This is the Place
A N O V E L B Y
There has been a renewed interest in "This Is the Place" since it was published in 2001 just before the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City Utah. Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints is on trial in Utah for rape. "Big Love" has been a two-year HBO hit. And Mitt Romney, a Mormon who calls Utah his Zion, is running for the Republican presidential nomination. One way to learn about how this unique culture affects these current events is to read work by an author who was raised there, knows the culture intimately, does not depend on research only.
There is a family story. It is told that when my Gram Harriet left her career and piano behind at her grandparent's house in Salt Lake City to come to Holladay to live with her mother, she left the breadth and breath of her life. Brock, her husband, had been determined to do what was impossible--to replace that life piece by piece. He finally settled on replacing the piano; perhaps he saw that he couldn't do all the rest for her, or perhaps he saw that the piano was, after all, the key segment of her soul's puzzle.
“Everyone knows Harriet's stubborn as an ox and blue-blooded and high strung as a thoroughbred,” Brock said, “So it's no onus on me if I happen to say so.” That's the way the first entry in Brock Eccles' diary read and that's the way, I, Skylar Eccles, recorded it on the day my cousin Rachel and I read it. We were in the fourth and fifth grades respectively and knew better but did it anyway.
The diary was lying next to one written by Brock's father, Hart, but that reading waited for another time that never came for Hart's diary has been lost. Only snippets survive, handed down verbally, father to son, like the tales of Odysseus. I don't have my original copy of the notes I took on that day either, flushed with the thrill of being sneaky. I memorized that first line so Rachel and I could quote it and laugh when Gram Harriet was on a tirade. Everyone-- even a couple of giggling grade schoolers--knew Grandpa Brock spoke God's truth when he said that. The rest of the story I have to remember the way my imagination recorded it and tell it much like the bards of Homer's day, with as much care with the truths of legend as possible:
Gram Harriet had been teaching piano to the neighborhood children at the old upright in the old Cottonwood Ward, the same one she had played when she first came to Brock's attention. All the brothers and sisters at the ward had agreed that Wednesdays the piano would not be scheduled for any church activity so that Harriet could teach their children. The very young children--some were as young as three-- brought small change for their lessons. Everyone knew that Gram Harriet could teach more children if she had a piano in her home and that there was one she loved and had left behind at the Cavewell home.
Grandmother Cavewell died of an attack of emphysema just seven days after Thanksgiving the year that piano appeared in Gram Harriet's living room. She had done a fine job of planning how to break through the wall of bitter pride that Harriet had built around herself. She had done it with trepidation, and without a notion that it would be her last gift to her stubborn, redheaded granddaughter or that her own death would somehow tie the whole package into a presentation Harriet would not be able to refuse.
After her grandmother's death Harriet let herself into the ward chapel with a quiet key. She played Morning Song until her fingers felt tired and her body was so numb she wasn't sure she could make the walk back home under the cloud-tainted moon. It was too late for any other amends and if music couldn't reach out to souls removed from earth then, in Harriet's view, prayer could do no better.
Not long after that Brock, along with his younger brother, Joseph, and his cousin, Stue, brought Harriet's piano from Salt Lake City. Because Stue's daughter took lessons from Harriet, Brock had asked Stue to help. He also asked him because, in Brock's words, he was as “big as a mastodon.”
All three believed that Franklin's old model A truck, one of the few engined vehicles in Holladay at the time, wouldn't be large enough to lay the piano flat. They used the old family buckboard because they considered a prone position essential to getting the instrument to Holladay, a small farming community outside the city. It was this process of getting the instrument up from the Cavewell home on the floor of the valley to the Eccles property on the foothills that most concerned Brock.
There was a wariness among the perpetrators of this piano scam. Joseph, Brock's youngest sibling, was sure Harriet would dig in her heels and not accept it. He wasn't crazy about turning the buckboard around and hauling it back; it wasn't, after all, a bag of coal or a bushel of apples.
“What can she do once the thing is in the parlor?”
“Well, she kin chop it to smithereens like she did the parlor wall.” Stue said.
“Or she c-can refuse to play until her temper flares down--it may take a couple of decades,” Joseph said..
“Well, its all been fixed so it will work” Brock said handing up blankets and quilts and ropes that would keep the piano intact on the way home.
“Sure you have...You've got her r-r-right under your thumb.” Joseph held up his pinkie with a grin that reflected his brother's own.
“Nope, you watch. Crystal got instructions from Grandmother Cavewell before she died. You just wait!”
When the buckboard came lumbering down the driveway Crystal, Brock's mother, was in the yard. “Did you remember Grandpa's note? For heaven's sake, be careful! She'll notice if there's a scratch. Be careful of the top. It'll fly open and spring its hinges. Goodness, you men. It's an instrument, remember?”
“Okay, Ma. We brought it all the way from the Avenues. I think we can get it through the yard. If you'll quit fussing, we can do the last twenty feet before Harriet gets home from teaching!”
“Yeah, you should be herding that chorus of kids. Are they going to be here before Harriet?”
When Harriet walked up the front path ten children tugged at her skirts.
“We're having a party.”
“Garret has cookies for us.”
“Come, look what we have to do our lessons on.”
The young musicians' parents stood proudly by in the parlor and the dining room and even on the porch. Most of them carried baked goods they had brought for the surprise.
There stood the piano, burnished wood, with sheets of music piled near the little circular piano seat. Harley had polished the front part--all he could get to before the guests started to arrive--with almond oil. One child at a time came forward as Garret called them and played their week's lesson “with feeling, Mrs. Eccles, just like you want me to!” Stue's daughter, Olivia, said, as a formal introduction, when it was her turn.
Harriet didn't speak. It was quiet even with the music and the children milling about. One child at a time climbed up on the adjustable stool that was twirled by Crystal to the proper height for each, with no applause in between.
Olivia played “The Birthday Party” a three-note extravaganza, right hand only, from John Thompson's Beginning Primer and then went back to her milk and cookies. Todd, Harriet and Brock's younger son, did a minuet. He was so young he was pudgy but it was still apparent that he had inherited his mother's skeletal fingers and her innate rhythm. Afterwards he hung on his father's pant leg and watched his father reloop the rope that had held the piano as the next child played.
When everyone had performed, including Bernice who was showing some promise for classical music, Harriet had been given a long, long time to think. “Well, I just think we'll have to have these busybody men make a proper piano bench,” she sniffed, “One that will hold a teacher and a student.”
“I guess that's one job I'd better not put off.” Brock said. As he walked into the kitchen to get more gingersnaps for the children he leaned toward Joseph and whispered, “Notice that even when we win, we lose?”
When the guests left, Brock said, “Harriet, there's a note from Grandfather Cavewell down near the pedals. Sometimes the best part of a gift is the card.”
The note was rolled tightly, lodged between the left pedal and the piano front panel.
Your grandmother and I kept your piano as long as we could to give your anger time to fester down.
Remember, this was a gift to you from your grandmother when you were a child. I can't give it to you again for it is already yours. Your grandmother always said, 'Love lasts about as long as you'll let it.' I guess that has special meaning now that she's gone.
Sky Eccles sat in the old '49 Buick convertible she shared with her mother, its fenders riveted with salt decay from the Utah roads. “Old but cute,” Sky thought, patting the steering wheel rhythmically out of affection and nervousness. Rusted down to a washed matte-maroon, she still wished for something less distinguishable right now. Something less tank-like with less presence. Something less dilapidated that would blend in. Something with a top that would allow her to hide out. She sat in silence looking at her grandparents' house at the edge of Holladay, a small farming community turning suburb at the edge of Salt Lake City. She felt exposed even with shadows of lilac shrubs and cottonwood trees shuttering the late afternoon light. She was to deliver sheet music from Eldridge Music Store to her grandmother but she didn't want to go in. She also didn't want to turn around and go back home.
Located at what was once the dead-end of Meander Lane, the little house had been built by her grandfather, Brock Eccles, and her polygamist great-grandfather, Hart Eccles. The house and land was in Sky's soul, both sweet and scary, like a sugar apple with a dark spot in its core.
Sky watched her younger cousins, small versions of herself and the other cousins she had grown up with. Women in Utah gave birth young and their years of fecundity continued undiminished, like peas being skimmed from a pod, quicker and easier after the first pea burst from its protective sheath. Some of these youngsters were nearly two decades younger than Sky but were still of the same generational slot.
These first cousins were running in and out of the screen door that slammed against their rumps with each misjudged exit. The dog, a mutt called Old Black Joe with remnants of a herder in him, sometimes took the slam for them if he didn't negotiate the swing just right. This game of tag would continue as twilight gloom shrouded their figures into small screeching ghosts: In the back, through the house, out the front. There would be no adult interference and the children would wind down on their own like tired tops.
There was one major difference between this group of cousins and the one that played the same game in the 40s; there was no Sky in this one. Both groups would have looked the same. Kids of all ages. Hair shot through with gold streaks of sun. Eyes that reflected the pool of English ancestry. But these children were all Mormons, or Latter Day Saints, as they prefer to be called. Back in Sky's time what couldn't be seen by the eye surely tainted the atmosphere of any family gathering; Sky was not one of them.
It was certainly not this difference in religion that prevented Sky from opening the car door and walking up the lawn, for that difference, though usually unspoken and unacknowledged, had been one she had lived with for nearly nineteen years now. It was that this day she carried a sprouting decision she must make along with the Mozart and Debussy she must deliver. This errand, in this place, with these people could influence that decision.
“Sky. Sky. Sky-ay-ay!” One cousin began the chant; the others joined. The car had been spotted. A multitude of cousins with fjord-blue eyes abandoned their game. Clinging to her skirt and hanging from her elbows and arms like puppets, they escorted her in a rush along the path they had been taking. Old Joe nipped at her heels herding her along in the smell of children wet with excited play. Gram Harriet--Sky was the only grandchild to call her anything other than Gram or Grandma Eccles--was in the kitchen telling fortunes from the vaults of coffee cups to the parents of the crew of youngsters trailing behind her. No one had turned on the bare bulb hanging above the table. No one wanted to break the spell. Gram Harry's silver hair was traced with telltale red streaks. It gathered the dim, evening light in the room just as the strength of her presence had gathered the youngest four of her eight children to her. No one saw the wrinkles that shredded a once smooth expanse on her forehead or the eyelids laden with the gravity of time; they would only hear her prediction of vacations to come and of changes to be made in life.
Great-Grandmother Crystal sat with her hand on Gram Harriet's arm, like a supportive appendage. There was a triangular layout to the scene like Rembrandt would have used, support against support, spotted with strong light and shadow. The great-grandmother had quietly occupied an upstairs bedroom for the whole of Gram Harriet and Gramps' marriage in spite of Harriet's original insistence that she stay in the one off the kitchen that she and Hart had occupied until his death.
“Hart's and my room is now yours and Brock's room. You two are now heads of this household,” Crystal had said to the young couple and it had been told on many occasions since, out of gratitude and, perhaps, as a reminder.
Great Grandma Crystal was tiny, less than five feet, shrunken with osteoporosis. Her frail body was like a bunch of snap beans, showing all the under-structures of her being in ridges and lumps. Gram Harriet mostly said, when Crystal wasn't around, that Crystal had been the best mother-in-law a body could ask for. She also said, in some disconnected conversations scattered across the decades, that this home never seemed like her own for it had been Crystal's before her and was Crystal's still.
Now Grandma Crystal's head shook in tiny patterns of negativity as each fortune was told. Sky was not sure whether this minute disapproval was from a stroke she had suffered or because she did not believe a whit in the proceedings. Once Sky had asked during a similar fortune telling tryst, “What do you think, Sweet Crystal?” Crystal had smiled and tilted her head toward her daughter-in-law. “Harriet is doing the fortune telling here. I am along for the show.” Her voice had been like the reedy sounds from a Peruvian pipe; there was a non-committal wavering between octaves, a strength of purpose in the notes.
As Sky entered the kitchen with dog and children clustered about her, Aunt Leah was watching her cup being prepared. The sound of the upside down china cup chimed against the china saucer in the twilight. A personal future secretly appeared in the splotches of coffee grounds that appeared in the over-turned cup away from the eyes of all present. Everyone waited for Gram to pronounce what the grounds had revealed. This process was so ingrained that no one even considered that telling fortunes with coffee grounds was not the way it was usually done. All were aware that both tea and coffee were forbidden by The Church. All were willing to break the rules for a good eye-opening jolt of joe or the convivial projection of the future in this dim old kitchen.
Only Gram Harriet could decipher the messages in the cups and because this one was not to her liking, she swirled the last drops of coffee to rearrange the patterns a bit before she began.
“I see angry energy unfolding in your cup,” Grandma said to Leah, the youngest daughter. When the children saw the secret rites, they screeched for their fortunes, too, leaving Leah with the Delphic message to be unraveled later. Teaspoons full of spent grounds were put into Postum, a dark grain brew that Mormons often substituted for caffeine-ridden coffee. The children never commented on the difference. They just gulped the brew non-stop and then each of their cups was subjected to the wizardry of triple turnings amid childish awe like the whispers of evensong. Everyone knew that this was a family secret. No one mentioned the coffee outside this twilight kitchen because it was forbidden for the devout. No one was clear about whether the fortunes were also not to be mentioned so they weren't.
Gramps Eccles entered the kitchen from the back porch. “Couldn't help notice the angelic chorus of cousins. That must mean my eldest grandchild is here, Peter Pan to the hoard of Eccles grandchildren.” He put his hand on Sky's hair, an action only slightly different from the way he would put his hand on the top of her head when she was much shorter. Then his eyes narrowed in careful control. It was the same look he got when candles were put on the dinner table by Gram, who had at one time belonged to the Church of England. It was the same squint he once aimed at Sky's mother when she forgot and wore a tiny gold cross around her neck to Sunday dinner.
Many people in Gramps' beloved church felt a keen distrust of anything that pretended to be magical or even symbolic for such things smacked of false gods and the occult. It was not because they were not superstitious for they were, but not in a knock-on-wood or don't-walk-under-a-ladder way. They were a practical people, reserved, conservative. But there was a subtle awareness of spirits among many of them. An angel, Moroni, had been instrumental in the founding of the Mormon Church. Many also felt the presence, even in these times, of the Three Nephites who were Jesus' American followers in the Book of Mormon. It recounted the American continent's tribal and redemptive history. These Nephites were blessed with eternal, mortal life--sort of spiritual guardians. They roamed among their Mormon lambs, giving aid where needed and admonishing those who strayed. Spirits were the fiber of the unseen. They possessed power and were not to be taken lightly.
Once, when Sky and her cousins were in their early teens, Grandfather Brock Eccles had caught them moving the mysterious puck around an Ouiji board in search of information about which little boy at school might return their affection when Gramps thumped out their evil with such force that the children and board scattered into different quarters of the room. The anger and fear on Gramps face had been enough to discourage playing the game of evil ever again.
Now Sky reached up to give his bulk a hug and plant kisses on cheeks that were concave from ill-fitting false teeth, just as she had then. He wore a felt fedora-style hat, grubby from handling with hands rich with loam. A wide belt held old dress pants in place around his girth and a plaid shirt revealed the telltale ridges of the garments he wore underneath.
A kind of tricot underwear, garments were a spiritual staple that stayed with him always, in sleep and wakefulness, a part of his religion, a part of his essence like the smell of his skin rich with the mustiness of the soil he worked. He shared this symbol at the intimate level of marriage with Gram Harry and with all “The Church” members, as all people of Utah called the Mormons as if it was the only church that existed anywhere about. He wore them with a shared secret wisdom that tied them together like macramé knots that those who were not of The Church could never unpuzzle.
“I suppose you'll want your fortune, Sky,” Aunt Leah's voice suggested in the gloom of the room.
“No. I'll pass. I have Gram Harry's music for her lessons next week. I picked them up just before the store closed. Lucky the news room at the Tribune wasn't busy so I could get across the street by six.” Sky was relieved to have something else to talk about. What if Gram could foretell about Archer in the depth of the coffee grounds, patterns of Chinese dragons or fearsome grizzlies that never seemed to have any relationship at all to what Gram saw there? And what if Gram could probe out the story that she was unwilling to reveal on this night, either from the debris in the cup or by the way Sky carried her eyes.
“So, did Gram's fortunes send everybody on a long weekend to Bear Lake?” Sky asked looking at the flat, shadowed masks of three aunts and one uncle framed by a sheet of darkening backlight from the window. They were arranged like an audience on the opposite side of the table from Gram Harry and Crystal. The faces of the grandmothers gathered up peach tint from the trifling rays reflected off the clouds and waning sun. It was as if they had been spotted for a stage effect, leaving the rest of the room dark and undelineated.
“Jeez. How about a little light on this party?” Sky reached over to turn on the dangling light above the kitchen table. Seven pairs of eyes squinted at her in the globe's unprotected glare. The light had been a mistake.
Gram took Sky's hand. “So, what's up, Little Love? Trouble at work?” That would be Gram's immediate take. She hated that Sky worked for the liberal Salt Lake Tribune rather than The Church-owned Deseret News. Actually, she hated that Sky was a writer.
“You have musical talent,” Harriet had said when Sky had been chosen as an editor of her high school newspaper and stopped coming for Gram's music instruction Tuesdays after school. Sky hadn't answered, the better to avoid Gram's disapproval, the inevitable report of bad behavior to her parents. Gram Harriet was not one to let go that easily. “Music runs in your veins.” She put her hand on Sky's arm. A breeze had moved the Puritan lace curtain and the sheet music as if they were partners in a dance. Sky had watched the paper float to the floor.
“Gram Harry, try to understand. Words are my music. You love the notes, I love the lyrics.” Sky took her grandmother's hand in hers, could feel the fan of ribs in the back of her hand, her veins slide beneath the pressure of her fingers. Gram withdrew her hand to brace the music against a second breath of wind. Sky knew it was futile then. And now, as a writer working for the Tribune, she had poured gasoline into the fire of Gram's disapproval. In the state of Utah the newspaper a person read was an indicator of just who one was, what one thought. When--not if--they wanted to know what religion you were they would ask what ward--church house-- you belonged to or where your father had gone on a mission or a dozen other seemingly noninvasive questions that would require an admission that you were--or weren't--Mormon. So, “Deseret News or Salt Lake Tribune?” was a vital gauge of religious and moral status. Sky was blessed tired of it, one more indicator of how people--she--was different, one more way to box up a soul and bind it with a tie of twine.
Sky remembered to answer through the haze of memories. “No, Gram. No trouble at work. Maybe just tired.”
“Don't put Mom off!” Aunt Leah said. She was the one that most resembled Gram Harriet, tall with hips that looked as if they had been abbreviated with an ax, no width to them and no depth, either--so flat at the back that it must have hurt to sit. She was the only other redhead in the family besides Sky and Harriet and the only one with a disposition that matched Harriet's as well.
“It never works anyway,” she said. “Mom's like a weevil. She'll delve until you tell her what she wants to know or thinks you should know and if you don't tell her she'll spoon feed it to you 'til you get it right.” There was a pause. A boundary overstepped. But Gram laughed and general nervous laughter followed. The children fell back into the darkness of the yard that obliterated their presence like scrim falling on a darkening stage. The spotlight glared above the table.
“So what is it, Sky?” Gram shoved a cup and saucer at her. “You never turned down a fortune before. You always had an inherited sense that inner wisdom was the real stuff of life, even if the rest of the world lifts an eyebrow at it. Let's find out what's in these patterns of life.”
“Oh, Gramps is here and he doesn't like it much.” Sky's eyes felt bright, like fever. The bulb hung bare over the heads of the family.
“I don't know how you can stand it,” Gramps said. “This plague runs in the family. You've got a father who can tell where the pheasants are hiding and how the world will be in any given decade and a grandmother who reads cups.”
Gram Harry's eyes didn't move. She could watch silence.
“O.K. Gram. You're right. Tell you what. I'll come back over the weekend for a nice chat, and a nice fortune and maybe I'll bring along another surprise.” Cups and saucers cleared from the table with five pairs of hands, the rattles and clanks loud. The chair legs grated into position under the table, leaving the ghosts of themselves in rounded dents in the linoleum. Five sets of helping hands. Five hearts that had been scrutinized in their own time by Gram Harry's x-ray vision.
Only the two grandmothers didn't move. Harriet looked back into the pottery mug she preferred, twirling and tipping the droplets of coffee, pushing and reforming the grounds along its sides. “Ah, I see a very young man coming into my life,” she said, “and he is holding the hand of my namesake, Skylar Harriet, my own maiden name turned upside down. I see her hair and heart flaming as mine once did.”
There was an invisible sigh in the room's clatter that Sky recognized as her own, a wisp of sound, resigned like the color gray. “His name is Archer, Gram, Archer Benson. But I'm not sure I will be bringing him to you. I haven't made up my mind.”
“Benson,” Gram breathed the name like the whisper of bellows. “A good Mormon name.” Gramps stopped scraping chairs into position. Leah stopped rinsing cups. The ivory soap bar in her hand slipped away in a spurt like an exclamation point.
“Yes, Gram. But that's scary for me. The Benson family is just plain scary.”
“What's so scary? Benson is no stronger name around here than Eccles, maybe more 'Salt Lake' than 'Holladay' but certainly no better.” Gram Harriet sniffed.
Gram had missed the point of Sky's fear altogether. Sky did not tremble at entering a marriage with Archer as an equal. It was that it would be necessary for her, in order to take vows as an equal, to keep herself whole, unrearranged at the whim of religion or convenience. That meant equal but different. Equal but a painful reminder among the doubtful. Unequal and a painful sorrow for her own soul among the righteous. That she was a half-breed--half Mormon and half Protestant--clung to her like a blue aura that infected every Mormon room she entered, every Mormon heart that knew her. That she had denied Mormonism and chosen Protestantism was, for them, like an untended blister.
Sky's mother was an example of what it might be like to marry a Mormon and keep your spirituality intact because she hadn't converted. Gram Harriet was an example of what it might be like to marry a Mormon and borrow his spiritual identity for your own. No alternative was ideal. Two generations of women who had married away from their original strain.
Sky turned to look at Great-Grandmother Crystal's eyes. They could not be very much different from what they might have been a half century ago, the same ghost-eyes carried in the vestigial memory of the entire Eccles clan. Make that three generations. This woman lived her religion, denying the parts that pricked, caressing the parts that succored in times of darkness. Three different women. Three different generations. Was it possible for Sky to learn from these faces instead of having to learn the hard way, from experience? Maybe, but not now. Not with an audience.
Sky had come to soak up the vibrations of this house and its people, to ground her feet in the roots here, not to explain why she was frightened. Given some time Sky could sort out what she wanted from the fears of what marriage to Archer would mean for them both and for her family.
“Gram, give me three or four days,” Sky echoed her thoughts, “and I'll have the equipment to make a decision. Maybe it will be what you see in those grounds.”
As Sky left she heard Gram's voice filter through the screen door, dusky and hushed. “If it's a Benson wedding, it will be a temple wedding, Crystal. And I'll get to help her prepare for it.” Gram hadn't missed what made this decision frightening for Sky after all. It was just that, in her eagerness to reclaim Sky's spirit for Mormonism, she had got it backwards.