When I arrived in the Salt Lake valley in May of 2000, the first person I met was Gayle Ann Nikolaisen. I, being the directionally challenged person that I continue to be, had managed to get lost and instead of ending up at my temporary place in Taylorsville, was in what I now believe to be Cottonwood Heights - either way, it was near an impressive looking country club, and clearly not somewhere I could afford to live as a single mother supporting 3 sons.
I had been given Gayle's card by her son, and my new landlord and friend, Mike. He was out of town and wanted me to have a backup plan - those are good to have - in my case, I need several backup plans depending on the circumstances. Repeatables.com, the card stated - Gayle Ann Nikolaisen. I was impressed. It was the first business card of thousands that I would collect in my 7 year stay.
Gayle patiently talked me through the maze of streets and we met on State Street in a bank parking lot. "What kind of car do you drive?" I asked her - she said "A large grey one." "What about you?" She asked me - "A large white one."
Some time later, a beautiful woman emerged from a grey Lincoln Continental and I emerged from my white one. We immediately bonded, hugged as if we were old friends reuniting and there began an amazing friendship. Gayle is the first person I met in Utah and one of the last with whom I spoke before I left in November.
Gayle lives across from a golf course where a certain developer has obscured her beautiful views with his McMansions.
What I know for sure is that at Gayle's house, there is always a diet Coke, coffee brewing, never decaf and always sugar, not Spenda - fixings for a sandwich - hugs when needed, advice when solicited and just about anything else a person could wish for.
Gayle is a woman ahead of her time. She coined the phrase for her extremely successful online business - repeatables.com - "Reduce, reuse, recycle, repeat." Gayle never pays full price for anything, not at a garage sale, not at the Salvation Army, not at any other thrift stores in town - on occasion, she will go to Deseret Industries and use the discount she has earned for being older and wiser.
Often I would show up at her house and tell her that I had found Bath and Body works lotion on sale for $5.00 - she would gasp! "Tell me what kind you like and I can get it at a yard sale for 50 cents." - And get it she did - pictures, furniture, clothing, designer handbags, costume jewelry. I loved shopping at Gayle's - I never had to pay shipping, and on a great day, I could get a "friend" discount.
When Gayle realized that I had come to Utah with nothing but my important papers and some clothes to get me through a season until I could get back to Michigan, she said, as only Gayle can say: "Let's go yard saleing."
That woman knows how to shop. She can bargain like no-one I have seen - she makes Donald Trump and Bill Gates look like wimps. We would drive from sale to sale and she would pronounce: "This is my friend Annette - she has just moved here, and has nothing, nothing, nothing!" I think there is a bit of Italian in Gayle - she can gesticulate with her hands even though she is Minnesotan with German ancestry. She would plead for discounts for her new friend to furnish her humble place. We started small - a microwave some dishes, then a dining room table - we had completely furnished my 2 bedroom apartment for myself and my 3 sons in a period of about 6 months. It was a great spring and summer.
I learned where to get the best tomatoes and fresh corn. I learned where the day old bakery stores were. I learned that Gayle has people - a bag man, a book man, a glove man, a friend in just about any D.I. - Deseret Industries - the LDS church's thrift store - within driving distance of her home, so that she can get the "scoop" on great deals.
Gayle has 4 children, Julie, a convert to the Mormon church, married to Jim, her second husband a retired army officer. Mike - I never met a guy called Mike I didn't like, and they don't come much better than Mike Nikolaisen. We met using the amazing world of AOL - I was trying to get a "feel" for Utah, since I was coming sight unseen, and he filled me in - thank God I was at least somewhat prepared - someone really should write a survival/transition/guidebook for new Utah residents. Mike is divorced and lives with his partner and love of his life, Pam. He has 3 children, Jeannie, Jeremy and and Jennifer and three beautiful grandsons, Xander, Matthew is divorced and lives at Gayle's house. He had a stroke and she and her husband take turns taking him to physical therapy appointments to aid in his recovery. Matthew loves movies and kids, particularly his daughter Kathryn.
The Nikolaisens are a military family - Arnie is a retired navy guy, many of the grandchildren have either served in the military or married someone who has or is serving. They fly the American flag proudly, vote in every election - Democrat and Republican - living under the same roof.
I don't know what religion Gayle and Arnie belong to, and I don't particularly care - it is, after all, none of my business. What I do know, is that these are two of the people whom I miss the most in Utah.
We have had heated debates over their HUGE big screen tv and the latest History Channel show. Arnie has traveled all over the world and loves history and knows pretty much everything.
Gayle too has traveled all over the world, lived abroad, raised her kids in a foreign country for months at a time with a husband serving on a ship to defend our freedom - Arnie is a Republican and Gayle is a Democrat.
Emily Nikolaisen is the grandaughter whom I know the best, because she spends time with Grandma Gayle. They read, sew, cook, play on the computer, garden, play with dolls, go to yard sales and book stores and all those wonderful activities that children love to share with their grandmothers. The grandaughter whom I miss the most and probably love the most shall remain nameless for privacy purposes. She has been awaiting adoption and been in the "system" for too many years. Gayle and I have both cried many tears and written many letters on her behalf. After years of striving for family reunification on the part of the esteemed DCFS, it has been decided that this beautiful angel - this brown angel who looks so very much like my own daughter - is not "adoptable" - she awaits placement in a group home. I went to Catholic mass in the middle day on Wednesday, and lit a candle this - it was lit for this little girl who is lost in the system, and for the son whom I lost in a custody battle because I moved to Utah and did not have money to hire an attorney to file a petition in Michigan. Let us all pray for the lost in the world - I hope that we all hug our children at night or call them when they move away from home. I had a breakthrough today - my son, Bryce is now 10 and has decided that he is going to call me every Friday to check in. He is going to be baptized on January 27th. I hope that I can be there. He is a wise boy, and I have missed him for these 7 years - I think I have maybe seen him 4 times, and certainly not in the last two years - we are working on fixing that this year.
Emily once said: "Grandma - you are the mother of all wisdom." It was a revealing insight for a child so young.
In 7 years, I sat at Gayle's table, drank Diet Coke (always bought on sale), ate a delicious tomato sandwich with fresh roadside tomatoes and butter. I laughed, cried, gave her manicures, massaged her feet and poured out my soul to her as I tried to figure out why I had come to Utah and why I was finding it so damn hard to fit in. She listened sympathetically, cried many tears with me, gave me gentle suggestions and was heartbroken when I told her some three years ago that I was done - officially leaving the LDS Church. I actually wrote "the letter" - I had it notarized, per the instructions, but never mailed it. I did not need to write a letter to explain to God why I could no longer align myself with the teachings of the LDS church - he knew what was in my heart - he knew that I had given my all to try to heal the great divide in Utah, by volunteering at the homeless shelter, working on political campaigns, holding huge house parties for Democrats, Republicans, gays and straights, talking to friends and neighbors about religion and my love of the gospel. There is much good in the Mormon church and I am thankful for my 20+ years as a member in relatively good standing, with the exception of a couple of bishop's courts - let's leave that for another day.