“Grandma, what planet are you from?” my granddaughter asked. Startled, it took me a second to remember she wasn’t a jaded teenager insulting an uncool old lady. She was barely three years old, and she waited patiently for my answer. We were sitting at her dining room table as she picked at her lunch and I spooned oatmeal into her brother baby’s open mouth.
I kept a straight face with difficulty, and said, “I’m from Earth, Honey. Same as you.”
She’d begun the conversation with asking me the names of the planets. I tried desperately to remember the one that wasn’t a planet anymore. I couldn’t even recall how many planets were now officially in our solar system. I was pretty sure of a few that were still legitimate.
“Well, we’re here on Earth,” I said. “And there’s Venus, and Saturn.”
“There’s Mars,” she said before I could name any more. She had four fingers up in the air. Perhaps she was counting as we listed names. I hadn’t thought to count. Not that it would help me, given that I didn’t know the target number. Is Uranus still a planet? I thought. Not sure, I decided not to mention it.
Her question caused me to wonder when and how we develop a sense of Place, of Where We Are From. If asked, my granddaughter could tell us the name of her street and that “Northwest” came after that. But I don’t think she understood what city she lives in, or that one set of grandparents live several miles away in the same city while her other grandparents have to travel 1000 miles to see her. I wonder when she will grasp this concept—that she lives in a section of a city of a certain size, in a particular part of the United States. When will she understand that some of her relatives live in, or came from, other states, other countries, other continents? And how will she define herself and what she calls home?
I grew up in an Irish-American working class section of Boston, Massachusetts. Although it’s been over forty years since I left Boston, when I visit it feels like I’m coming home. Maybe it’s the local dialect, in which an “r” is pronounced like “ah.” I understand Bostonian speech. Or perhaps the geography grounds me. By the time I was seven years old, I was riding the streetcar to downtown Boston. I knew my way around. It could be the cuisine—fried clam rolls, frappes that are really milkshakes, any kind of Dunkin’ Donuts, cranberry muffins, Boston baked beans that no one made from scratch. I eat none of these things now, but thinking of them makes me want my tribal foods. It could be the visuals: dark red brick buildings, tiny cobblestone streets, Boston Common, historic little buildings next to modern business towers. I still think these are all cute. And the smells: Italian food in the North End, foggy air thick with Atlantic ocean salt, Legal Seafood’s fish and chips, the Charles River stench on a hot summer day, Fenway Park peanuts.
What sights and sounds and smells, I wonder, are my grandchildren experiencing now that will help ground them in their homes? And when will my granddaughter decide that her decidedly uncool Grandma just might be an alien?