Rocks & Roots
Go ahead and roll your eyes now, because if you read what follows, you might think I’ve slipped off some cognitive cliff. Slipped would be an apt word—it’s January in the Midwest, cold and gray. A night of freezing rain during our last snowstorm left every surface treacherous: parking lots, driveways and sidewalks, lonely side streets. I find myself hunkering down. My eyes turn to the light of the TV screen as if they need a false sun, until my eyelids drop under their own weight. In this winter malaise, I dream about mountaintops. The strangest things happen there—encounters and “glimpses of” that will shape a person. I have two stories from mountaintops. They’re probably similar to stories you’ve told, a bit odd, a bit puzzling, but part of your bedrock.
On a winter night in 1988, I crossed a quiet street in Northampton, Massachusetts, just as a white cat stepped into the cone of light beneath a streetlight. It hesitated, then hurried across and disappeared into the dark. At the sight of it, my heart felt a shock, then sadness, and I was thrust back to the year I was twelve when I’d had a white cat I had betrayed. So many years later, I still felt guilt. On that cold street in Northampton, I didn’t know that I was not done with white cats—there would be another, a blue-eyed second chance, named Phoebe.
My father’s father has been on my mind. Like all my immediate forebears, my grandpa Gust was an immigrant. He emigrated from Finland in 1907 and never spoke more than broken English. My interactions with him were mostly via translation by my parents and grandmother. I took this photo of grandpa Gust when I was in high school. He had been widowed for years by then. He’s sitting in his place at his table, a round, spool-legged table wedged between the wooden cabinet of the radio and the stairs to the second floor—between, on the remaining sides, a hutch and the window sill with its sharp-smelling pots of geraniums. We had to crowd together around my grandfather’s table, but as often as we did, the man himself remained mysterious to me.
The photo at the top of this post is of my mother, Rauha, reading the newspaper in her room at our family farm. A few years ago, she made the hard decision to sell the farm and now lives down the street. She is deeply private, doubly so because she’s a Finn. We Finns are famous for our reticence. Mom would draw apart to that room, sometimes sleeping, sometimes reading. I quietly snapped the photo that winter day, wanting to preserve the moment and even the place. I could see the day coming when we would no longer have the farm, its quiet fields and serene tree line. I was sensing the approach of days so upending that I’d want to make my own retreat to the woods.
January 20th is for me a hard day. My husband and I have always joked that we’re among those ridiculous, childless people in movies and TV commercials who are ruled by their pets. Our furry overlords are Libby and Homer—that’s the two of them in the photo above, Libby in back. On a recent January 20th, our Libby, one of the sweetest dogs in the world, left us. But not before she had taught some lessons, lessons of the heart.
On the wall at my grandparents’ house hung a picture—a night scene with a wolf on a hillside, a reproduction of a painting by Alfred Kowalski. I was drawn to it, would gaze into it and imagine the story of that wolf. When I grew up and wrote a novel, I put the Kowalski print into it—hung it on the wall at a character’s house. Details from my life show up often in my writing, especially from childhood. The things that surrounded us when we were young stay with us. Occasionally, they’ll shimmer into conscious memory, beckoning with a gentle hand, calling our attention. Consider the photo at the top of this post, taken years and years ago of three girls on their grandmother’s couch. Those girls are my sisters and I.