A trampoline dominates the foreground of the ancestral brick home in Salt Lake City as Sarah and her two young daughters arrive in Mormon territory and park. Thirteen heads glance off the sky-sisters, brothers, and cousins. A family big enough to inhabit several city blocks.
Sarah and her girls and the rest of the Southern California branch of her family close all the vehicle doors and approach with her father by way of the grand front lawn. They are here to celebrate their step-grandmother's eightieth birthday.
"Children!" her father says, herding them, and not without a hint of sarcasm since they are all in their thirties and forties.
"Look, Grandpa!" shouts one of Sarah's nephews. He's run ahead for the trampoline and now raises his knees to his chest, thinking this means he's flying higher in the sky.
Sarah's father watches stoically, unable to hide a glint of hilarity and affection. He's tried hard over the years to pretend that his immediate family when Sarah was growing up didn't hurt him as much as his children, but Sarah and her siblings know that it did. The way he left in the middle of the night has always made them awkward around him, unsure of whether they might do something wrong again, causing him to flee further. But for his sake they present a united front today.
"Reach that cloud," her father orders. The way her nephew is showing off, Sarah knows that he, too, would do anything to be in her father's good graces. All of them watch the nephew, hopeful, as if ascending to the heavens is a real possibility.
Sarah's daughters, eight and nine years old, stop with her and greet relatives, then start again, passing lush, well-cared for shrubs on a brick walkway, polite geraniums ushering the way, past a lacy, white iron patio table and chairs. She can't help feeling she's being shepherded somewhere, somewhere she isn't sure she wants to go, or maybe doesn't belong. And it's not just the house she's being led to, but somewhere more specific. She knows she doesn't fit in here in Utah, but at least she has children, even if she doesn't have a husband.
The Mormons can see that her older brother is married to a Mexican woman, the wrong color, and that her sister is married to a black man. What they don't know is that her other sister doesn't have babies because her husband has AIDS, and that her younger brother lives with his girlfriend.
"Mooooo," her father moans in a throaty voice. As he shuffles his offspring and his offspring's offspring through the presence of the Chosen People, towards a set of ceramic stairs climbing up to her cousins' house, Sarah understands his allusion, associating the breeding of cattle to the kind of breeding encouraged by the faith. His children laugh nervously. The cousins laugh because the Southern Californians are laughing.
The house is grand and overbearing, a lesson in straight angles and rigid lines. The vines creeping over and populating the dormer windows don't begin to soften the dwelling.
Sarah's seven cousins have nice white marriages and at least seven children apiece. It is their duty to multiply and replenish the earth.
"Hello, Cousin Sarah," Cousin Dan says, wrapping an arm around her and then around each of her daughters.
Still full of foreboding, anticipating some inner sanctum where she doesn't belong, Sarah is genuinely glad to see Dan, the least perfect cousin. After his mission to the Dominican Republic, he refused to follow in his doctor father's footsteps and became a nurse instead.
"So good to see you!" says her cousin, Merryn. "Your girls are beautiful." So tragic they don't have a father, Sarah imagines her thinking. Sarah's daughters cleave to her. Merryn couldn't be friendlier, but it's the kind of friendly that fills space and makes a lot of noise and then leaves you feeling lonelier afterward.
Cousin Merryn is the brightest of the Mormon clan. She dreamed of becoming a doctor, but was instead given a choice between two marriage prospects, neither of whom was her boyfriend. Now she has nine children. Merryn wrestles her enormous fifteen-year-old girl every single day so the girl won't cause any more injury to her younger sisters and brothers. Mothers don't put their children in institutions.
Sarah and her girls are led farther toward the unknown destination. She wishes her father wasn't falling behind in the crowd and allows that he does offer some kind of comfort.
She kisses and speaks with her step-grandmother on the way, her father's stepmother and, like him, not a Mormon. Sarah has always loved Grandma Betty like a real grandmother. Since the Mormons called everyone together to celebrate today, they are ahead in points, but the fact that Grandma Betty is divorced and remarried like some of the Californians helps balance things out.
"Hello, brother," her uncle calls to her father. A devout Latter Day Saint, Sarah's uncle has always been a more loving family man, always asked her if she was OK when things weren't and she didn't have a father. He heads straight over for a stiff hug from his brother. Sarah catches her father's eye, his awkwardness, a glisten of sweat on his brow. Perhaps the trip is even harder for him.
She steps through French doors and finally understands where she's being led, to a luxurious side yard tableau, fenced in white, beds of Black-eyed Susans. Mothers and fathers are to sit on an old white bench, babes surrounding, an assembly line of nuclear families for Grandma Betty's album, as if this is a great gift.
How can Sarah and her girls possibly fulfill the spectacle without a man?
Her eyes well as she moves to the front of the line. Her daughters fidget. She's about to tum away, think of some excuse to get out of it, when she makes a last search of the yard and finds her father's face. She watches as he stands taller and takes his hands out of his pockets. Family distress is something he seems to understand. Suddenly he orders his children, "Everybody in the family picture." He even raises an arm to wave them over-children, teenagers, adults, black, brown, white, positive, not, married, and single.
"Oh, no, Uncle," Cousin Merryn says, in charge of the photos. "We're doing one family at a time." "We're all here," her father says, seeming not to hear. The warm arm he slips over Sarah's shoulder helps draw them into a semicircle in front of the bench, and they all smile into the camera.