Sunday morning, final day. First concern: coffee. Rexburg and Provo, Utah, must be the only college towns in America without a Starbucks. Lemme just say, if you ever find yourself in a town without coffee, the McDonald’s Skinny Vanilla Iced Latte is your bitch. (I fully realize that, in writing the above, I am the bitch of McD’s, but … let me keep my delusions if not my dignity….)
After a few false starts due to all the new and improved roads, I found the house, the one my ancestors built and where we lived when we were here. I have always felt sadness that my father had to sell it. I never realized at the time how devastating the whole Idaho experience ended up being for my dad. In trying to recapture and fix his relationship with his past, so much of which was wrapped up in that house, time was against him. The Carter years were horrible for farmers, and after trying to keep the farm going by commuting weekly to work in California, my dad finally had to sell his childhood home at a bargain basement price, knowing full well the new buyers would never love it the way he did. One sister still gets nauseous even at the mention of the Jessica Lange/Sam Shephard movie Country; it’s way too close to home.
So it was wonderful to see the house from the road. Someone has planted a whole stand of trees along the long driveway that leads back to it, giving it an elegant, lush approach. From the road, the house looked to be in beautiful condition, and also seemed to be a working farm.
I drove with some trepidation up the driveway; after all, this could be a tidy but hostile farmer. A dog barked at me when I walked up and knocked on the door. A big guy – people are tall up here, the average man is over 6 feet – answered. I said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but my grandfather and great-grandfather built this house – ”
“Are you Conn’s daughter?” he said.
We talked for half an hour, and I got to tour the first floor. The house was in horrible condition when the owner bought it, but his wife had long had her eye on it; when they could finally afford it, they bought it and have treated it with care. I left there beaming and even now feel a bit teary. I can’t even express how happy I am that Dad’s baby is finally being treated with love and respect, and it looks like that will be the case for years to come. The thought of that big elegant building with so much history decaying into a ruin has always made me feel awful; it’s not a shrine, but in so many ways, it’s my dad. It’s as if a portrait of him has been faithfully restored and is in a safe place, and I am more grateful for that than for any of the zillion things that I am grateful for on this trip.
I made a quick stop at the quiet little cemetery where my grandparents, great-grandparents, and father’s little brother are buried. It’s the first I’ve seen my grandma’s headstone, and I realized that although we lived in close proximity to her, we hardly ever saw her in the years we lived there. She was intense, complex, and, for my parents, often difficult, but she was always kind to me; she liked the fact that I played the piano, and she wrote to my dad saying that she loved the Eldest’s name because it was so German. (Eldest is, after all, named for my dad’s grandma.) To be honest, I felt nothin’ much. Mom and I had frequently biked to the cemetery; it was a nice approximately 6 mile round trip on almost entirely empty roads. Totally different vibe from my earlier cemetery visit, which is a damn good thing.
From there, I headed up to the site of the failed Teton Dam. Crumbling but still massive, it was nearly deserted other than for a handful of onlookers. I told them our story. Our house was only 2 miles as the crow flies from the water’s path. The 280 foot dam produced about a 14 foot tidal wave that hit at the exact angle of a massive tree that my great-grandfater had blessed when the building began (it still stands, and I got a picture of it). Mom, Jon, and I were home; Dad was out of town. When the sirens went off, men went to each house that seemed in danger to make sure people got out. Mom told me to head into town, and that she and Jon would follow, but none of us felt a whole lot of urgency.
When I got to St. Anthony, the town was going nuts; it was getting evacuated, and Mom and Jon still hadn’t showed up. I panicked, and tried to get out of town a back way; I got there just as road blocks were being put up. A couple of guys who left by the same route, less than a minute before me, ended up as 2 of the 14 casualties that day.
Meanwhile, Mom and Jon were taking their time, and finally a guy went out and calmly insisted they leave. (One thing I’ve realized on this trip is that part and parcel of being from Idaho is the appearance of never being ruffled by anything, which goes hand in hand with a bone dry sense of humor; I had always thought that it was a DNA thing with my parents, but it’s unquestionably a result of living in the state.) We found out later that the guy who followed my mom out was sweating bullets; his car was being pelted by the dust and rocks that were being kicked up by the enormous wave. Mom, Jon, and he couldn’t have had more than a minute or 2 to spare.
We all found each other on the main drag in St. Anthony, stopped our cars in the middle of the street, and got out and hugged. We drove to Ashton, sure that Dad was dead, having probably driven right into the path of the water to save us. With all phone communication and the usual roads knocked out, we were finally reunited about 16 hours later.
The house miraculously stood, though there was mud everywhere. Whenever I find myself getting too hard on the Eldest for being lazy and self-centered, I need only remind myself that during the whole flood clean-up, I was a perfect little shit and disappeared, making the excuse that I just couldn’t deal with my smashed piano. Not my finest hour as a human being, but then again, there are so many to choose from.
At any rate, by the end of the summer and absolutely no thanks to me, the house was better than ever. You can read all about it in my mom’s book, Designed to Fail, which was what they said about the dam at the time. Viewing Ground Zero, which emptied out so that I had it to myself, was a strange experience. Surviving a catastrophe is nothing to take for granted, and yet it’s not something I talk about to almost anyone. I do know that, however selfishly I acted at the time, the flood impressed on me at an early age that, however much you love your stuff, it is only stuff. I’ve been less careful about some things over the years as a result, but it’s helped me a lot when the kids have wrecked things.
I ended the day with a 3 hour conversation over a late lunch with my hosts. Without divulging too much of the discussion, I discovered what brave, smart people they are. We talked a lot about the various kinds of isolation that we’ve all felt over the years in the context of our association with Rexburg. Mine was, as has been noted, profoundly connected to being a non-Mormon; I was able to confirm, thanks to their honesty, that that wasn’t all in my head. Theirs has occurred in the last several years, and is a different sort altogether. But most importantly, I am really grateful for these two funny and warm friends. If you’re reading, you two, know that you can count on me as I will count on you in the years to come.
I’ll close by stating my renewed dedication to giving Fly a life, and with deep thanks to the spouse for understanding, supporting, and being genuinely interested in this trip. Part of this summer’s madness has been dealing with the changes brought to our relationship by the success of Savage Mules (Yes! I knew I could get a plug in!), and part by the fact that we’re approaching the anniversary of 14 years together – a long time that has been as intense as can be expected given 2 equally ferocious souls. I just want to say that, DP, I love you. Let’s be as good to each other as we are for each other, OK?