On Roots


It seems the big horse-chestnut tree outside our apartment window will weather this winter’s London storms. It surprises us. Its neighbour fell one perfectly sunny, calm day some weeks after we had moved in.

I came home from work one evening and there it lay, having luckily fallen away from the house and not towards it. Its body was so large it hid the view of the river, but as I passed the tree, it wasn’t hard to see what had had happened. Its root system was insignificant – a mere clod of earth where there ought to have been snarled limbs and broken bones for a tree of that size.

“No roots,” I said grimly to my husband that evening.

“We’ll grow them,” he said, thinking I meant us and our new home country.

I scoffed to myself and thought, we’d have to grow them fast. A chestnut tree can live some three hundred years, the fallen tree had been substantial and if it hadn’t manage to grow roots in maybe a hundred years, then how would we manage? I thought about the song they taught us in Sunday School, the one about taking great care not to build your house on sand, but on rock, for it to last. It was true; London was constructed on clay and sand and gravel. But surely if the horse-chestnut tree had had proper roots, it would have survived? Could you just decide to grow roots? Decide it and do it? What were they, these ‘roots’, anyway?

I pondered ‘roots’ and out came ‘place’, a particular place. Knaften – the village in Lapland that was my maternal grandparents’ home. Memories of evenings by the kitchen table watching night grow; of afternoons in the baking house making Lapp bread – a cloud of flour whirling around us; of days in the potato patch in the backyard, sun hot on my back. How strange that in this village where I never lived, where only a fraction of my childhood was spent, is where I feel they might be: my roots.

Perhaps it had to do with the large shed at the end of the garden in which you could find treasures and keepsakes from generations past – shoes with soles made of wood, rusty skates, the skin of a dog – each item which, if you carried them back to the house, brought on a story. Perhaps that was roots – the stories? The legends that were our past?

“Every family is a novel,” an older French lady said to me. We were sitting in a lawyer’s waiting room. I was there to sell a house. She was amending her will. “Not necessarily a good novel,” she added.

She was preparing to leave this world. Late, she had come to the realisation she didn’t want to be buried in the family grave in town. She had told her relatives and there had been upset. “My whole life I have done my duty,” she said. “I have done whatever was needed from me. Now, when I die, I feel I want to be left alone.”

I thought, surely, it couldn’t matter where she wanted her final resting place? There wouldn’t be a lot of socialising going on.

When we buried my father in the town where I grew up, the graveyard director told me:

“A difficult dig. Lots of old roots and stuff. But there will be two lots here: one for your father and, later on, one for your mother.” She stopped herself. “There is no room for you,” she said. “Do you want us to try and squeeze you in?”

“Oh no,” I said. I didn’t belong in that town.

Later I thought, why on earth would I feel I didn’t belong in my hometown?

Perhaps it has something to do with religion. My family was Christian. Growing up, there was an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. The fault of ‘us’ entirely. Now, it seems so silly, but then, we felt we had to be apart. And we were.

In my grandparents’ village, everyone belonged to Church. They all had to love me: we were part of the same system, we had the same root.

Belonging, then?

My grandfather used to say about the Finnish people: “They know what it is like to live under the Russians.”

I like the thought of the past having been marked upon us, imprinted, of sharing things with a vast number of others – even the awful, terrible things. Again, it is like the trees, each year ring telling us something about that year: fire, drought, bitter cold. A Good Year.

Shared stories. Belonging. Language.

I disliked most of the sayings then. Scoffed at them. My grandmother sighing, “Dear Lord”, whenever something happened – me and my mother rolling our eyes. Later, my mother’s many pointless sayings, such as, “Everything can happen.” Oh yes.

Now I repeat them and they give me a strange comfort.

My mother told someone about her phone conversations with me. “We mostly sigh,” she said. And we do. There is that understanding.

I thought about the horse-chestnut tree standing tall.

So how, then, should we form strong roots for the ones who follow after?

I asked my mother. She said she and I were very different. Her roots were shallow, she said. She was not nostalgic. We had to remember it was all about some seed that fell down and sowed itself, with no help from the outside.

“Pine has shallow roots,” she said. “Fir tree roots go deep. But you can dig up a plant with its root and replant it and it can succeed very well whilst a stagnant root can die.”

We sighed.

I put the question to friends on Facebook and one of them wrote back asking if I had heard about TCK – Third Culture Kids? I had not and looked it up. It’s a concept coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem and more recently developed by David C. Pollock.

“A Third Culture Kid   (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her   developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds   relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.   Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life   experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar   background.” (Wikipedia)

Dear Lord. I didn’t like it. It seemed poor in comparison with ‘place’, and ‘people’ and ‘language.’

Belonging, I comforted myself. As long as my daughters feel a sense of belonging.

“It worries me,” I said to my mother when she next visited.

We were watching the girls having their snack. One of them spilled her milk.

“Dear Lord,” my mother said and rose to get a kitchen towel.

My daughter repeated her words.

Behind her, my mother winked at me.