For longer than I have been alive, my extended family has been scattered around the country. I grew up in New Jersey with my immediate family. My mom’s side of the family has pockets in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. My dad’s side of the family spread from New Jersey to Utah, Nevada, California, and even Alaska for a few years. This means that I grew up with an interesting dynamic with many of my relatives. My dad’s parents live less than two hours from me, so we see them about once a month. My mom’s brother and his wife live about three hours away from me, so we see them a couple times during the year. My mom’s parents, and her sister and her children, all live in Indiana and Pennsylvania, so we see them once a year for Easter (as I mentioned in my Święconka post).
My dad’s siblings and their families, however, live much further afield. Utah and California are not a day-long road trip away, so I rarely get to see my aunts, uncle, and cousins. For many years, all that I really knew of my relatives were a handful of phone calls and the occasional photo on Facebook. I still have love for them, because they are my family, but it was this weird, somewhat anonymous love for people that I could not remember ever meeting in real life.
In December 2014, my uncle Claus died in a helicopter accident. This was my first experience with death affecting my family. My dad was really hurting, and my mom and sister were somber. We booked flights to Utah as soon as the funeral arrangements were settled.
Beyond the emotional magnitude of loss, this trip was full of questions. For me, this flight would be the first I would take at an age that I could actually understand. (The previous time I was on a plane, I was a toddler and barely remember it.) It would also be the first time that I met my numerous cousins—well, once again, I had met some of them before, but I was too young to remember. It would also be the first time my parents, sister, or I were attending a Mormon funeral. We had no idea what to expect, beyond a few tips from Google.
As it often happens, the research we did briefly in the haze of rushed packing ended up being outdated or inaccurate to our specific experiences. We were told to not wear red to the funeral for cultural reasons… and then watched as many members of his ward arrived in red, white, and blue to celebrate my uncle’s military service. We found numerous references to these mysterious ‘funeral potatoes’ that were never explained. All we knew was that the women of the ward were going to make food and deliver it to the immediate family so that they wouldn’t have to deal with cooking in the midst of everything else. While that did happen, and we were very grateful for the meals provided, there were no funeral potatoes in sight, only (yummy) enchiladas. It felt like everything our research prepared us for just didn’t happen, and things were basically what I was used to.
And yet, I felt like I was floundering. Having flown across the country and plopped into an entirely new environment, I felt ripped away from my home community and placed in a foreign land. I was disoriented, and didn’t know what to expect. My immediate family was with me, and that was some source of comfort to me, but we never got much alone time, so I couldn’t meaningfully recharge my “home” battery. My only experiences with death were around Catholic funerals that I had attended or served at, so I was used to certain language that just wasn’t present in Mormon services. I wanted to lean on my parish life, lean on my youth group to find solace and community while I was working through the feelings of loss—but they were several hundred miles away, and I couldn’t reach them.
Since our time in Utah included a Sunday, my immediate family and I drove a little ways out of the city to attend Mass. The church was absolutely beautiful, as you can see for yourself below.
I loved the colors of the stained glass windows. That particular color scheme has a lot of my favorites in it, so I felt very comfortable here. It was like God was giving me a special nod with the design of this church. The airy sunlight streaming in from the walls brightened up the space immensely, and the mountains were visible through the windows. This church was nestled in such a beautiful area. There was a sense of peace throughout the space that I desperately needed at that time. Here, in this Mass, was familiarity. I no longer felt ripped away from my faith life. I was connected once again to the rites I know, and I felt back in touch with my home parish because we are all unified in the Eucharist. It was also a beautiful moment of mourning, because in the Mass, Heaven and Earth kiss, and I knew my uncle was present to us in a way I had not yet felt.
Despite the heavy weight of my emotions at the time, I felt happy in this church, and I will always be grateful for the sense of connection and community that I was afforded in this beautiful mountain church.