November 08, 2004


I had the weekend off for the first time in some weeks now. It was glorious. My wife asked me last night what my favorite moment was and I really didn't have one. I told her that it was made up of many small pleasures and that while none of them may have stood out as particularly worthy of an extended memory, in totality, they gave me a lot of pleasure. I did run some errands this weekend: hardware store; supermarket; back again to the hardware store; and the gas station. And I cooked. A lot. I made gallons of soup, a vat of chili, and I roasted a turkey breast. Kosher turkey breast, while more expensive, is cleary the way to go. My wife deemed it the only acceptable turkey breast she had ever eaten. I also did some neglected house things, like throwing out rotted pumpkins, etc.

I did steal a little time for myself, about 10 minutes. I went and sat by the ocean. There was no one else around and it was very windy. I tried to sit there and let the salt breeze blow some of my cobwebs out. I was sad because I realized that while I had been at work, I missed the peak of the leaf change. The glorious reds and yellows and oranges that make the trees look like they are ablaze. I got a little too cold, inappropriately dressed, and went home to play with the kids.

One errand I ran this weekend got me to thinking about the concept of roots. We are a peripatetic society, or so it seems from my perch. I've lived in a couple of different states and cities and even countries. Americans, as a group, cherish their freedom to relocate as they chase the next big opportunity from state to state, region to region. And as they do, the concept of roots becomes harder to define.

For some of us, roots can be about big things. For my wife, it means that in her ancestral city, there are a couple of streets named for her family. For others, it means that significant cultural institutions are named for their family, college buildings or libraries. Others have Mayflower roots or have joined various heraldic-type societies like the Daughters of the American Revolution. There are few people who have roots like that, I think.

No, for the majority of us, roots may mean that our families have lived in a place for many generations. And as we move, roots become the place where our children went to school and grew up. As we become more mobile, it seems to me that it roots become more and more shallow and easier to put down. They become a collections of firsts. This was the first town our child was born in, the first town I was promoted to vice president in, the first town I got involved in a political campaign. So that roots become easier to pull up when you move and easier to recreate when you stop moving. And I think it is no accident that I use children in so many of my examples. Children give us roots and a place in a community that we not feel when we were younger and had less of a permanent place in it.

It may be that as you associate roots with the first time kind of experience, or even roots that simply reflect your attachment to place that it becomes harder to accept change in the physical place. As things in the physical get torn down and rebuilt or as stores go out of business, we find it harder to accept that change. What do you mean that diner closed? It's been there forever! I dislike that kind of change, even though I understand it. For instance, the cider mill in Armonk is gone. It was part of my childhood and I looked forward to sharing that with my children.

I navigate my way around Westchester, to my wife's amusement, by disappeared landmarks. I navigate a landscape inhabited sometimes only by my memory. I superimpose my map over the real topography and who is to say which one is real? Especially when my reference points are shared by someone on the other end of the telephone and we agree on a set of directions by reference to long gone places. We share the same map. We share each other's roots, a common touchstone of experience and place. Even if that place is gone.

Maybe that's what they mean when they say you can never go home again. Maybe home has changed because your roots are gone or because the roots you take with you exist only in your mind. Beats me. I just know that I agree.

Roots are not just about places, though. They are also about people. For instance, I consciously sought them out this weekend. I demanded continuity. It was my daughter's first dentist appointment. She was such a champ. After the hygienist finished, she asked me if I wanted the dentist or his associate to perform the examination and I told her that I wanted the dentist because, with this examination, he would be treating four generations of the same family. My grandfather, my mother, me, and my daughter. She was surprised to hear that. I guess it is pretty uncommon but I liked it. It gave me a feeling of connectedness, of continuity.

Roots are also about connections, about the seamless way that people interact and cross groups. About board memberships and friendships. I guess what I'm trying to say is that roots are about networks. About knowing people who can and will help you, whether from church or temple or school or professional association or clubs. These relationships are about roots. And they are not moveable. They are place specific. They may assist you with an introduction in a new place, but they won't really do more than that.

Anyway, let me leave my extended meditation with the interaction between the Girl Child and the Dentist on Saturday.

D: How old are you?

GC: I'm 3 and three quarters.

D: [Visably amused] Is that older than three and a half?

GC: Yes.

D: And when do you turn four?

GC: On my birthday. In January. January 12.

D: [Looks at me, smiles, looks back down at her] You are so cute I could just eat you right up.

GC: Oh, no, I don't taste very good.

D: That's not what your grandmother says!

GC: [Very earnestly] Oh, she's just kidding!

Posted by Random Penseur at November 8, 2004 08:47 AM

I grew up in the same neighbourhood and same house without moving. Bought a house in the same community and raised my kids and still live in the same house. When I mention selling the house because it is too big, too old, everyone goes into a panic mode, including the grandchildren (even the neighbours). They all stamp their feet and say, "We will never, never, never allow you to sell this house." Beats me, cause they all have nice homes of their own and none even want this house. I enjoyed reading your reflections on 'roots'. Guess that's the explanation. I'm part of two generations that have stayed in the same place so long, we are literally root-bound.

Posted by: Roberta S at November 8, 2004 03:28 PM

*melts at girlchild* Awwww.... :-)

Posted by: Amber at November 8, 2004 08:06 PM

i am so glad to hear about your weekend...


Posted by: standing naked at November 9, 2004 07:34 AM

Thanks for the comments, y'all.

Posted by: RP at November 9, 2004 04:54 PM

RP, what a lovely set of meandering musings about the nature of roots! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: GrammarQueen at November 9, 2004 05:04 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?