Norman Rockwell was not a great artist. But he was a visionary artist. He painted the America that Americans saw in their hearts.
Rockwell died a decade ago, but on a misty Mendon morning, you can still see Rockwell's America - if you look inside yourself."Oh, I suppose in a way we take our lives here in Mendon for granted sometimes," says Paula Watkins, a 20-year resident of the Cache Valley village. "Still, there's a sheltered, almost appreciative, feel among the residents. Many say we're a bit of a haven, a place apart. When people from Salt Lake City visit, for instance, they talk about the peace here. I think it's the way the town is tucked into the shelter of the mountains."
As you might guess, those who no longer live in Mendon have even more poignant feelings. Blaine Andersen, a plastic surgeon in Detroit, has been away from his hometown for 12 years now. He remembers it like, well, like a Rockwell original.
"When you're a young boy in Mendon, of course, life seems idyllic," he says, "but even after you get older and have to do some of the work, it's still wonderful. Nobody has town celebrations quite like Mendon. My first date with my wife was to the May Day celebration. We'll be moving back to Utah next year. And if the Logan hospital - where I'll be working - were a little closer to Mendon, you can bet we'd live there."
In fact, with its Mormon barns (leaky), Mormon fences (creaky), hayfields, hayseeds and Holstein cows, Mendon at 7 a.m. in 1988 could well be Mendon at 7 a.m. circa 1941. That year more than a few young men in Mendon went off to war to save the town. Memories of Mendon, however, likely saved their lives. Author William Goyen claimed he kept his sanity in the Navy by reciting the names of people in his Texas hometown. Mendon boys may have done the same: Hardman, Kidman, Willie, Andersen, Olsen. . . .
In short, the strength - and perhaps the weakness - of Mendon is the way it has sidestepped change. Get too close to places like Mendon and you miss what's important to the rest of the world. Get too far away, however, and you miss what's important.
Small-town charm, of course, can't take a lot of analysis. Like the kicking frog in biology class, probe it too deeply and it dies. Still, part of Mendon's novelty must come from its complete lack of novelty. People accept the way things are done because that's how they're done. Mendon's not afraid of a good cliche, be it patriotic, religious or even a general store candy counter that seems to come right off "The Waltons."
There's no "city envy" here, no embarrassment over sentimentality, no posing to appear sophisticated. Such attitudes may not make Mendon hip, but they do make it real. And that honesty gives the town staying power. Even when it's being stodgy, predictable and backward, Mendon insists on being genuine, and that seems to touch even its small-minded aspects with grace.
In the end, I probably haven't earned such opinions. I've never lived there. I do know Linzy Larsen, however, and she has. She was there in 1907.
Linzy Larsen has room to talk.
"If I could sum up Mendon in one sentence," she says, "I'd say it's a wonderful hometown, a town I loved, a town I'll always love."
And when Linzy Larsen speaks, residents say, you got the last word.