Friday, November 30, 2007

Sunday Scribblings #86: Mis-spent Youth

Sunday Scribblings Prompt:

Did you "mis-spend" your youth? What kind of kid were you? Worrisome to your folks? Mature beyond your years? Wild? Shy? How did you spend you time? Out of curiosity, how many of you knew "what you wanted to be when you grew up" and accomplished it? How many times did you change your mind? Do you think your kid self would approve of you now?

Of course, if you prefer, write a fiction piece or write about somebody else's misspent youth. As you wish!


“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”

-Joan Didion


I spent the first nine years of my life in a world of my own design. I was at turns a sorceress (who made her 3rd-grade crushes fall in love with her using spells), a knight (my horse was imaginary but very loud), and a hunter (after I found a pair of soft leather boots in my mother’s closet that fit my small feet).

My parents, who were social workers, kept long hours and could not always afford a babysitter. I spent many days alone at home, talking to loyal imaginary companions, drawing maps of my imagined landscape, and making elaborate lunches for one.

I spun an imaginary cocoon around my life, because there were few other narratives that could make sense of our family. We lived in Davis County, Utah, which has one of the highest populations of Latter-Day Saints in the world, but we were not Mormon. The habits and beliefs that bound the community together closed us out. Like many minorities, religious and otherwise, we had the profound sense that the dominating cultural narrative was not our story.

As a child, I wrote my own stories, imagining myself as a magician or a powerful queen, beloved by her many friends and admirers – anything but a reclusive tomboy, short for her age, dogged always by an uneven haircut, a constant sunburn, and a sense of permanent loneliness.

We were the crazy bohemians, with parents who drank beer and coffee (forbidden to Mormons), and who even smoked a little pot on the weekends, when they built a fire in the fireplace or in the backyard, turning up the stereo and dancing until the neighbors called the police. (They continue to call to this day.) We were a bacterium, alive and mysterious and perhaps even malevolent, but safely contained by the molding morals of the Mormons who surrounded us. This quarantined existence became a haven for us -- but it also isolated us permanently from our community.

South Weber, Utah, where we lived and where my father still lives, was more than a neighborhood, but not quite a town. It lay like a leftover scrap of calico cloth in the valley between Layton and Ogden at the mouth of a canyon. Harsh, drying winds spewed from the canyon all year round. In the face of this hot, unwelcome breath, sagebrush, aspen, wheat and lambs’ ears grew.

Our home sat on a hill at the foot of the Wasatch mountain range. In the summer, the mountains seemed to glow from within with a green, lush light, fading to lavender in the sunset; in winter, they were cast in beautiful, sharp black and white relief. They loomed so close and so high over our small brick house that we rarely saw the sun rise until 9 a.m.

My parents designed and built our house, a few years before my mother moved out. The property lay at the edge of an older neighborhood. Beyond our green back lawn (which I helped to re-plant after destroying half of it by turning a sprinkler on to water the just-planted grass seeds, then forgetting it for six hours) there lay a wide expanse of yellow, undeveloped land. It felt as though we were living on the frontier.

Below our hill sat a small, failing farm with an abandoned treehouse and a few forgotten horses, to whom my brother and I would feed sugar cubes and handfuls of grass. In the summer we swam in the shadows of its irrigation ditches, and climbed up into its prickly, dusty olive trees.

Behind our house lay a mile square property which seemed to contain an entirely separate world. It belonged to a mysterious figure named “Norm”, who lived a mile away down a dirt road, in a house nestled in the shady, grassy crease made by the hill on which our house sat and the land beneath. My friends and I would walk down to his house and back barefoot as a test of strength and courage. Another fork in this dirt road led to a red house, the kind of neglected property that spawns suburban legends and Boo Radley tales; an abandoned school bus marooned on the property only lent it more mystery. I know that I once met the residents, figures with large bodies and rough voices, but I cannot remember their faces; perhaps I was afraid to look.

In the field between these forbidden front yards and our backyard lay a kind of arid wonderland. It had a sagebrush labyrinth, and only we knew the secret paths through it (we even dug “traps” in the sand for “strangers” who never came). There were groves of maggot-infested acorn trees perched atop rockpiles ideal for hide and seek. There were dry ditches with crumbling concrete drainage still intact, and deep ravines with water pipes suspended across them (bridges for the brave). Barbed wire for animals who died long ago snaked underneath the tall dry grasses, waiting for a misplaced ankle (mine still bears the scar from one rusting fang). Beneath a pair of tall trees, in a quiet grove that remained shady all day long, there sat an abandoned wagon. The dark wood had been rotting for what seemed like fifty years. It had a sort of mill wheel that still turned. Between its rusty wheels, mustard flowers grew. Once, nearby, we found an old soldier’s hat, half-buried in the weeds.

My grandmother, the tiny child of two Austrian immigrants, once visited us there, when I was young. An accomplished watercolorist, she set out to document this landscape with her camera, with a mind to recreate some of the still lifes made by the place where ancient farming ruins gave way to the implacable winds and rain of the Southwest. We walked the length and breadth of my own Southwestern secret garden. She stopped once, at the edge of our lawn, snapping a photo of a beautiful overturned tree trunk into which I would tuck myself for hours, reading. She made the scene into a painting, layering her quiet, God-loving imagination over the pagan dreams of my childhood.

The watercolors she made are almost all that is left of my wonderland. The venerable Norm, who swore he would never sell the land, gave in to developers in the end. My acorn tree grove, my ravines and my memories have been smoothed over and built upon. The humble farm at the foot of the hill also sold their land, and it became a massive parking lot for the 2002 Olympics. It is all for the best: the real estate values in our frontier neighborhood have gone up. South Weber does not yet have a grocery store, but one day, it may even have a Whole Foods. That is where I do my imagining now – shopping for the ingredients that will make up my next elaborate lunch, picking up secret potions to make heartburn vanish, to help my brain function better, to banish thoughts of mortality for another day.

The other day, I picked up a pomegranate, anticipating the childlike joy that would come from splitting it open to see its geode-like treasure of seeds. That child and her boundless imagination is still alive in me. Her capacity for wonder is so great; her sense of loneliness is so deep. We keep each other company now. I am glad she is safer than she was – no barbed wires in the weeds in the Boston suburbs, no religious intolerance for those who like to stop at Starbucks on Saturday mornings. But oh, how I miss those mountains, like sleeping black bears in the moonlight; those aging Western artifacts in the grass; the sense of a land that would never be sold; the dreams without limits.


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