Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
Pennyroyal, Cohosh, Rue
[p.122]About the time I first realized I was a feminist, I went to a women’s retreat at a little mountain spa an hour’s drive from the ultra-Mormon town where I was living at the time. The retreat, one of those such as are advertised in New Age Journal and the spirituality issues of Ms., attracted about a hundred women who were willing to dance their self-portraits, choose new names in a rebirthing ceremony, and sit in mooncircles and meditate. Tom, my husband, wary of this feminist spirituality, said it was nothing but big business, too much lesbianism, too much separateness. There was evidence in LDS church history for discussion of a Mother in Heaven, he said, who probably headed the Relief Society or some similar celestial female organization, but the private circles, the rituals and healings by laying-on of female hands—those were definitely anti-church, anti-family, and anti-Christ. But I loved them, because they were so much inward work in contrast to the hectic externalities of my life as a working Mormon mother.
During one of the mooncircles at the retreat, the leaders, whose names were Roberta and Mary Lou, instructed us to visualize two women we trusted coming to us, dressing us in robes, and leading us to a temple where we were to meet the Goddess ourselves. This was deeply moving for me chiefly because of the two women who came to me. One was my mother, who died when I was very small but who comes to me often in dreams, seeming to love me always even when I rebel against certain church policies, even the ones I have thought she would hold most sacred.
The other woman who came to me in this exercise of the imagination was my late Grandma Jean, the most orthodox of her orthodox generation, the reputable and honored wife of the patriarch of the [p.123]Maynard clan. Her coming, full of unmistakable warmth and approval, to dress me in pagan robes and lead me to a decidedly non-Mormon temple, indicated to me more surely than my mother’s appearance that this meditation was not a product of my imagination. In my wildest dreams I would not have conjured this up. I figure I have a right to claim my mother’s unconditional love, but Grandma Jean’s? She was a straight one. She’d not have stood for some of the things I’ve done.
Yet during the meditation she stayed with me, closer and brighter than my mother, and when it was time to return to normal consciousness, it was her embrace that sent me back. I could only sit with my head bowed against my knees, there on the floor of the mountain spa lodge, when Roberta and Mary Lou asked us to share. I couldn’t speak.
Grandma Jean had been a beautiful, tall woman, slim-waisted, full-breasted, white-haired in her last years like a queen. My other grandmother had bowed to osteoporosis (I took megadoses of calcium to prevent the same fate in my own bones) and had died brittle and bent, but Jean stood straight and met your eye fully, even when she was eighty-eight and hadn’t long to live. She was a gifted storyteller, much in demand at socials, holding adults and children alike in thrall repeating “The Cask of Amontillado” from memory, or “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” or the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors, somehow making connections between that Joseph and our Joseph in the grove at Palmyra.
We who were her grandchildren were also treated to other stories, personal rather than community ones, about the misadventures of our parents and uncles and aunts. To me, they were entertainment of the highest order, though they made me feel that I could never live up to Grandma Jean’s standards, either of respectability or of fun. My generation was hopeless. All the good times and all the need for serious, responsible behavior because of the burden of life had already been used up by her children and their friends, or by her own friends, whose stories she told more rarely.
It was one of these, however, that made the deepest impression on me, and helped me to understand something of why she came in my imagination to that retreat, and why I couldn’t speak after.
Grandma Jean was the child of a polygamist. Her youth was full of [p.124]children and “aunts,” “but,” she told me, “we were rich. We weren’t like some of these fundamentalists you see around today, dozens of children and no income, just rags and hungry eyes. Land, no! Eighteen of us lived in the same house, but it had ten bedrooms and two parlors, up there in Morgan, and our mothers got along wonderfully well. We were luckier than most.”
Luckier especially than the Caldwells. Grandma’s best friend in those days was Beleatha Caldwell, third child of the first wife of Heber. They were both ten years old when Brother Caldwell married two young sisters on the same day, just a month after Beleatha’s mother died leaving seven children. Both of these new wives were fertile as rabbits, Grandma Jean said, conjuring up in my mind images of fluffy children hopping around a grassy side yard chewing lettuce and carrots. In five years there were seven more Caldwells. Beleatha and Jean used to sit on the fence bordering Brother Caldwell’s pasture and giggle about the diapers draped everywhere to dry. When the older of the two “new” wives caught smallpox in the epidemic of 1908 and died, the other, Prudence, with Caldwell Number Fifteen “in the oven,” as Grandma put it, rook on primary responsibility for them all, and then for the farm as well when Brother Caldwell was called on a mission to England. Jean saw Beleatha less and less as she was needed more and more to watch the little ones and help with meals and housework, though she still got away from time to time and giggled as much as ever when she did.
Until the time Jean went over just in time to see Beleatha trying to hold Prudence back while Prudence slashed at some chickens in the yard, chopping right and left with the old axe, feathers and blood everywhere and horrible squawking, not just from the chickens but from Prudence too. This was no ordinary butchering, Grandma said; there was something disorderly about it, frightening and wasteful, and she never could quite bring herself to mention it to Beleatha, but ran home quickly before she was seen.
This was just before Michael Adam, the baby, was born. After that, Grandma said, Beleatha never came out to giggle by the fence and the Caldwell children began to look increasingly ragged and strange.
One day Peggy May, the nine-year-old, came to school in one of Prudence’s temple garments rolled up and pinned together. The [p.125]teacher hustled her over to Sister Carpenter’s in a twinkling and they put something else on her, but nobody had missed the long-sleeved underwear dragging in Peggy’s wake. Another day Sam, who was two, was seen toddling across the canal bridge, trailing his diapers and wailing for all he was worth. Sister Rosas brought him home to her house and kept him for a week.
The oldest Caldwell boy, Matt, had a hard time keeping up with the farm. Naturally most of the men tried to come lend a hand, and the next brother, William, did the best he could to help, but during the summer harvest Prudence got on the buckboard and flogged one of the horses to death. Then she left it lying in the middle of the field and took herself into the house to bed. It was difficult for anybody to know what to do after that. Nobody wanted his own horses overworked, and the family seemed less and less inclined to accept help anyway.
“‘Pathetic’ was a soft word for it,” Grandma Jean said. “The bishop refused to send for Brother Caldwell off his mission. Of course, it would have taken months to get the word to him and get him home anyway, but he should have been told what was happening to his wife and household. Beleatha looked grimmer and grimmer and the other fourteen kids did too. Grim and ragged. It was obvious to everyone that Prudence was losing her mind.”
The day Prudence shot the babies it was summer’s end. Most ladies were home canning tomatoes and pickles, checking melons for ripeness, sending the children off to play at the canal under the watchful eye of Missy Praetor, who’d been to the coast and knew how to swim well enough to save lives if need be. William Caldwell had brought in a load of hay the day before and figured he deserved a break, so he was down at the canal making eyes at Missy. Beleatha had come away too. She and Jean were picking the blackberries that bore like crazy along the pasture fences.
“Things seemed gratefully calm for the moment,” Grandma said. “All afternoon I’d seen the Caldwell kids coming in and out of the house, some with what I thought were bundles of wash, one or two with boxes. Then I heard a high unusual sound. Like a baby moaning. Beleatha and I could see Prudence come to the door with the baby hanging over one arm and one of her sister’s children hanging over the other. Remember, Prudence couldn’t have been more than twenty-[p.126]four, and that baby—the youngest of fifteen, ten of whom were under nine-was about three months old. He’d been colicky, too, poor thing. Even the midwife’s peppermint tinctures didn’t help his screaming.
“Prudence came to the door like that and Beleatha said, ‘Oh-oh, she’s going to want me now,’ and started picking up her buckets and getting ready to go in. But it was the oddest thing. Prudence just stood there in the door. Not calling. Not anything. She looked left and right, away from us, and then she turned around and kind of staggered back inside and shut the door. Beleatha and I remarked how quiet it suddenly seemed. No children. No animals. I remember Beleatha whispered, ‘Dear Lord!’ and at the exact same moment we heard two sharp shots from inside the house.
“Beleatha didn’t even pick up her things. She was out of those berry bushes in two leaps—I tore after her through the weedy garden and across the doorstep in less time than it takes to tell—the door was locked—we pounded on the west window till it fell open and I pushed Beleatha up through it. I can still see her patched underwear like it was yesterday. And when I scrambled up after her and got inside, I wished I hadn’t, because there in a puddle of blood lay the baby Michael Adam, and the other baby—I think its name was Jennifer—sat staring in a corner with its mouth open and no sound.
“They were dead as doornails. And Prudence held the gun to her chest like a cross.
“Beleatha screamed. I thought she’d never quit. But then William came, and several of the men, and they took Prudence and those two pathetic bodies, and after that women started to come in to the house, one every day, leaving their own families as if they didn’t have enough to do, and the children got fed and taken care of and eventually Beleatha more or less became the mother, although she never had to do it all alone. The Relief Society saw to that. Brother Caldwell came home but it wasn’t till months later, and I don’t think anyone in Morgan forgave him for not coming home the minute he heard.”
“Why did Prudence do it, Grandma Jean?” I asked.
If Grandma had been a lesser woman she might have shrugged, might have put me off to ponder it for myself. But she was regal—a Maynard—and she gave it to me straight. “Well, child, some said it was [p.127]the heat. Land, it was a hot summer. And some blamed the bishop, too, for sending off Heber Caldwell in the first place.
“But I know another thing or two.
“Beleatha told me Prudence aspired to be a midwife—a noble profession then and now, more trusted by smart women than men doctors any time. She told Beleatha that if she could know what midwives knew, she could handle any situation that came up. And the way BeIeatha said ‘situation,’ I knew Prudence meant things I was supposedly too young to have wind of. What I think was, Prudence just got trapped. She saw herself backed into a corner too tight and too deep ever to come whole out of, all of her life drifting away in diapers and dust. That’s what those bundles were that the little CaIdwells were taking out of the house before the shooting—Prudence had sent them down to the canal with bundles of clean diapers. She’d told them to throw them in. That was how William knew something was wrong and came back when he did.”
“She did it because she was crazy,” said my mother’s sister, Marta, who was ten years older than I and was listening in.
“Well, child, it’s a toss-up who was crazier, Prudence or the bishop, for sending off Heber, or old Heber himself, to leave, even on the Lord’s work, and set a young pregnant woman to brood over a farm and fifteen little ones. Seems like a strange definition of the Lord’s work, to leave such a burden on anyone knowingly. I hold them all to blame. I get mighty sick of seeing men let women try to handle any yoke the men lay on their shoulders. I thought—still think—it was Caldwell should have been shot, and Prudence brought back to normal life with the gentlest of care.”
“What happened to Beleatha?”
“She became a midwife,” my grandmother said. But by then her attention was wavering. Grandma Jean involved herself totally when she was in the midst of a story, but once it was over, it was over. She was a Relief Society president, after all, and her duties were many. It was only later and quite by accident that I ever heard any more about Beleatha Caldwell.
On a Saturday a few months after the retreat, my husband, my Aunt Marta, and I were standing around her sink doing something to [p.128]a huge bag of potatoes, getting them ready to bake for a Maynard family gathering. Tom and I attended these parties loyally. Since coming out of the closet about women holding the priesthood, abortion rights, and certain other very anti-patriarchal convictions, I had had to come to terms with the fact that I still wanted to hold fast to certain traditions. Partly for the children, of course-my Christopher and Katie needed some family ties, and the Maynards gave them water balloons along with everyone else and we all spit watermelon seeds in the yearly contest and it was all very family and I quit apologizing to myself or anyone else for doing something so Mormon as attending a family reunion.
As we washed and slit the potatoes this time, then, the topic of conversation rolled around to Liza, Aunt Marta’s teenaged daughter who had just miscarried a fetus conceived out of wedlock.
“A lucky break,” I said.
“Riva,” my husband said, disapproving. “Marta’s broken-hearted.
Aren’t you?” Marta, in from California, scrubbed more vigorously.
I felt heartless though. “Why?” I said. “It wasn’t your baby.” As if she weren’t there. But then I thought Marta often wasn’t, even when she was.
However, “It would have been if it had been born,” she said. Sadly.
“And did you want that? I wouldn’t.” Such bravery. If Grandma Jean had been there, I’d have never said it.
“You’d reject your own grandchild?” Tom said, trying my patience, pushing the envelope, scrubbing the spuds.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to raise it,” I said. “I’ve had enough raising my own children.” This is out in the open between us; why not make it so for all the Maynards to know? “I don’t need to raise another generation,” Then Marta surprised me. “Would you raise it?” she asked Tom.
“I wouldn’t have to,” he said. Then he realized what he’d said and grabbed another potato and stabbed it thirty or forty times with the point end of his knife, to divert our attention, I suppose. Marta and I met each other’s eyes. There were tears in hers.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I meant it.
“Oh, heavens, don’t flatter yourself,” she said, suddenly back to normal, brisk and conventional. “Do you think that bothers me all that [p.129]much? I’m sorry to be so drippy. It’s just that suddenly you reminded me of my mother. Did you know that? You always did.” She handed me a bowl of potatoes and gestured toward the oven. Time for them to go in.
“I found some papers last month—imagine, after five years! You might be interested in them. I’ll give them to you after everyone leaves.”
“Lon’d take them if he saw them,” she said. “He figures everything of Mother’s should go to him, him being the oldest and all. But I don’t want him to know. I consider you to be the one to have them. See if you can decipher why. Tell me if it’s what you think.”
The children fell asleep in the back of the station wagon on the way home that night, so I pulled out the oversized envelope Marta had given me just before we left, as Tom drove south on 1-15 through the soft gray summer twilight. In the packet were several small plastic bags with what looked like a layer of dirt in them, and several ruled pages, torn as if from a ledger, covered with Grandma’s even, upright handwriting.
There was little of interest to Lon or anyone else in these pages, I thought at first. They were dated during several weeks in a spring of the Depression, years before I was born and just after Marta turned two. Marta was the youngest of Grandma’s nine children, the one who consistently spit watermelon seeds the farthest to win the prize of cherry bonbons, which I coveted. Everyone in the family knew how Grandma had struggled to go to nursing school during the Depression and had earned her LPN certificate; it was because of this training, I thought, that she had taught me to wash my hands so thoroughly, to maintain my “female sanitation,” as she put it, and to keep careful track of my cycles. I sometimes thought she was a little fanatical, but I assumed that was typical of one trained during that period. Everyone also knew that Grandpa had been promoted to a lucrative (for those days) traveling job shortly after she got her license, so that Grandma Jean had elected to stay home and be a live-in parent instead of a working one. She was proud of this choice, proud of the “jewels” that were her children, proud of the ways she’d put her skills and talents to work at home and in the church. I’d been raised not only listening to Grandma’s stories, but also eating her homemade bread, sleeping under her quilts, and playing with her plaster-headed dolls, hand-molded and hand-painted. In the family she was held up as womanhood perfected—do-[p.130]mestic, creative, organized, content. I knew from an early age I would never live up to her image.
I read aloud to my husband from the ledger pages for several miles. They were much like a modern Relief Society president’s Day-Timer might be; I was lulled half to sleep by the rhythm of people to visit, dinners to arrange, meetings to attend, funerals to oversee.
Then, on a Thursday, this notation:
Today is Day 30 of my cycle. I cannot be THAT WAY again—so much to do, so little money, Maynard so seldom at home. Beleatha Caldwell
—and an Ogden address.
I read on silently to myself.
Friday. Day 31. Beleatha says: 2X pennyroyal, X cohosh, X rue. 3x/day. The tea tastes vile but I will not stop taking it.
Day 33. No one must know. I take the tea quickly when no one will see. What would the bishop say? Maynard must have no inkling.
Day 39. I am hateful today. Screamed as though possessed at little Marta. I believe this anger is female in origin. I hope to know soon.
Day 40. Blood. Thank God. I will hide all the evidence, but I would do it again. Oh how I thank my God!
Your god is my Goddess, I thought. I folded the papers back into their creases and, in a gesture millennia of women old, I tucked them deep into a hidden place in my purse.
“Anything interesting?” said my husband.
“A recipe,” I said. “That’s about all.”
A few days after that I called the health food store and asked them about pennyroyal. Estrogen, they said. Good for hot flashes. Cohosh? Yes, also a female tonic. Good stuff. Rue? We don’t carry that. So I called another friend, a healer who works with crystals and gemstones and also knows herbs.
“They’re excellent female strengtheners,” she said, “unless you’re pregnant. Any of them will cause miscarriage. Why?”
“I found them growing in my life,” I told her. Then I called Marta.
“It’s what you thought,” I said.
“Will you take care of those papers? Will you burn them?”
[p.131]“I’ll take care of them,” I said. “I’ll burn them.” And I did. But the story needs to be written. Lon need never know, the bishop need never hear. Grandpa will have no inkling. But our daughters should be told. The courage of our mothers—the grace of the Goddess to those who say no for their own good and the glory of She Who Is One-in-Herself—these things must not be forgotten.