April 27 2011 10:07 AM

Planting my feet on familiar but not familiar ground


One of the perks of being a grown-up is that you can eat cupcakes before dinner if you feel like it. Hell, you can eat cupcakes instead of dinner; it’s totally up to you because you’re a grown-up. It’s the thought of this benefit upon which I rely whenever being an adult means dealing with un-fun stuff. Like when you have to make the trek back to where you came from because someone you love has died.

Such was the case last week when my mother and I boarded a flight together to mark the passing of one of her closest friends, a woman integral to my upbringing.

To say the journey was dirge-like is an inaccurate portrayal of what went down. Of course there was sorrow, but viewings and cemeteries just aren’t how my people roll. I come from celebratory stock, and there was no funeral. There was instead a celebration at an art gallery with several hundred people recounting memories of way back when.

I visited with the people my mother calls “the village of fools” that raised me, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades. I caught up with people I never thought I’d see again, and some who, to be honest, I never thought about once I’d left: I chatted with old neighbors, parents of friends, friends, friends’ kids, former teachers, a woman who used to babysit me and even a woman I used to babysit.

“You showed me Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the first time and—Whoa!” she said as we toasted. “It scared the crap out of me, but it blew my mind!” I had no business caring for a child back then. Perhaps I still don’t.

Of course, parts of the trip were dreadful: We come from Utah, after all, where the only thing more dreadful than not being able to get a cocktail before noon is not being able to replenish the alcohol supply at a memorial service because the state-run liquor stores all close at 7 p.m.. That kooky old Beehive State. It makes Arizona look progressive.

As sad as some moments were, my trip to the homeland was a real-life version of The Twilight Zone, an adventure in the surreal. The heaviness of the experience was lightened by good stories, really good people and I think, if I remember correctly, some seriously good weed. Moral supremacists can pass all the laws they want, but people will find a way. Suck on that, prohibitionists.

Many things have changed since I left Salt Lake City nearly 20 years ago. The (still small) downtown is unrecognizable, with ongoing development causing us to take several detours as we strolled. Same goes for my high school, where Disney’s High School Musical series was filmed. There’s a stunning library—boasting architecture worthy of a city like Chicago—that was not just open, but filled with people.

My grandparents’ home was razed and replaced by a McMansion with three garages and a whole lot of black roof. And my beautiful, turn-of-the-(20th)-century childhood home that my mother worked so hard to restore, had a notice of condemnation taped hastily to the front door. This was especially unsettling, mostly I think because it seemed to mirror the implosion of my parents’ marriage and the unraveling of my nuclear family.

But other things were so unchanged that I felt as if I’d never left, an equally disorienting feeling.

Mrs. Backers Pastry Shop, where my mother used to buy all of my birthday cakes, was as explosively pink and kitschy as always. The old glass cases were packed with cupcakes and cookies, and the smell of sugar as I pushed through the big glass door brought me to tears.

I wiped my eyes and told the girl behind the counter about how I used to freeze one flower—perhaps a dahlia or daffodil made of the world’s best butter-cream frosting—from my birthday cake each year and save it for a sweet tooth emergency. She just stood there and looked at me like I had 10 heads. But I didn’t care, because she had stiff claw bangs, which is way more permanent than my public display of nostalgia. Clearly, she did not fully appreciate the spectacularness that is Mrs. Backers’ butter-cream frosting.

Also unchanged was a popular restaurant where my family used to celebrate special occasions (Mother’s Day, graduation, the day I got my first period, what have you). The people on the wait staff looked vaguely familiar in a ruddy-ski-bum, college-y sort of way.

I ordered the world’s best eggs Benedict to a soundtrack of “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, followed by The Cure’s “In Between Days” and then “Big in Japan,” by Alphaville. I had to check my Swatch watch to see what year it was. I even checked my reflection in a nearby mirror to make sure I wasn’t wearing acid-washed overalls with one strap undone, pants legs tucked into two pairs of brightly colored socks, layered and scrunched down into lace-up ankle boots. Eighties attire must die.

Speaking of dying, I’m not super-experienced in dealing with death—a lucky streak I’m happy to maintain—so I’m still sort of wide-eyed from the shock of seeing how time can fly and also stand still.

For the moment, I’m suspended in the life-is-short awareness, an acuity that will dissipate in a few days. I’ll be distracted by the minutia again soon enough, but not before I served my husband and daughter Mrs. Backers’ cupcakes for dinner.

Write to aaryn@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.