Wednesday, April 23, 2014


So here I am in Provo again, hanging out in Spare Oom at the top of my mom's house, lying lazily across the guest bed and typing rather awkwardly on the Surface I brought along for the ride. Mom's turning 70 this week, and it's kind of a big deal, so here I am to celebrate (and maybe help clean out the basement a bit).

I'm trying to think how best to explain the complicated and sometimes paradoxical feelings I have for this city. Right. Do you have any siblings? Remember how in childhood you'd get in fights, yell, complain, pick on each other -- but if somebody else dissed your sib, you'd punch that somebody else in the nose? Yeah, it's like that. I'll be the first to admit that Provo has its faults, but let an outsider start making fun of the place and I'll also be the first to bristle and leap to its defense.

Provo Mayor's Office seal. Logo by Crystalballsoft
Our family moved to Provo the year after my dad died. I'd never lived anywhere other than California, and at the time I was convinced I never wanted to live anywhere else, despite Mom's best efforts to warm us to the idea of moving to Utah. And for some time, my worst fears were realized. Provo in winter was grimly cold and arid, and at the time the Geneva Steel mill was still polluting away with impunity, so you practically had to chew the air before you breathed it. I moved from a place with numerous family members in the same neighborhood to a spot where I knew no one except my own family and my aunt and uncle's family who lived seven miles away. At the time Provo was over 90% Mormon, and although I shared the faith, the local culture surrounding the religion felt insular and judgmental compared to the pan-religious Bay Area culture I'd left behind. Provo was small-town, isolated, bland, and utterly lacking in things to do. I hated it for a solid year.

And then I had the best attitude adjustment I could possibly have experienced. I went back to California for the summer.

Utah schools let out earlier than California schools do, which meant that I got to attend the last day of school with my friend Varalyn. To say it was eye-opening was a drastic understatement. For the first time I noticed the way the physical plants of schools in the district resembled prisons. I saw how casually brutal the students were to each other, how much disrespect and disgust they showed to teachers and parents, the way the boys openly groped girls' bodies as though they had the right, the way kids affected a blasé attitude toward everything as a kind of psychic body armor against the cruelty of their peers. And I thought about my high school in Utah, all red brick with beautiful flowerbeds that the students wouldn't think of tearing up, the way people embraced their passions, and the way so many students had gone out of their way to be kind to me, the awkward new girl who always stared at the floor. And I realized with a bit of a shock that although I missed many places in California, I wasn't missing out on a thing when it came to high school. Even I could see that I was better off in Provo than I would have been in California.

So I went back to Utah. It was still roasting hot in summer and frigid in winter, everyone still assumed everyone else was Mormon, it was still isolated and small-town. But Provo also had the most beautiful old Carnegie library, with reading marathons where you could stay up all night and read books to raise money (on one of these nights, a devious librarian introduced me to Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" around 2 a.m.). Provo had a canyon filled with world class rock formations, where in autumn the trees blazed up in colors I didn't believe were actually found in nature. Provo had a university filled with art and music and international film and a planetarium with an observation dome and a telescope, where nearly every week there were cheap or free things available to do if you looked on the campus bulletin board. Provo had an Italian restaurant set up like an old speakeasy, the entrance designed to look like a flower shop where you had to press the right button to get in. Provo had people who were determined to make their own fun, whether that meant setting up a fancy dinner for their dates in a cavernous service elevator, going to Stan's to get dollar milkshakes on Mondays, wrapping solid blocks of party ice in towels and sliding down the hill next to the Marriott Center, playing Cliff Hanger or air hockey at the Wilkinson Center arcade, or hiking up to the big Y on the side of the mountain and looking down across the whole valley. Like most truly interesting people, Provo needed some time to be discovered and explored.

My mother's house is built on the side of Y Mountain, not far from the trailhead which leads to the Y. It's been our family home since 1984, and my youngest sibling doesn't remember any other home but this one. From the top of the house, I can look out over the valley and see BYU campus, the twin smokestacks of the Provo Power Company, the silver expanse of Utah Lake and the mountains rising beyond it. I see the new spring growth on the willow trees across from Mom's house, the white apple blossoms on the volunteer apple tree that's grown up in her side yard. I think of all the astonishing people I met while living here, including my husband. And although I'm happy having been transplanted to the Puget Sound and hope to stay there for good, I know that Provo is grafted into me, its branches nourishing my roots. So much of who and what I now am grows from my years here, and I would be foolish to pretend anything else.


djole said...

Nicely written!
I remember the Geneva-flavored snow from my freshman year of college. So many things have changed, yet it's still Provo at heart.

MarieC said...

I love this! I only lived in Provo for 10 years, but it is grafted into me as well.

Soozcat said...

It does leave its mark, doesn't it?