Back to the Hive
I have only lived in Utah as a resident for five and then two years – as a college student, and then as a fiance and newlywed. But I have been connected to the state my entire life. My grandparents lived here when I was growing up and now both extended families and many friends dot the Wasatch Front. It should be easy, one-stop shopping for home and nostalgia.
I remember as a kid, living in the Midwest and driving west on Interstate 80 every summer, from Michigan, Illinois, Iowa. And then for a time from California over the Sierra Nevada mountains. The pull to Utah felt epic, as though we were following a path behind a long line of pilgrims, drawn to the mecca, the center of our ethno-religious gravity. I would watch the changing landscape, through endless Nebraska, until the subtle coloring and slopes told me it was Wyoming and I began to get excited. My mother would distract us, pointing out the antelope, encouraging us to keep looking for the mysterious jackalope, but we knew this was just to save her sanity. We were now in proximity to ask the question we had been waiting for: “are we there yet?” Driving in another car years later, going east instead of west, I cried to my new husband: “how can I leave when I have only just settled in?” It did not seem right to move from our families and the place I perceived was home to a deeply held identity.
And yet these are romantic memories. Utah is also a place where I have always been the Other. We were the grandchildren who lived away, showing up to a world of established routines and relationships, always the new kids. I arrived at BYU from “the Mission Field” with frizzy black hair, owlish glasses, and intellectually some (un)holy mix between young Oliver Cowdery and Joan of Arc. Most of my fellow classmates were sporting pink Izod shirts, skirts with tiny whales, and perfect blond bobs. They liked their religion tidy and their education fun. No one wanted to engage in textual discourse with the intense weirdo who made her own clothes and wore Vans shoes with gingham skirts. I was a cultural outsider and profoundly undatable.
Eventually, for a span between pumpkin and midnight, I got organizationally attractive, cute enough to be asked on many first dates. But I married a boy from the University of Utah and moved east. And then my kids became the cousins who lived away. And then we were the quirky black sheep family. And then the family our families hoped no one would ask about. When visiting, small things became difference. I would run into college friends in the lush yards of their lovely houses filled with many children and the contrasting image of our rundown urban apartment hovered like judgement in my mind. And big things became difference. Communal opinions and beliefs tossed around like darts without any regard for where they might land. I once left the dinner table when a particularly painful statement about The Laramie Project hit me right in heart. People glanced at my retreat without registering insight or regret; I was just a strange woman with strange ways. The Other.
For a time we stopped going as often. We were busy with work and high school and we did not have the time to drive or the money to fly. I was also feeling protective of our family values, feeling they were not acknowledged as values, let alone respected, in the microworld of Mormon majority. But I still missed our families and the seemingly ancient connection to the land. I always saw the mountain range as so many goddesses lying on their sides, elbows crooked on their waists, hips and breasts jutting in all directions, leaning against each other and laughing at the all the nonsense below them. They had always seemed female to me, even as a child – beautiful, aloof and a bit wanton.
This year I did something I have never done before. I flew into Salt Lake and spent a few days incognito with a dear friend I have known for twenty years, just her and me and Utah. It was the first time I had been in the state without history, subtext, or obligation. The way people do who just visit without pushing a handcart of baggage in front of them. I peeled away years and layers of wary resentment. I felt, not home exactly, but a welcome guest.
This feeling has stayed through my visit with family. I sense the eggshells that we all step on and around. But my perspective has shifted over time, and now I see this as respectful in its own way. And the differences, which are still many, seem dwarfed by my Wasatch sisters rising up so close I can reach out and touch them. I used to think the pull was only about my religious origins, but I am realizing that the pioneers were just one group worshiping at the foot of these mountains. They offer a standing invitation, and this year, I accepted.