When I started working at a college book publisher in Boston a few decades ago, my new friend there asked me whether I had been here long. By “here” she meant America. She’d detected a slight accent—an intonation, actually—revealing my foreign origins.
Because she was fifteen or so years my junior, I couldn’t resist quipping back, “Longer than you have,” which, of course, stopped her in her sweetly meant but somewhat condescending tracks (you know, the way you speak to foreigners, in that I’ll-talk-slowly-so-you-can-understand-what-I’m-saying tone).
Although I’ve been “here” since I was eight, I still don’t quite know what to say when someone asks me where I’m from. My parents—my mother was Hungarian; my father, Dutch—were international tumbleweeds. My two sisters and I were all born in different countries: Yvonne, the eldest, in Germany; Maya, my middle sister, in India; and I, the baby, in Indonesia. We relocated to wherever my father’s job (he built oil refineries) took him.
Since coming here after World War II, however, America is where we made our home. Other than a handful of years living abroad, I grew up here. I studied, worked, married, birthed my two daughters, divorced, worked some more, all here, a good chunk of that in Scituate, Massachusetts. So is this where my roots are?
It’s not just that others may still regard me as a newcomer—especially here in New England, where true natives can trace their ancestry back several generations and over three decades in one town means nothing—I’m not sure this is where I’m from or where I belong.
Instead of worrying about figurative roots, however, I’ve switched to concentrating on real roots. Among them are plants that I dug up from my parents’ house in Woodstock, New York. Yes, that Woodstock, the Mecca of peace and love and music and dope. I first transplanted the iris, the lemon lilies, and the tall golden glow Rudbeckia to flower beds around the honest-to-goodness horse barn my then-husband, or my “wasband” as a witty friend put it, and I were forever renovating.
Then, a few years later, when a tornado hit our marriage, I packed up my two girls, our cat, Gray Puff, and our belongings, including the plants, and moved them all here, to Massachusetts, where they—the girls and the plants, that is—are now flourishing. Gray Puff, of course, gave up the ghost years ago.
Besides tending to and encouraging these transplants, and keeping them from invading the territory of other flowers, I drag my little garden stool here and there as I dig and plant and sweat and get dirt under my nails. For years I also had a good-sized vegetable garden, but the maple tree grew and blocked the sun and the blackberry bushes insisted it was their space, so I gave up except for a few tomato and cucumber plants nestled between the flowers alongside the house.
Two years ago, however, my daughter Kieli invited me to share her vegetable garden with her, so we dug, and spread manure, and planted seeds and seedlings in a plot across the street from her house, alongside Musquashicut Pond. I know the soil there well because I had a small garden in that exact same spot thirty-some years earlier, when I first moved here and rented a house around the corner. It feels to me like having come full circle.
New plants, old plants, it doesn’t matter. If you prepare the soil and you water and feed them and give them sunshine, you can plant them in one place or uproot them and replant them somewhere else and they’ll make it.
You can do the same for yourself. If in a new place you surround yourself with new friends and people you care about, find meaningful work, and enjoy the good things that life has to offer, you will transplant yourself successfully and anchor yourself with new roots.
And that’s what I’ve been doing: I transplanted myself and am growing new roots in the fertile soil of Scituate. Now, the next time someone asks me where I’m from, I’ll know exactly how to respond.
“Me?” I’ll say. “Why, I’m from right here.”