz Chang is a poet, translator, and essayist. She is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Moravian University.