“So this is where you grew up,” Maggie said as we walked up to the house.
“Yeah, this is where I grew up.” I was 28 years old, newly married, and going back to my childhood home for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Our home in Monett, Missouri was on a busy highway. It was white, a bit stark looking, with a nice covered porch in front. There was a bench on the porch, where, in my childhood, Mom and I would sit on it on long weekend afternoons, watching the massive thunderclouds slowly spread across the horizon in blues, greys, whites, and blacks, until the filled the horizon with resonant, concussive booms of thunder and flashing, dazzling, flickering, snake-tongued lightning. I turned my back to the house and looked at the sky that had brought me so much comfort as a child.
The house felt huge back then, but now, seeing it as a grown-up, it felt small and blocky. Still, my mother described it as her dream home. There was a small front yard, grassy with trees, and a larger backyard that we had framed in with a large brown wooden fence. The dogs had lived back there, Tippy, our friendly German Shephard, and Brittany. I remember my brother Kenny teasing the dogs, once getting them wet then lathering them up with the bizarre combination of dish soap and mustard, then laughing with his friends at the mess; my sister Marnae came home horrified at the dried clumpy messes and had to clean the dogs up herself. (One day, when I was in the 4th grade, Brittany would escape the yard and rush into the road, where she was hit by a large truck. I still remember her body looking like hamburger as we viewed it from the school bus window the following morning.)
A large group of my family members was visiting south-western Missouri on a family vacation, going to the places we had loved as children. As Maggie and I had walked through the city throughout the day, I had been startled by how everything felt the exact same. The playground equipment in the city park, the names of the businesses (Wal-Mart and Consumers), the sign on the local swimming pool (where my sister had once pushed me into the deep end and I thought I would drown), the Chinese restaurant across the street (Twin Dragon, where we would save up quarters as a kid to buy the Cashew Chicken lunch special to take home), and the homes along the neighborhood streets (where my sister had delivered newspapers every morning with her bike), it was all the same. The more I looked around, the more I was assaulted by memories of my past. It was disconcerting, overwhelming.
In the winter, our home could be buffeted by a crippling cold and ice. In perfect conditions, the ice would layer everything in a thin sheet, from the sidewalks and cars and roads to the individual boughs and branches of trees. The ice would layer the snow and freeze there. Upon waking up, we would watch the sun rise over the icy wonderland outside and reflect back at us, shining like crystal. The branches could break under the weight of the ice, snapping off, and the whole town would be shut down as driving was unsafe until the ice melted. Now, 17 years later, the trees were bare of branches, a recent ice storm having stripped them once again.
My family moved to Missouri from Idaho in the mid-1970s, and I had been born there in 1978. We’d stay until the school year ended in 1990, the summer when Mom packed up the U-Haul and drove us back to Idaho, leaving Dad behind to fend for himself, finally unable to stay in a marriage that had been broken for far too long. We had taken most of the furniture, leaving the family room and one bedroom set up, and Dad stayed a few years longer in that empty house, before selling everything and starting his life over, first in Salt Lake City, then in Las Vegas, where he would stay for years.
I felt cold as we walked up to the house. My family was huge, and far too talkative, and my insides felt jagged like broken glass and undigested food. As I clutched my wife’s hand, my mother and sisters knocked on the door of the home. When a woman answered, they told her that we had lived here years ago and we wondered if we might be able to walk through, and she’d surprisingly agreed. The women in my family rushed into the home, eager and excited, chattering about how different things looked, while I hung back a bit, hesitant.
Then I entered, boldly.
Maggie respected my silence as I walked through the house. Though my sisters and mother laughed and chattered, I felt like I was in a crypt. I surveyed the rooms slowly, quietly, memories from my childhood flashing in my brain. We passed through the living room (I saw six year old me setting an alarm clock for 5 am, waking up early to clean the room as a surprise for mom before she woke for the day), the dining room and kitchen (I saw nine people crammed around a full kitchen table, arguing and bickering, Kenny taking giant heaps of mashed potatoes on his plate while we all complained, Dad surveying the room with an angry look, Mom still preparing the food while we devoured it, she always being the last to eat), the family room (Saturday morning cartoons, me curled up on the couch starting at five am or sometimes four, eating sugary breakfast cereals with milk and pouring more and more cereal into the bowl until the milk was finally absorbed and my belly distended with too much food), and the garage (where I had kept the box turtle I’d found, naming him Sparky, until my sister let him go). We walked up the stairs (where we would line up on Christmas mornings in our new pajamas, not allowed to come down until 7 am and only after a family picture had been taken), my old bedroom (the one where the sexual abuse had taken place, where the door would be locked and I was told to be quiet so no one could hear), my sister’s room (where I would sit next to Marnae on her bed while she listened to Def Leppard and played the Legend of Zelda for untold hours, though I was never allowed to play), and my parent’s room (where I had believed ghosts lived in the closet for half a decade and I refused to go in).
This was my childhood. This home, where I spent the first decade, plus a little more, of my life. My genesis was in this home. My experiences here shaped everything that came afterward.
Maggie clutched my hand tightly. “Are you okay?”
I could hear my sisters laughing, reminiscing about Prom dates, visits from Grandma, Sunday dinners with the local Mormon missionaries, and family walks to the Mormon church just down the block from our house.
“I–I think I’m okay,” I smiled, a bit weak. I felt empty and nervous. So many things had happened here. This was the very source of my happiness, and yet the place where it had all fallen apart. We walked out front and I breathed deep, watching the horizon, remembering the thunderstorms again.
“Hey, let’s walk down to the church!” someone yelled, and I followed behind, clutching Maggie’s hand tightly and letting the memories fall over me again.
We walked down the road, past the Chinese place, and arrived at the warehouse in minutes. It was a small building, a normal Mormon warehouse, like the ones that sat on practically every city block in Utah and Idaho towns out west. Brick building, a parking lot, no cross or crucifix on the top, a sign that read “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Visitors Welcome” sitting next to the door.
Being Mormon in Missouri had been strange. Later, when I went to junior high and high school in Idaho, I was part of a majority of students with over 60 per cent of the over all student population being affiliated with the church. But out here, we were part of a vast minority. Mormons from several different cities gathered for worship services in this particular church, some driving an hour on Sundays to get here, and so far as I knew I was the only Mormon kid in my school.
This little ward house, this church across the street, framed my entire family’s social lives growing up, though. We were the members who lived the closest. We had the missionaries over constantly, in their white shirts and ties. We attended meetings on Sundays in three hour blocks. I sang songs in Primary and learned lessons about Jesus, the prophets, and Mormon principles. I sat through an hour long worship service every week, taking the sacrament to remind me of my commitments to the Lord. My older siblings had gone to youth activities here on Tuesday nights, and we had ward celebrations at every major holiday. I’d spent untold hours in this very building. Yet it was just a building. Just a church, like any other, for like-minded worshippers to gather together.
It wasn’t until I left Missouri that I realized how many Mormon connections where there. The Mormons had settled in these areas, in Jackson County, Missouri, in the early days, before the governor had issued an Extermination Order and driven them out. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church, had received a number of prophecies about the area, saying it was the site of the original Garden of Eden, and that when Jesus Christ came again, in the Second Coming, he would build the New Jerusalem right here in Missouri. Then the Mormons had gone south, to build the city of Nauvoo in a nearby state, before they had moved West. But first, Joseph Smith had been killed by a mob, right here in Missouri.
I walked around the church with Maggie, soon to ex-Mormon, soon to come out as gay, contemplating the roots of Mormonism here, the roots of myself. Missouri had been a frontier back then, a place far west of civilization. The town of Monett itself had ties to the development of the railroad. And it had been a frontier for me as well.
I tuned out the conversations my family members were having about their happy memories here, and instead invited Maggie for a short walk. We walked down a long street in my childhood neighborhood, a street where I used to go trick-or-treating and Christmas caroling, where I had once injured my foot in a bike wheel while riding behind my sister, where I had scraped knees and elbows.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, concerned.
And I just shook my head, unable to form words for a moment.
“Chad? Are you okay? How do you feel?”
I struggled to find the right word, then I bit my lip nervously and looked at her.