I stand with my son in northern Utah. Together we harvest raspberries in my aunt’s backyard. Mountain foothills blanketed in fall colors surround her home. A late September chill fills the air. I could stare at these mountains for hours. I draw upon the memory of their strength when I am away from this land of my birth. My soul drinks in their beauty. I didn’t realize I was so thirsty.
Nothing else signals my return home as much as the familiar crest of Mount Timpanogos. My little boy calls the mountains “May-May”. I point to these rocky wonders and watch his face light up with awe. My son and I are in Utah for two weeks this year. Each day is a treasure. This isn’t his homeland, but I am pleased to introduce him to the beauty of mine.
“This is where your mama grew up,” I tell him.
I look down and notice that my 21-month-old son’s face is covered with fresh berry stains. “Mmmm…” he smiles and reaches into the basket for another handful of bliss.
I place a raspberry in my mouth. The soft weight of it rests on my tongue. The taste transports me back in time. I grew up picking raspberries. Each year, my mother canned dozens of bottles of homemade raspberry jam. The sweetness in my mouth and the fall colors create an elixir of profound homecoming. These mountains, this climate, and the beauty of Utah are forever woven into the fabric of my being.
My little one eats a green berry and looks at me quizzically.
“That one wasn’t ripe. Pick the dark red ones, my love.” I point out the difference and laugh.
I look up to the mountains taking in a deep, peaceful breath. It has taken me a long time to heal the fractures in my past that once made Utah a difficult place to call home.
At 17, I left Utah to attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon. At the time, my college bound self never wanted to return to live behind (what my frustrated and freethinking friends called) “The Zion Curtain”. I grew up in Utah County and struggled with the homogenous worldview around me. I longed for more. An insightful high school biology teacher suggested I consider applying to Reed College. She knew I’d resonate well with Reed’s free-spirited and rigorous approach to academic inquiry. I received a generous grant making my attendance there possible. I found many kindred spirits in Portland and chose to study comparative religion as a way to make sense of my Mormon heritage.
Over time, I became a teacher/professor of comparative religions and philosophy. My heart and mind opened to the beauty found in the world’s wisdom traditions, including Mormonism. My studies at Reed transformed me. I no longer felt locked into one way of looking at the world. Utah also changed. The Beehive State is far more complex and diverse than it was at the time of my youth. Today, I truly honor my heritage. I embrace the good in it even as my own spiritual path led me to Unitarian Universalism and a daily yoga/meditation practice. Today, I feel at home, welcomed, and free in the land of my birth.
Why did it take so long to feel this way?
In my happy fantasies, my parents are still married. They greet me at the door and take their beautiful grandson into loving arms. He comes to know the house of my youth. Through his heart and mind, a new generation of memories is stitched into each crack and crevice. I see my son run down the hallway of their modest home with joy. He eats his grandmother’s homemade bread and we go out back to pick fresh tomatoes from the family garden. Each of the pine trees in the yard represents a family Christmas. Stories fall from my lips and settle into the soil. These stories take root and transform his grandparent’s home a beloved place.
But this is a fantasy.
The back bedroom doors in the working-class home I grew up in are now sealed shut. A small business occupies the front two rooms. The woman who cooked homemade bread and made raspberry jam is gone. My immediate family fractured irreparably under the weight of my mother’s mental illness. She cut ties with nearly half of her children, including me. The kitchen is empty of the sweet aromas characterizing my childhood. Now, sharp heals walk on hardwood floors and accountants push buttons on a cheap microwave to warm lunch.
The last time I was in Utah, I visited this place.
“Do you mind if I take a few moments and look around?” I asked after introducing myself.
Pregnant and standing on the precipice of a new chapter of life, I walked through the house of my youth overwhelmed with emotion. I wondered what I looked like to the busy staff. Staring down the hallway, words failed to express the longing in my heart. How I wanted to see little children run up and down the center of the house laughing.
Just as the taste of a fresh raspberry off of the vine transported me, so too, standing in that home made time spin backwards.
I see myself running through the hallways playing chase with my sisters and brother. Mom braids my freshly washed hair before bed. My father arrives home late from work as usual. We all rush to the door to embrace him in our pajamas. We take turns standing on his slippery dress shoes and he “dances” with us.
My parents could not have anticipated the difficult future in store for them. Tragic coldness and confusion ended their marriage. Four of their seven children left Mormonism. My mother’s sickness cast a dark shadow into all of our lives. Yes, ultimately it was a home of heartbreak. I know this. I’ve accepted this. However, it was the beauty of my family’s past that stirred my soul as I stood staring down the hallway. In that moment, I vowed to keep that beauty alive in my own heart and pass the good of it along to my soon-to-be born child.
My husband reminded me, “Amy, you carry that beauty with you.”
I didn’t visit the ghost of my childhood home on this trip. I didn’t need to. The loving homes of my extended family shelter us today. Like skilled alchemists, my beloved aunts help me extract the sweetness that exists in memories and surround my son with the goodness of Utah. He won’t know the home of my youth. He won’t know his maternal grandmother. Yet, he will know the mountains, the open air, and our loving extended family that embraces him with joy.
While I wish my mother were able to meet her grandson, the ghost of her absence no longer haunts me. While I can no longer return to the home of my childhood, I am completely at home in this moment.
I’ll always be a mountain girl. This is the land of my birth. These rugged mountains will stand gorgeous, tall, and steadfast long after my body returns to nature’s elements. I find peace in this fact.
We finish harvesting nature’s sweetness. I look at my little one and smile. Raspberries, mountains, and fresh fall air fill my heart with deep gratitude.
I carry this beauty with me and place it in my heart, my true home.