Twice in the past two years I’ve become, to borrow a title from one of Robert Heinlein’s books, “a stranger in a strange land.”
The experience has made me really value, for the first time, the “roots” portion of the “roots and wings” parents are told they need to provide for their children.
The “lands” really weren’t so strange, I suppose–although Chicago can seem like a foreign world to someone who has spent 35 years in a county where the largest city had a population of 3,500. More recently, Sturgeon Bay, Wis., at 9,500, is a little more like what I’m used to, and it’s on Lake Michigan. I grew up on the opposite side of Lake Michigan.
No, the stranger was definitely me. It was an odd feeling to walk into the grocery store and know no one; to sit in a pew at church and see no familiar faces; to walk down the sidewalk and get no greetings except for the polite ones small-town dwellers offer even to unknowns.
It was so different from the life I had grown used to, where my name and byline in the local paper made me practically a household word. Even that was something I had to develop, though, since I moved to that town when I was in my late 20s.
I was able to make that move because of the “wings” my parents encouraged. They had given me the confidence to move away from the nest, to trust in my own abilities to adjust to life wherever I lived it. It’s a gift I still use.
After that first move, I eventually noticed that in my new town, newcomers were usually friends with other newcomers. Why? Not because those who were born and raised there were unwelcoming, but because they already had a network of friends and families who used up their time. Their circle was full. We newcomers had to stick together and form our own networks. That’s when I first started thinking about roots.
Thirty-five years later, I made these more recent moves, and because they gave me little time to create new networks, I’ve thought about roots a lot more. I finally put it into words one day.
“There’s no one around who shares my early memories,” I told my husband.
There’s no one who knows my parents, or remembers my dad’s bakery; no one who knows that I was the spelling champ in grade school or can point out the house where I grew up. There’s no one who remembers the young me, or the hopes and dreams I once had. To the people around here, I have no history; it’s as if I were born yesterday.
In the same way, I don’t know the convoluted relationships between people who have always lived here; I don’t remember when the hair salon was once a funeral home, or what the Catholic church looked like before they built the new one. I’m gradually making friends with my neighbors and community–but not within any historical context. My roots didn’t grow in this soil; they don’t intertwine with anyone else’s here.
Very recently, however, I’ve reconnected with some of those roots, with some of those people who do share my early years and my memories. It happened when I discovered a Facebook page for my high school graduating class. The names and photos I found there brought a deluge of memories; the messages I’ve exchanged renewed acquaintances with people who are part of that foundation upon which my life has been built.
When I phoned the woman with whom I’d been best friends since first grade, we talked for two hours with as much ease as if our last conversation had been only the day before. We had catching up to do, but our shared memories provided such a warm and secure launch pad.
Wings are a wonderful thing. The ability to leave the familiar and strike out with confidence into the unknown is something to be valued. But the roots we put down when we’re young provide a strength and confidence, and a warm comfort, that perhaps we don’t truly learn to value until we’re far from them.