I never lived there. I only visited that actual location a few times. Somehow, this place, so distant from me, and from anywhere, still shaped my life.
You have not heard of Lyman Wyoming, there is no reason why you would have. I got the email invitation to the family reunion from an address I did not know. Opening the message and looking at the other recipients clued me in that I was in fact an intended addressee but it took a phone call to my parents to figure out who sent it. I knew who the person was, but I did not actually know her.
I wanted to go.
I expressed my desire to my wife who looked at me with raised eyebrows and asked, “You want to go where, to see people you don’t really know?”
At this point I believe one of my two children started throwing a fit over crayons, TV, or world hunger, and my wife said, over her shoulder, “I’m out, but if you take one of these, you can go.” Of course I chose the 6 year old rather than the 2.
Lyman is the place my maternal grandfather grew up; his ancestral home. I’m not sure the number of times I have met this man but I’m sure I have enough fingers to figure it out. Were it not for a couple old photos I would never know what the top of his head looked like as it has been covered by an off-white Stetson every time I have seen him. Most of these occasions were in my childhood. Long enough ago that all I have is a mental picture with no context attached. He did show up unannounced at my wedding. We shook hands.
I was a young adult before it finally occurred to me to ask his real name; I had only heard him called “Skinny”. He has a beautiful name, “George Clinton Field”, his sister Dot told me. The Fields are known for nicknames.
As long as I can remember, the Fields have been known to me but remained a mystery. Mom has never been much of a story teller and Grandma always told stories in the way that the older generation tend to do, giving names and details as if you should already know, leaving the grandchildren confused and a little ashamed for not knowing who or what is being talked about. The Fields all lived in more remote places than my native suburbia, or as was the case with my mother’s siblings, in the more exotic and frightening Los Angeles; both outside my comfort zone. I did not see the Fields, aside from Grandma who I saw every time I went upstairs, except for rare occasions.
Among the Montgomery’s, a small band of people with a common name, I stood out. A bit darker complected, a bit taller, and much thicker. My brother, three years my senior, was often mistaken for a friend rather than a relative. He was known to be an age appropriate mirror of my father. This was no matter till we Montgomery’s would find ourselves in the presence of Fields, at which time someone would inevitably point to me and declare loudly, “That is a Field!” I would be singled out and claimed. Claimed by a group that I knew little of, and was quite frankly, a little frightened by. It happened every time and every time I reacted by shyly retreating to either the security of my siblings or, if not available, the empty spance of dirt or sage brush that always seemed available when Fields were around. There are a few things I did know about this branch of our tree, but most of them only make sense when compared with my immediate family.
Looking back our family could be described in two words; western and Mormon.
The two were almost inseparable. Dad, who hailed from Prescott Arizona, had two pairs of shoes that I could remember, Redwings for teaching school, and cowboy boots for everything else. The house was technically in the suburbs but I think it was selected mainly for the fact that it was nearly the last house before the suburbs ended. Our back yard, for many years, had no back fence. Behind the lawn, and the garden, was an undeveloped field. That is where we kept our horses. Dad got the horses by bartering some artwork. He received them as colts and broke them himself. As time went on and space grew tighter the horses returned the favor but that is another story entirely… well maybe it isn’t.
There was a gulley that ran down from the Wasatch Mountains, cutting a swath through the cookie cutter houses and green lawns of Sandy, Utah. This narrow stretch of trees and trails was where we would most often ride. Mom and Dad were doing just that when Yas, Dad’s mount, spooked and kicked the horse behind it. The sudden stop from the horse being kicked, threw Mom against the saddle horn, breaking her pelvis into three pieces. Dad, not planning on being in a rodeo that day, was thrown, breaking his collar bone and elbow. The two of them lie there in a wilderness, surrounded by track houses, as the horses ran away. Dad, whose legs still worked, rounded up the horses with his one arm and tied them to the trailer. He then met Mom, who had crawled up the gulley wall to the truck, and was waiting in the passenger seat. The two of them drove each other to the hospital, Dad working the gas and clutch, Mom working the stick. We kids knew nothing of this till we got a phone call from our parents telling us to first, go get the horses and trailer where they had been abandoned, second to come visit them in their hospital beds. There we found the two of them teasing each other and making jokes.
We kept the horses till the valley filled with homes and we had no where nearby to keep them.
Mom was born in Wyoming but Grandma took the kids and moved to LA when she was still fairly young. LA had no affect on her. There was no sense of far out grooviness or plastic glamour, just practicality. The two of us stopped school clothes shopping together when I turned 13 and grew an opinion. It all ended when she picked out a shirt I found gruesome and would have been horrified to be seen by all my polished, label happy, classmates. In our negotiations over the shirt she could not get over the idea that this article of clothing was both inexpensive and of the kind of quality that would assure it would last for years. The thought of that shirt lasting for years horrified me, especially when coupled with the knowledge that I would never get a new shirt till the old one wore through. From then on, I was yearly handed a small handful of cash and sent on my own way to fend for myself, knowing that this handful was all I would get for the next 365 days. Mom had no time for such silliness but wouldn’t stand in the way of me and my vanity. Mom, like her mother, was quick to joke, easy in manner, but had nothing to do with frivolous things like pretension, laziness, or complaints. Mom’s life as I saw it was ruled by the idea that you simply do what you do because it needs to get done, everything else just got a smirk and a shrug.
Dad on the other hand had trophies for storytelling. Were they ever awarded he would have also won trophies for discipline. Rules were rules and they did not waiver. Home by 12 meant 12:00.59 was late. He never raised a fist to me but the vein in his forehead not only frightened me, but all my friends as well. To his unending credit he was no hypocrite. He did not give a rule he did not keep and he did not keep rules he could not explain. This is where the Mormon came in.
While our growing up was rife with rules, which were enforced by Dad, they were not his, they were God’s. Home by 12 was a hedge against a plethora of sins all more likely to be committed after hours. No cursing was not simply respect for others, but an extension of the third commandment. Caffeine was prohibited, as were face cards, and pop music on Sundays. Even my hair became a religious affair. I liked it long, he did not. I liked to say it was jealousy as his hair had long since left, but he liked to say it gave him concern that my vanity would one day give me pause when it would come time to serve a church mission; which required a specific haircut. He would then supplement this reasoning with the added wisdom that he, “had been teaching high school for almost thirty years” (many lectures often started this way), and that the look I was sporting was the same as all the young men at his school who caused trouble. He would acknowledge that I had no history of trouble making then go on to tell me that the world, who did not know me, would only know me by how I look and would treat me accordingly. It was his concern that if the world treated me as a trouble maker I would eventually tire of being miscast and begin living up to the reputation. Yet, while so stringent with us, Dad was a westerner, and as such our business was ours and yours was yours. What this means is that just because they are my rules one is under no circumstance to assume that others should be expected to uphold them. My best friend had hair falling half way down his back and Dad was one of the loudest protesters when it was cut. He was a different family, different faith, different rules.
I have wandered tangentially but can’t get back to Wyoming without talking about tipis. We spent our summers, when Mom and Dad weren’t teaching, living in a tipi. Dad authored two books, manuals really, on Mountain Man crafts and skills. We hunted, tanned hides, sewed buckskin outfits, and wore these outfits all summer as we moved from rendezvous to rendezvous. I shot black powder before I rode a bike, trapped and skinned musk rats for an allowance, and was fascinated by the Navajo man that traded blankets with Dad in return for traditionally tanned deer hides. This life was so much a part of my youth that in Kindergarten, when learning of the promise of America, I was the only kid in class who was told that I could in fact NOT be what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew how to be one, but did not yet understand why I could never be, an Indian. This brings me back to the Fields.
The Fields were cowboys, real cowboys. I was a teenager before I realized that Custer’s Last Stand was supposed to be a tragedy. I had always thought it was a victory. When we played Cowboys and Indians, I chose the bow and arrow. Now Dad had the boots and hat, but he was more of a Mormon with cowboy tendencies, the Fields were real. One of the only things I knew about Skinny was a picture of him riding a bucking mule while in the Army. The other thing I knew about him, was that Mom and Grandma never talked about him. In a way children’s minds when left to themselves will often do, I related these two things about Skinny together. Parents tend to talk about all sorts of things unless they are bad. We talked a lot about homework, chores, and church. We did not talk about sex, fashion, and Skinny. I should also add I knew Skinny was not a Mormon, not a real one anyways. No big deal in most circumstances, but he was family. The rules apply to family. All this mashed together in my little head and it made me well aware on trips to Wyoming that I was in contrast, not a cowboy.
But Grandma would talk about Wyoming. I never understood anything she was talking about but I knew she smiled when she talked about those days, or talked to those people. As I grew older and my questions matured past “are we there yet?” I began to wish for the holes to get filled in. My maternal side was, at least in my world, only two people. These two people were the stronger, more silent type. Those types have history. I went to Wyoming to find the history.
My six year old has never seen sage brush. In some unspoken but real way, her little sister is named after the plant that played such a part in my youth. My kids are Easterners. Curbs are more dangerous than canals, strangers more so than critters, and they rarely, if ever, get to see stars. I put the little princess on the plane with hopes that she would find a world of wonder in wide open spaces. Hoped she would absorb a bit of what makes me, me, and what consequentially makes her, her. I know she’s too young to think these things, but she is old enough to experience things and remember them. As we waited for connecting flights I pestered her with stories of a goose that bit me and stole my hat and she pestered me for snacks and “are we there yet.”
The reunion opened up basically with a bunch of people I didn’t really know, gathered in a place not really anywhere.
Two of my sisters who still reside in the west joined us as well. Two of my Mom’s siblings, the ones who seemed a bit more LA, were there too. All of us came for our own un-shared reasons, and each one of us also brought some little bit of our newer families along for the ride. The reasons for them doing so went unspoken. We, the descendants of Skinny, tended to cluster as the sender of the email acted as well organized ringmaster on this tour of times past.
The sender of the email has Wyoming roots but does not look it. She has spent much of her adult life in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait so now she looks New York. She penned a book about our common family, the ones who first came to Lyman, before it was called that, and the characters in that book were the focal point of this gathering. At least it was for her. I assume it was for most of the others as well.
We caravanned out past Mountain View, a line of cars I’m sure a place like this only sees at funerals, to a turn off with no markers. Here a man set up a karaoke machine in the back of a truck and began to tell stories of how life was on this open range when our family arrived. I smiled to myself as I watched him, not because of his story, but because of a conversation I had before I left. Some friends of mine, native Philadelphians, had just returned from, of all places, Wyoming. I had given them a little prep of what the place is like, at least from what I could recall, and at the time they smiled and humored me. After the visit they were all a flutter to tell me I was right. “You told me people wore cowboy hats and western shirts but I had to see it to believe it. They weren’t costumes!” I smiled that the world I’m raising my kids in, the one these friends hailed from, was so different from whence I came. The man with the microphone wore a wide brimmed hat, had pearl snaps on his shirt, and no extra room in his Wranglers. He was telling stories about Winchesters and an Indian Chief, and I just milled about in the back, more interested in sage brush. Uncle Dutch was doing the same.
Uncle Dutch is the best physical evidence that I am a Field. He stands the same height, maybe an inch taller. We could both stand to lose a few pounds but are built basically the same. Just as my brother looks like my Dad, looking at Dutch makes me think I may just be a Field. “Do you keep in touch with Skinny?” I asked my uncle. “Well, we talked a few times before he got sick but not really since then. It’s hard now.” I told Dutch I don’t really know Skinny, Mom never really talked about him. Uncle Dutch just smiled through his long mustache and said, “Sounds like her.”
“She didn’t talk much when you were kids either?”
“Naw, she just did homework. In LA she just kept her head in books while I was stealing the family car.” He went on to tell me of his joyriding in the family car when he was 14. When his Mom, which funnily enough was really my Mom, recognized the car was parked askew, he told her a tale of his attempted theft that was thwarted by fear at the end of the block, so he came back. Really he had been joyriding for quite some time and was quite proud of his tale. I laughed at his story but mostly just stood there next to him, being the same size.
We all took a hay ride to a pioneer graveyard. We took the hayride, not to be cute, but because there is no road and a tractor is required to get there. Pioneer graves are populated by women, children, and young men. Death was common and natural, living was less so. One grave, of an infant, had a little panel in the headstone that could be flipped up to reveal a lock of blonde hair, and a hand written poem behind a pane of glass. In a place like Wyoming, back then, and maybe a little bit still, the ground will lay claim to both bodies and emotions, if it doesn’t, it will at least get a part of you. The place will claim you. While looking at this sad scene I was snapped into the present by a scream I recognized. My girl was standing frozen except for shaking arms and fully functioning vocal chords. As I rushed over ready to administer first aid I found the injury to be an unidentified bug crawling on her foot. I did my best to impersonate the child’s Grandmother by smirking and shrugging, and then I brushed the bug off and gave her a hug. As all eyes looked at the two of us I wondered if they thought this aversion to bugs was somehow a reflection on my parenting skills.
The next day we went to the old ranch.
My Grandma met Skinny while he was training in the 10th Mountain Division and she was working in a munitions factory in Pueblo. By her own account they had a rather inebriated courtship and were married. After the war, he took her home to meet his family.
This is why I came to Lyman.
Here is where Grandma became the person I knew, and Mom became who I believe she is. I moved off to the side, far enough to be alone, but close enough to hear my Mom’s cousin, who I don’t really know, on the mic. The land stretches on uninterrupted as far as you can see. There is a small, out of place pond, some sand hills, and nothing else. Far off to one side is a small bunch of buildings, and all the way over to the other side of the horizon, is another. This is where Skinny brought Grandma. This is where Mom was a girl.
As I was looking at the landscape, the cousin I don’t know read some old writing of Grandma’s. She was at some point, later in life, writing about a visit she made back to this place. It had to have been much later; the story mentioned me and my brother by name. She was telling, not about Skinny, but about his parents. Grandma had little legitimate parenting of her own and took all she could get from her in-laws. She loved them. She loved them so much that she loved this place. This empty, barren, dry, and hard, place. In a place more empty than most people can imagine, she filled her cup with those people, and she drank.
These people, Skinny’s parents, were more than real cowboys, they were real Mormons. They taught my Grandma the gospel of Jesus Christ as restored by Joseph Smith. They taught my Grandma not as missionaries, but loving parents. They adopted her, and in return, she adopted their love for the Faith that sent them to Wyoming in the first place. I think this, and I think I have always known it was, what doomed the marriage of my grandparents.
They may have been doomed from the beginning, I don’t know. I would have to guess that in the beginning she loved him, but her new love for his father, and for her Father above, made her more the person I knew, and less the one he married. My Grandma in Lyman built the foundation of who my mother would be, and she never wavered.
Mom’s yearbooks, if she ever got one, were California, as was her Gidget haircut in all the old pictures, but to me she seemed Lyman. Lyman made her Mormon, and that is what I am.
That is why it felt like home. That is why I got on a plane and threw my daughter in with a bunch of people she didn’t know, who I didn’t really know. I did it because that place is part of who I am, and now, a part of who she is.
Before going to the airport, we went and saw Skinny.
He still had on his hat. I have never expected him to know who I am, but these days, he didn’t know Uncle Dutch or Aunt Lois either. It’s just as well. I shook his hand and explained to him who I am. He was polite and nodded his head, not remembering. I smiled at the old cowboy and while holding his hand said a sincere thank you. He said “you’re welcome”, not knowing why. It was just as well. I told my daughter that this was her great grandpa skinny, and he’s a real cowboy. She smiled, said “wow”, and bounced off to find another six year old. It was probably better that he didn’t know us, less awkward that way. Less awkward because had he known us he may have wondered what we thought, what we felt, or what we wanted. I didn’t want anything but to tell him what I told him. He already did his part for me. He gave my Mom life and helped give my Grandma faith. Because of that I was glad to sit in a retirement home with him and eat cold cut sandwiches. I was happy to watch my little girl who knows all the words to I Am a Child of God, flop around in a chair next to the cowboy neither of us really knows. I was happy I went.