Rocks & Roots
I used to spend hours each day with my mother at her senior living apartment. That ended suddenly, one day in March, when I found a sign on the door saying the building was closed to visitors because of COVID. After five months now without a serious, face-to-face talk with anyone but my husband and our dog, I feel an increasing need to say something meaningful to somebody different. I’m an introvert, a poet, comfortable with small spaces. Given all that’s going on in the world, it feels safest inside these four walls. The pandemic has exposed some scary things—there’s a polarity, a mean-spiritedness around us. People choose camps: “I’m religious” . . . or “I’m scientific” . . . or “I’m liberal,” or “libertarian,” or “conservative.” We could parse it a hundred different ways. In today’s political climate, you have to pass a membership test—you have to choose an identity and wear it like a medal. Here’s my confession, this fifth month of COVID—in this climate, I’m a failure.
I grew up in a family that believed in ghosts. I know eyes are rolling. I should say—enough people in my family experienced apparently ghostly encounters to lead me to believe in them, despite never seeing one myself. The photo above is of the upstairs landing at our family farm. The house was built by my Finnish-speaking grandparents. Through the small door dimly visible in that little bathroom was a dark and narrow closet that we called a putka. Its ceiling was slanted, nestled under the roof, and you had to crouch and crawl to move in it. It’s been almost five years since we emptied the house and sold it, and as the anniversary of the closing approaches, I’ve been thinking about that house. When I was a kid, I thought the putka had a ghost. No one in particular, just a ghost. Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about ghosts—the one in the putka, the ones on our streets. There are suddenly things that frighten in our streets. Figures in camouflage, unidentified, driving ominous vehicles without markings. I’ll get to them shortly. But perhaps you’d like to meet my putka ghost first?
I walked up to the classroom door, my mouth dry from a mix of hope and dread. Behind that door, the Irish poet and future Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, would be teaching a poetry workshop. The day before, I’d gone to the organizational meeting for the class. There were many of us there, hoping to be admitted to the workshop—most were Harvard undergrads. A tormenting angel whispered on my shoulder, reminding me of the ways I didn’t belong. I worked on Harvard’s support staff, neither student nor faculty. I was from the Midwest, a “rural girl” whose dad was an underground miner and whose mother grew roses, glistening beside the sauna door. I liked to write about my father’s iron-stained work clothes, those glistening roses—had earned a BA, writing about them. At the organizational meeting, Heaney had explained that he could admit only twelve students. He said we should submit poems. He would place a drop box outside the classroom door, and he would read our poems and decide. He’d said, “I’ll have to be brutal.” I had submitted poems, and now the class list was posted on the forbidding door. I held my breath, narrowed my eyelids, and looked. My name was on it! He’d been brutal, and my name was there. Of course, that meant other names weren’t there.
Every fall, my dad, Oiva, would hook his trailer to the tractor (a trailer he’d made by welding together a frame and rear axles from two different vehicles—an old car and a Model T Ford more than a hundred years old), then he and my mom would head off to “The Forty.” My dad would fell trees—chainsaw whining—and cut them up. They’d load the wood onto the trailer, and if they were lucky, haul it home without hanging up in a mud hole. But my father had grown up on a farm. He knew how to get free of a mud hole. High school educated, he worked as a miner when he grew up and loved his work! My dad’s youngest brother Arne, on the other hand, went to college—the only one among the siblings. He’d grown up on that same farm but became a college professor. He too loved his work. I know personally. I was a student in his classes. My dad and Arne have both passed on. You might think those two farm boys would have had little in common as adults. You would be wrong.
The dress I’m holding in the photo is one I wore in my mid-teens. It’s homemade. I love its bell sleeves, that simple silhouette. Later, during my college years, my parents bought our family farm. The house had few closets, so Mom took garment bags full of outgrown clothing to my Salli grandparents’ house. The bags hung in a closet there for decades until an aunt found them and returned the things that had survived an invasion by moths. My mother then gave each of us adult kids the clothing that had been ours, the little green dress among them. Since rediscovering that dress, I’ve felt strangely anxious about it. I knew the dress had something to say, if it would just declare itself. A few days ago, I realized—anxiety is the point. The dress reminds me of my lifelong anxiety over fashion. It speaks to me of my fraught relationship with politics.
It’s December again, the month my grandmother, Mummu, passed away. This year marks forty years. In my linen closet is a small box that contains the baby booties pictured above. Mummu knitted and gave the booties to me when I was an awkward, skinny girl who wanted nothing as much as I wanted to become a mother. When she presented them, she said, “In case I die before you have a baby.” That was Mummu, forthright, down-to-earth. I never did have that baby. But I have kept the booties tucked away, and when I notice the box as I go to the closet for sheets, they remind me of her. The booties speak to me about disappointment, too, and the way life has soothed it—more broadly, the way life gradually prepares a person for what lies ahead. Sometimes, you just know that the future you’d imagined will not be yours, and you come to face that hard fact with acceptance, even a sort of embracing.