Over the years, I’ve visited many countries, nosing around, talking with people, seeing how they live, what they’ve created and built, the direction they seem to be heading, from the cities of China to the tribal areas of Eastern India to the desert of Morocco. However, perhaps no place was as exotic to me as the western farmland in this country where some of my ancestors settled well over a century ago.
When I was a boy, visiting this farming community in central Utah felt like going to the ends of the earth. The town, really a village, then, was settled by a handful of pioneers in 1851. Some of my ancestors were among the earlier settlers. One of my great-great grandmothers pulled a wooden handcart across the plains and desert to this corner of the west. These Mormon ancestors of mine were tough because they had to be. When they settled down, even in this desolate place, they stuck.
Nearly a dozen of my mother’s surviving aunts and uncles still lived in the area when my parents and I visited, most of them still farmers. A few of the siblings had escaped – one to Salt Lake City, one to California (my grandmother), and a couple into the local towns. Those who remained considered themselves the salt-of-the-earth and were damn proud of it.
The clan began by chance as the nineteenth century was muddling its ungainly way toward the new century. When my great grandparents finally reached this part of what had been called the Promised Land, they had nothing but grit and determination to help them survive. Jessie and Daisy didn’t even know each other when Fate threw them together.
Picture this: a deeply rutted dirt trail, what passed for a road, then, and here comes Jessie, a tall, raw-boned man, sunburned and skinny, with a baby but no woman, ready to settle down on land that he intended to farm. And here comes a family, husband and wife and several kids, all of them hungry and dirty and exhausted from many weeks of travel. For them, this so-called Promised Land, the end of a trip that started in the north of England, wasn’t living up to its reputation.
Jessie eyed the travelers, they stared back at him. The kids and women hung back, while the two men talked. Jessie explained his situation: he had a bit of land, even what could pass for a house, and was ready to start tilling the soil and raising a few animals, but his wife had gone and died on him, leaving the kid. He couldn’t take care of the thing and get a farm going at the same time. He needed a woman, a wife.
The other man understood exactly what Jessie needed. He looked back at his disheveled, weary family, and motioned for one of the girls to come forward.
“Here,” he said, “take Daisy.”
The girl was fifteen and strong, although not much to look at, but it was possible that she’d clean up okay. She’d grown up taking care of her brothers and sisters and knew all about caring for babies. Most important, it’d be one less mouth for him to feed, if Jessie took her off his hands.
A deal was struck, Daisy was turned over to Jessie, and the two parties went their separate ways. Eventually, Daisy and Jessie were married in the Latter Day Saints church and produced their own dozen children, most of whom survived. Those children, in turn, married and created families, and so it went, generation after generation. A few of the offspring wandered away from the little community for various reasons -- the Great Depression, World War Two, restlessness, ambition – but most were content to stay within spitting distance, as folks around there said, of where Jessie and Daisy were first thrust together by Fate. I never knew Jessie and Daisy, although I’ve seen snapshots of them in old age.
My mother always said that the old lady was a grumpy, mean, holy terror. Maybe so, but I don’t think Daisy had an easy time of it for the eighty or so years she endured life in the Promised Land.
My parents and I often stayed with my Uncle Sam, who looked a lot like Jessie, judging from blurry brown photos I’ve seen of the old man, and like his pa he produced a big family to help on the farm, a dairy farm, in this case. Other times, we stayed with my Uncle Ren, who managed to build a big basement on which his farm house someday was supposed to stand, but he never was able to get together the cash to do that, so his family just lived in that basement, fixed up with rooms and electricity and plumbing. His first wife accidentally shot herself one day when she was moving his rifle in the closet, but he soon married again. A man with a farm and kids needed a woman around the place.
These folks were pretty much like folks in rural communities all over America, I imagine. Many of them were farmers, but some, like another uncle of mine, took to repairing trucks and tractors, while others found jobs in the little towns nearby. They believed in community, but didn’t trust anyone outside of it – and they still don’t, I’m sure. The salt-of-the-earth they call themselves, and just as often, the Chosen People.
Why do you go to all those places? one of my Utah relatives once asked me. What’s the point of it? All those foreigners? He meant all those heathens and bad influences, I have no doubt. I didn’t even try to explain.
They may not be sophisticated, but they know what they know and don’t need to know anything else. Above all, they fear change, strange ideas, and anyone trying to tell them what to do. Leave them alone and they’re happy, hospitable, and hard working. The salt-of-the-earth.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from:
University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Diesel Bookstore-Oakland, Payn's Stationery Store 1791 Solano Avenue - Berkeley, and other stores, and Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, by order from your local bookstore, and as an Amazon Kindle book.