Saturday, April 21, 2007

My Roots Are Showing

[Inspired by Sunday Scribblings.]

In the dead of winter, when tree branches are bare, I used to think they looked more like roots than branches. And I used to think it would be cool if some world under the earth would see roots turn to leafy branches when we were looking at branches turned to roots.

Sometimes roots branch away and sometimes they entangle and enmesh. Some of my roots are still in the soil I came from, but new roots have pushed into new lands, seeking to support the new-and-older me.

I think that if I had stayed where I grew up, my roots would have become pot-bound, rotting away and stifling me. Instead, I physically moved from where I started and I pushed forward new roots in a new place. I sunk some roots into the soil of my college. My alma mater was definitely home to me for a while and I retain ties to it today.

Ask me where I live and I'll tell you where in New England my house is. But ask me where I'm from and I automatically say, "I'm originally from southern Illinois." I am rooted in the place of my past as well as the place of my now.

I am also rooted in the past of my family - through the recipes and pictures and hand-me-downs and stories of my mom's history. And her mother and aunt who were a large part of my life when I was little. I'm rooted to my dad's history through generations of family stories originally written in Yiddish by his maternal grandmother, and through the food traditions of eastern European Jews (what my dad showed me and what I have found on my own since then). And my roots have entangled with the roots of my wife, the stories and traditions of her family, now mine too.

But lately I've been thinking of the roots still sunk deep in Illinois. The same town where my mother was born and raised and lived most of her life. In the same county where my grandmother and great-aunts were born. I have no relatives living there any more; my great-aunt died in 1990 and within a couple of years my parents moved to another state. My siblings had moved out of state years before.

A couple years later my mom told me that she had sold the last land she had been holding onto there. It was some farmland that she finally sold to the fellow who had been farming it for us. I had no intention of moving back there. I have never been interested in farming the land - I know it is very hard work - too much for me. But still, there was a kind of pang inside me when I knew that link, that tie to the place, was gone.

Yet I am still rooted to the place that helped make me who I am. It shows in little things, like the way I almost always know which direction I'm facing (north, south, east, west). It shows in the way I think about how much rain is enough (or not enough, or too much) for crops, though it has been years and years since I planted anything outside.

And it shows in the appreciation I have for the distances between things. In a place where farms were measured in hundreds of acres, there are miles and miles of flatness between houses and towns. I like visiting cities, and I can even work in a small one. But I know I could never be happy living in a city. I guess some of my roots are trained that way; I have small-town roots.

If you are interested in another woman's take on roots, you might try the book called Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart. It is a memoir grounded in her childhood on a North Dakota farm along with her struggles concerning getting away and being drawn back to that place. She adds to the story by digging into her family's roots, and even the area's geographical history and the history of the plants that made up the wildlife in the area before it was farmed by her ancestors. (Thanks, S & T! I loved the book.)


Anonymous said...

Great post. I like how you put the past roots together with the current roots. I don't think that I ever thought of them together like this before. I've always seen them as separate, but, of course, they aren't.

Regina Clare Jane said...

I liked this very shows just how deep our roots can go without us even being aware of it!
And just how precious those roots really are!

Beaman said...

I found your post very interesting. Many things you wrote reflect instances in my own life and I'm sure most readers will take bits from it in a similar way. Good writing. :)

Tori said...

I am reading this book right now!
From someone who has rooted several places, I enjoyed all your thoughts!!!

Patois said...

Very enjoyable read. Do you think you'll ever go for a visit, even though you have no relatives still living there?

sister AE said...

Thanks, everyone for your comments.

I recently read (2nd or 3rd hand) of a rabbi talking about the shallow, but entwined rots of giant redwood trees, how it was only the mesh of roots that keep the great trees standing. The rabbi then used that as an analogy to communities standing together only by entwining. Sorry I don't have the reference now.

We drove through the midwest last fall on a great almost-half-way-across-the-country trip for Thanksgiving. We passed through southern Illinois one afternoon, then back through a week later at night. We didn't stop in my hometown.

I think of it as a nice place to be from, but the town didn't have much to offer adults when I was there, and I think it has less now. My mom has been back for visits and has been disappointed.

I can see a trip at some time, maybe for a class reunion or something, but I think I draw more from the memories and the history than I could from the "now". - AE