The fences bordering ranches in Laramie, Wyoming are always dotted with tumbleweed, that pesky, thorny, seemingly dead bush that blows around the prairie, getting caught on anything in its way. It is an iconic symbol of the American West, but it is actually an imported species from Eurasia, named Russian thistle. Like the tumbleweed, I, too, blew into Laramie in 1978 by way of Russia (or at least my Russian heritage), New York and North Carolina, crisscrossing the country as my husband pursued his higher education.
My Jewish identity was rooted in my childhood, growing up in the 1950s in Queens. My neighborhood was bookended by two Conservative synagogues, and in between there were Jewish-owned delis, bakeries and candy stores. All my parents’ friends were Jewish, and all my friends were Jewish, too, at least until I met Catholics in junior high school.
Schools were closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My father, who sold vitamins for a living, liked us to walk to synagogue in our finest attire, my mother donning knockoff designer jewelry that she had specially made by her Manhattan jeweler, Mr. Eckstein. On Hanukkah we placed an electric menorah — the kind with the little yellow light bulbs — in the window so that anyone passing by would know what night it was. Only in my neighborhood there were no nighttime passersby; everyone else was also indoors celebrating Hanukkah.
When my parents learned that my husband and I were moving to Wyoming for his doctoral studies — we were in North Carolina at the time — it was as if we were going to Mongolia. One of their first questions was, “Are there any Jews there?” I honestly didn’t know. This was before the Internet, and I couldn’t Google “synagogues Laramie Wyoming.” But did it really matter? This was an adventure, and we were going there for the length of my husband’s doctoral program, not for life. We thought that after Laramie we might end up back on the East Coast. (Little did we know that our path would lead us to Utah, where we have lived for more than 30 years.) In the U-Haul we had our menorah and mezuza and my recipes for latkes, hamantaschen and my mother’s chicken soup. We’d be fine even if we were the only Jews in the whole state.
Then my mother had a terrible accident that shook my confidence in our move. My parents had been vacationing in the Catskills, having dinner, when two waiters collided, spilling carafes of hot tea and coffee all over her body. She fell off her chair and broke her leg. She was in intensive care with burns on most of her body and a severely fractured femur. Given her age of 66 and the severity of her injuries, it was not at all a given that she would survive.
My husband and I were a few miles away at his yearly family reunion. We hurried down to New York, where I visited her every day, willing her to get better before my move. But illness takes its own time, and all I could do was to hold her hand and tell her that she would get better. She was in constant pain, needing to be on her back for her leg, but not being able to lie back because of the burns.
And then the day came that I had to leave for Wyoming. What just a few weeks ago had seemed like a grand adventure was now, in my mind, that trip to Mongolia. I was leaving my family and moving to a place I had never seen and knew nothing about. I kissed my mother goodbye and said my silent prayers for her recovery.
My husband was already driving the U-Haul out west, and I was to fly to Laramie on my own to find a place to live. Flying into Laramie was an adventure in itself. The small connecting flight there from Denver had seats for about 30 people and loaded up a staircase on the tarmac. I later learned that this flight was called “the vomit comet,” since the turbulence over the mountains was legendary for its stomach-churning force. I sat in my window seat, convinced that the mountains below would be my last sight before we crashed. And yet I was too tired and anxious to care. When we landed, safely, the sky was a vivid sunset with stripes of purple and gold, putting the darkening mountains into relief. I got off the plane and looked around me at the vast high prairie, which stretched for endless miles. Tumbleweed was catching on the fence around the airport. The term “God’s country” came to mind and I felt awed and renewed, a minute’s respite from my worries about my mother and the task that lie ahead of me, settling in Wyoming.
In the days to come I found myself stopping to take in Wyoming. The sky, a lapis lazuli blue, like the garments in medieval paintings, seemed to stretch forever, matching the prairie mile for mile. The dry mountain air had a clarity that I had never experienced, and the sun shone late into the day, often setting into a spectacular sunset. Just waking up to that light made everything seem possible. My mood lightened as I learned through my weekly phone calls home that my mother was doing better. Still in the hospital, but improving. And every time I called, my father asked, “Are there any Jews there?” I still didn’t know.