In my family, only my sister is a native-born Utahn. My parents were both tumblin' tumbleweeds for most of their lives, although they met and fell in love in Salt Lake City, where my father was studying at the University of Utah and my mother was waiting tables after a stint as a cross-country drifter and scallywag. Other portions of my clan have settled in Boise, Tampa, Pittsburgh, etc. -- I myself was born (as I noted in a previous post here ) in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Despite my status as an immigrant to Utah, however, the place in which I have lived the longest over the course of my life was Bountiful, Utah, a medium-sized town about ten minutes north of Salt Lake City -- close enough, in fact, that Bountiful bleeds into the suburb of North Salt Lake with no appreciable boundary to speak of.
Since I moved back to Utah almost a decade ago, I've had a few opportunities (if you can call them that) to visit my hometown. Bountiful has grown since I lived there, mostly in population rather than size, and from what I can determine it's become more diverse as well. Also, for what it's worth, the current inhabitants of the house I grew up in have painted it a truly unforgivable shade of yellow.
There's a joke that I often heard among non-LDS folks growing up: "In Utah, even the Jews are Gentiles!" This little slice of heathen wit comes from the Mormon practice of referring to non-Mormons as "Gentiles," a term they borrowed from Judaism's way of referring to non-Jews.
|"And furthermore, I hope you like decaf."|
I spent my early years on a quiet street, less than a block from the elementary school that I attended from kindergarten through sixth grade. It was a friendly place -- every Fourth of July there was a huge block party, where families gathered to set off Black Cats and Whistling Petes. I'm sure in a heathen neighborhood coolers of beer would have been passed around, but on our block the most exciting use a cooler was put to was to ice down the Mayo family's poor dog when it decided it would be a good idea to chase down and bite a Ground Bloomer as it skidded crazily over the asphalt.
I attended Sunday school and Mass weekly at St. Olaf's Catholic Church. This was a curious obligation, as my mother has never been religious and my father, while raised Catholic, has always had a bone-deep mistrust of any and all formal groups, including and especially religious organizations and political parties (sports teams are the exception to this rule). Later, my mom would explain that our time at St. Olaf's had essentially been an attempt by my parents to protect my sister and me from the atmospheric Mormonism of Bountiful, like an injection to counteract the effects of some particularly enthusiastic, ever-present bacterium.
I was fairly religious as a youth. I remember my first Communion as a pretty big deal, at least on my father's side of the family (the Catholic side). I was an altar boy, and was confirmed as well as baptized in the faith. I was active in my church's Cub Scout program, although I did not continue on to join the Boy Scouts (in part because Cheryl, the woman who, along with her husband, did most of the heavy lifting regarding those programs was as violent and terrifying as she was diminutive).
Growing up Catholic / a Gentile in Bountiful meant more than Bible lessons, Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners and nearly dying of boredom every Sunday, though.
From an early age, I was friends with a kid who lived across the street named Matt. Matt and I were typical young kids of the late 1980s; obsessed with bad action movies and Nintendo games, enthusiastic Huffy riders, etc. Usually we would hang out at my house or the playground down the street; this was because Matt came from a traditional Mormon family, which meant that his parents had stuffed seven or eight kids into the same quantity of square footage in which my parents raised only two children.
Despite the religiosity of his family, Matt was something of an instigator and had a delinquent streak. The first time I ever toilet-papered a house was during a sleepover with Matt -- ditto the first time I scratched my initials into the splintery wood of a park table.
|The cottony-soft feel of transgression|
I was invited often to the various church activities that Matt's family attended, and as is the case in Mormon culture, those activities took up a substantial amount of time, almost every night of the week. LDS communities in Utah, especially in devout and homogeneous areas like Bountiful, are tightly knit and the religious infrastructure is integrated into secular life -- such as it exists - to an amazing degree. Everything from the birthday parties I was sometimes invited to to the local PTA to business in Bountiful was to some extent an extension and reflection of the church. Conversations about school issues or business deals are carried on at the ward (the LDS term for a congregation) level. Mothers at my school would routinely refer to each other "sister" at public functions - my own mother excluded, of course.
I went to church with Matt maybe once or twice, but it never took. I lacked the language of Mormon culture, the shared norms and traditions that start even before Primary, the Mormon Sunday school that children of LDS parents start attending when they are toddlers. While Matt's parents and mine shared many values -- both forbid us to watch horror movies or MTV, for example, although we did so surreptitiously -- there were tremendous gulfs between our families' versions of "normal," like my parents' occasional beers or glasses of wine, or the ubiquitous and vaguely creepy religious artwork that bedecked Matt's family's walls.
|if you have ever been inside an LDS home, it is approximately 100% likely that you have seen this picture|
And so, toward the end of grade school -- fifth grade,perhaps? Fourth? -- the inevitable happened. I was asked to sit down by my mom and dad, and they explained to me as gently as they could that I wouldn't be seeing much of Matt any more. His parents had phoned mine, and in the ensuing scorched-earth argument, our neighbors let my folks know that they were uncomfortable with Matt spending so much time "away from his community" -- i.e., the young men of his ward. I.e., Mormon kids, not me.
As far as traumatic experiences as an "outsider" go, this was relatively tame, and I fully acknowledge that. There are members, former and current, of the Mormon church who had to struggle with issues of sexual orientation, of racial identity, of abuse, of broken families. I have known these people, and have seen their courage first hand. Likewise, in no way was my experience one that can be extrapolated to all of Bountiful, let alone the LDS church in general. I have scores of Mormon friends, and they are welcoming, inclusive, in many cases critical of aspects of their religion, and committed to changing the portions of it that they view as archaic or wrong-headed. Most Mormons I have known are generous, good-hearted, decent people.
But my childhood was substantially an experience of separateness for me --- of existing alongside and outside of a tightly-woven, well integrated society that offered a complete world experience to those on the inside, and that offered a polite but very firm "move along, please," to those not on the inside. . Growing up Gentile in Bountiful meant growing up, to some extent, lonely.
(Note: this is the first installment in what will hopefully be a series of posts about contributors' experiences growing up in Mormon communities. Stay tuned!)