Loving and Losing My Favorite Place on Earth
“Where are you from,” shouldn’t be a hard question to answer, but for me it is. I have no hometown.
By the time I was eight years old, I had lived in six states: Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Kentucky and California.
My dad worked for Proctor and Gamble until I was 10 years old and he was regularly transferred. After that, most moves were because he changed jobs. Sometimes we moved mid-school year. Being a new kid is hard on the first day of school, it’s even harder when you show up as the new kid in November or March.
I did not like moving. To cope, I was like the Peanuts character Linus when I was young, I carried around my “green blankie”, which my Grandma Mary made for me when I was born. Through college, I slept with it every night, a source of comfort when the bedroom I fell asleep in regularly changed.
With so much instability, any change was hard. My parents have told me how when I was young, I cried when they replaced our washing machine. I cried when we sold a car. If one of them went away for a day or two, I cried every night that they were gone. When relatives came to visit, I cried after they left. And of course I cried with each move.
Moving from Kentucky to California when I was 10 years old, mid-way through fifth grade, was the most traumatic. My older sister Heidi, whom I adored, had just died, which devastated me. I loved my teacher and classmates. My best friend Angie lived next door and we were always scheming up things to do in the neighborhood: lemonade stands, bike rides, and building box cities on my driveway using leftover moving boxes.
In our wooded backyard, my dad had helped, me, my younger sister Mary and our friends build a two story tree house in which we frequently played.
I ran a neighborhood newspaper, “Holly’s Real News for Kids,” which I printed on an old Xerox machine in our unfinished basement and distributed on Saturday mornings. I set up the Twilight Drive Library out of our garage, creating library cards and due dates for my books.
So even though we’d moved before, I felt completely uprooted this time, especially because Heidi’s death meant that I needed the support of my friends and neighbors who loved her too.
Of course, moving wasn’t all bad. I was exposed to new communities and people, I had the chance to live in woods, in suburbs, and by the beach. I made all kinds of friends and had the opportunity to take part in various local activities, like ballet in Iowa, horseback riding in Kentucky, and boogie boarding in California. I believe moving helped make me open-minded and, as an adult, unafraid of new people or places.
One way my parents helped us cope with moving so much was taking us each year to what became my favorite place on earth: a cabin in northern Utah.
Around the time that I was born, my dad’s parents retired and moved from Chicago to Utah. They built a three-story wooden cabin in Garden City, three miles from Bear Lake, a beautiful color shifting lake on the Utah and Idaho border. My grandpa’s family line was from that area and he had grown up nearby in Preston, Idaho. He and my grandma met at Utah State, less than an hour away in Logan.
The Cabin, as we affectionately call it, served as my permanent home. We went there every summer, with my parents taking turns driving us from wherever we lived until we reached it, only stopping for gas and bathroom breaks. We could drive there from Kentucky in 26 hours.
My dad has four older sibling and I have 20 cousins, most of whom we’d see there each summer. The third floor of the Cabin was a loft that was just for the grandkids. It had shelves of toys and books and sleeping bags for us to use at night. We played with Strawberry Shortcake dolls, He Man and Weebles. We put together puzzles, played card games like Speed, Flinch and Hearts.
There was a big deck off the second floor and you could see the beautiful lake from it. From the porch swing, we watched cloud formations with Grandma and the humming birds zipping around the feeders. We had family dinners sprawled across several picnic tables. And some nights, the cousins would line up sleeping bags side-by-side and listen to our eldest cousin Daniel tell super hero stories, which starred us.
We roasted marshmallows over a fire pit outside and my dad and I cleared trails in the woods, which my cousins and I used to play “King” and “Queen” of the Mountain and flashlight tag at night. We went swimming in Bear Lake, building sand castles on the shore.
Poppa made us wooden toys to play with and Grandma had a candy bowl on a shelf that we could visit any time. She read us Curious George picture books and Poppa always gave us history lessons from the latest books he was reading. He liked to ask me, “How’s my girl?”
Garden City is known for its raspberries and Grandma made raspberry jam for all of the families every year. Poppa used the berries to make us homemade milkshakes.
The Cabin was a place of love, comfort and stability. While a few photos might be updated or a few new knick knacks might appear, generally, it looked the same. It felt the same when I was there. I felt at ease and safe. It was familiar and constant in a life of change.
After my sister Heidi died, she was buried in the Garden City cemetery, a few miles from the Cabin. When my Poppa died three years later, he was buried there, too. Grandma Mary lived 11 more years but now she rests beside them. We also buried our dog Snowy’s ashes there. He lived with us from when I was 7 until I was 22 years old, sleeping on my bed at night. During each visit to Bear Lake, I have a ritual of walking or running on the trails near the Cabin and picking wildflowers for their graves.
In my adult years, my immediate family and I have returned to Bear Lake every two or three years, to hike and boat, and attend the annual Raspberry Days Festival, with its parade, pancake breakfast and 5k run. When she was alive, we helped Grandma Mary make raspberry jam and then continued the tradition after she passed.
I met my best friend Mark when my family and I moved to Virginia. He and I were 16 years old. We’ve been in a relationship since we were 20 years old, and that summer, I brought Mark on our family trip to the Cabin for the first time. He joined in our traditions. He even ran with my dad and me in his first — -and last — road race.
We danced to Glenn Miller songs we played on the record player. We saw a shooting star as we walked up the long gravel driveway. When I took him to my sister’s grave, he showed great empathy for my loss.
Taking him to the Cabin so he could see and experience this important part of me helped me feel close to him, and the way he responded throughout made me decide I could commit to him for the long haul.
After my grandma passed, my dad and his siblings co-owned the house, sharing the upkeep and costs. When it flooded about two years ago and much of it had to be completely remodeled, they decided they’d sell it. It was hours away from where the closest sibling lived and hardly anyone visited it anymore. Most of my cousins had their own kids and couldn’t easily travel there.
When my dad told me about their decision, I couldn’t fathom it, even though I understood it was the logical choice, and I wasn’t in a position to help with the upkeep so we could maintain it. It took a while to repair the damage and update some of the 1980s décor. Then it went on the market.
Last summer, my parents and I made a quick trip there, tacked onto another trip in the area. I knew it might be my last time to visit the Cabin, but it wasn’t until we were in Garden City that I learned it had sold and would change owners in two weeks.
I felt shell-shocked. I knew this could happen. It would happen. But I had not dared to let myself think about it. I couldn’t believe I had to say goodbye to it forever.
But I did. The last morning, I went to the Cabin alone, driving the three miles in the rental car from our hotel, the first time we had ever stayed in a hotel in the town.
The key was hidden where it always was, dangling on a hook under the outside stairs. But it took me over an hour to make it inside. I sat on the deck and cried.
I just couldn’t believe I would never get to sit there again. I would never get to be in this exact spot where we had shared so many family meals, cousin sleepovers, and where I’d sat dozens of times with my Grandma, talking.
When I finally went inside, I felt sick. The remodeled look was beautiful but it didn’t look like it had. The furniture was all gone, the carpet was different, even the kitchen cabinets, floor tiles and light fixtures were new. The wood paneling on some of the walls was the same though, and I ran my hands over it, grateful for its continuity, and sobbed.
I felt like I was saying goodbye to my sister and grandparents and Snowy all over again. I felt like I was cutting ties with my childhood. I felt like part of me had been torn away.
I kept thinking, “Now I have nowhere to go where I can feel a connection to my younger self, to my relatives, to my dead loved ones, and to my ancestry. The Cabin was it. And now I hold no claims to it.”
What a loss.
As an adult, I now realize not everyone has a place like the Cabin, where they feel completely safe and stable. It radiated the love that my grandparents had for all of us.
The Cabin was their gift to us. I hope the new family will love it, too.
When it was time to go but my legs wouldn’t move, I called Mark and asked if he’d stay on the line with me until I left. He said yes.
It took me more than 10 minutes to inch through the Cabin, through the front door that still had the word “Kearl” on it, down the wooden stairs I had helped repaint many times, and down the gravel driveway to my rental car.
Having Mark on the line helped me have the strength to look out at the view of Bear Lake one more time, a view that I’d never again have from that vantage point. And drive away.
In the months since then, I have mourned losing the cabin as if it were a person. But I’m also starting to come to terms with the loss.
A big reason why is that I no longer feel the rootlessness I felt growing up. While my parents moved on from Virginia to New York, then Florida, and recently, back to New York, Mark and I have lived together in the same town for more than seven years. We have built a community of friends, coworkers, and neighbors.
Also, it was not planned this way, but coincidentally, the week that I said goodbye to the Cabin was also the week that Mark and I married. We had been together for 12 years and had waited for Marriage Equality to pass nationally. Mark had a work conference in Las Vegas and I joined him before it began for two days and we eloped. Then he went to the conference and I headed to Utah.
We’d been close friends before we began dating in 2003, starting at the end of our senior year of high school in 2001. We had several group projects to work on after school for our government class, and the group met in the den of my house. A few times he stayed longer than everyone else in our group to talk. I found it easy to tell him about my family, discuss religion, politics, and hopes for the future.
In the den hung a self-portrait I drew for an assignment at a summer art & architecture program at Pratt Institute. In it I wore my favorite t-shirt. It had a bear on it with the words “I love Bear Lake berry much.” I told him about Bear Lake, the Cabin, and my sister.
We talked by cell phone and AOL instant messenger for hours at a time during our college long-distance relationship; he was in Virginia and I was in California. After we graduated, we moved in together. We helped each other through first jobs, graduate school, losing our grandmas and childhood pets, adopting our own dogs, and buying a home. He’s seen my best and worst sides. He knows me well.
In the wedding vows I read to him, I told him that while I had no consistent residence growing up, with him, I feel like I’ve found a permanent home, saying this not knowing that four days later I’d have to say goodbye to the Cabin.
In reflecting on these two events, I realize that while I lost what I thought would be my forever home that week, I also further solidified a relationship that gives me the same kind of comfort, safety and stability that the Cabin did. While I love the Cabin and am grateful for all that it represented, I no longer need it in the same way that I did.
Together, Mark and I are creating our own permanent home.