by Marion Smith
[p.35]Elizabeth was my great-grandmother’s name too. I know her story well: She crossed the plains in a handcart company of Mormon pioneers when she was eight. Her mother died on the way to the Great Salt Lake basin. I remember staring at the huge oil painting of her in my Grandmother’s livingroom and wondering how those stern, unflinching features could be the woman in the family legend.
At nine she was running her widower father’s household—caring for younger brothers and sisters, cooking for the hired hands, helping on the farm. She met my great-grandfather, older and well established, when she was fifteen. My mother glowed when she used to tell me the next part. “She was very beautiful,” my mother would say. She married at sixteen because my great-grandfather couldn’t bear to witness the physical drudgery of her life as her father’s housekeeper. The newlyweds had a romantic, idyllic life together, so goes the story, she madly in love with the handsome wealthy man who’d rescued her, and he with his beautiful adoring child-bride. She was pregnant with her third baby when her husband was informed by Brigham Young that he should take another needy woman as a second wife if he wished to keep his leadership positions in the church and in Salt Lake City’s government. On the day he led his new bride home, my great-grandmother stood bravely on the path to welcome them, [p.36]but as she saw them climbing from the buggy, terrible cramps started and there, at that moment, her baby miscarried.
When I was little, this was a mythic tale of romance and blood. I suppose she made it back to the bedroom, but I always envision my beautiful, brave, child-bride great-grandmother standing with a stream of blood flowing under her long dark skirts and down the dirt path to where her husband stood with his second wife.
I’ve never told Elizabeth that story of her great-great-great-grandmother. But there’s something in it that might help her understand the enormous influence the church had over our family for 130 years. I’ve never told her how much the church affected our lives because it sounds like I’m blaming it for everything, and I hate that. But it’s true that the church was central to our family denial.
I was amazed how big the church loomed over our life when I first married into Duncan’s family. They were royal Mormon blood, a family line that had “presided in the church” from the beginning. My parents didn’t care much about the church. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to Duncan was the family prayer, church going, and church social life he’d always known. It was ironic how Duncan resented the very churchiness that I wanted. Still, I was unprepared for the obsession with church talk at every Greer family gathering. The conversation ranged from gossip to metaphysics, but was always church-related. A little Republican dogma was thrown in for good measure. Sometimes I was bored out of my mind, but I never said anything. I bought the whole system because I wanted to raise my kids with all the safety and stability it guaranteed. It was me who urged Duncan to have family prayer, read scriptures, arrange family night, give blessings to the kids, and “preside” over the family. I can’t believe who I was back then, how trusting. I not only went along with the [p.37]total programming but excelled at it. I must’ve held every church job available to women—primary, Sunday school, young women’s organization, relief society—I taught or presided in all of them. I worked in primary for twenty-seven years, even when I had other church jobs. And I loved it. It never seemed wearisome or irrelevant. I remember the primary pageant I produced for Pioneer Days. The four-year-olds were seagulls in white sheets chasing off three-year-old crickets in black leotards. They puffed out their fat little cheeks full of pretend grain.
I remember helping the Primary children make a tomb and Easter mural that filled a wall of the ward recreation hall. I remember having every child in the ward to swimming parties at our home. I remember crying when my little children sang “I Am a Child of God,” while Jared accompanied them on his guitar. My church activities seemed to bring out the best in me. “It doesn’t matter if it’s all true,” I used to think. “It only matters if it’s good.”
Duncan was more ambivalent about church activities, but he fervently believed in the church. His life was centered on it—he was elders quorum president, on the high council, a guide on Temple Square, all that good stuff. He always said service was what it was all about. Neither of us liked going to the temple. The ceremony always seemed strange, so we avoided it.
Our kids say now that the message they learned from Duncan was, “Rebel—but only as far as I have. Because ultimately your eternal salvation and your earthly happiness depend on the church.” What message did they learn from me? Probably that I was committed to church activity but that I didn’t quite believe. I wanted to; god knows I tried. I lined up all the kids every Sunday morning right on time, all pony-tailed, sparkly bright, shining shoes, the works. Our measure, and everyone else’s, of rectitude.
Why? How could I have been like that? Because I had an [p.38]unspoken contract with Duncan to church commitment. But it was really for our children. It seemed so good for kids.
For as long as I can remember, all I’d ever wanted was children. For me, femaleness was defined by bearing children. I still feel that way. Femaleness as the swollen belly that Chinese culture found so beautiful, with pelvic bones spaced wide for birthing; and breasts that scarcely were, grown heavy with expectancy. Femaleness as membranes so acutely sensitive in those good middle months of pregnancy, they give sensations never felt before. Being female is the rhythmic pulsing that relaxes every nerve as tiny lips gulp greedy for each warm milk drop. It’s waiting eagerness, each part pleading “touch me,” “and me,” “and me,” waiting for the flooding waves to come, and to believe “tonight, new life tonight?” It’s long female fingers waiting to be kissed and barely brushed. It’s broad-hipped, full-breasted, thick-legged women with passion. After my hysterectomy, my femaleness sighed heavy regrets for all the brave little sperm swimming wasted in my body.
Children. Jasmine’s was the only birth Duncan saw. Fathers weren’t permitted for my oldest ones, and he evaded Jeanne’s by saying he might be sick. I should’ve insisted. I should’ve let him know how much it mattered. But he wanted to see Jasmine born.
I had four girls and a son: Katherine, Jared, Tina, Jeanne, and Jasmine. All were easy. Duncan would sit by me in the labor room reading from Time magazine, as if I cared what cataclysms were occurring anywhere else but in my own body. And the babies would come fast and easy—the most fun I’ve ever had, I used to say. As soon as it was over, Duncan would rush to phone the children, “Yes, another girl”; then call the university nursery school to preregister the “Greer baby,” so it would have a good chance, of getting in at age four.
Duncan was with me for Jasmine. He saw all the work of [p.39]bearing down and pushing, the excruciating pressure before the head crowns, and the excitement to discover its sex. He shared the awe and miracle that she’s all right, she’s normal, so tiny-purple-squirming-slick-bloody, so fighting mad for that first cry, so vulnerable to the cold hard air around her, so needing to be held to mother’s warmth. Even with all the work and joy and wonder, my main focus was on Duncan. It mattered terribly to me that he should love this birth, should feel it with me, and know at last what I was feeling. When he kissed me, fighting to hold back the tears, and said she was perfect, I was the happiest I’d ever been.
That was before anybody was talking about feminism (except Betty Friedan) or even what it means to be female. I was thick into apple pie even if my crusts weren’t very good. Equal rights, pro-choice rights, feminist theory—whoever thought about it then?
Now, I can’t understand the church’s opposition to the ERA. They claimed it would diminish women’s rights rather than improve them. But they really feared it might decrease the patriarchal power of church government. So they were hypocritical and underhanded. They sent Mormon women by the thousands to rallies and conventions, to demonstrate against the ERA; and they used ward meetings to distribute literature against it. The church never acknowledged these political activities.
Some of my Mormon women friends wondered if supporting the ERA made them “less feminine.” As if political choice could alter one’s gender! For me, motherhood had to jibe with the rest of feminism: even in those early days women were speaking of the need to balance nurturance and equality against aggression, conquest, and acquisition. And now, right now, how dare men speak of a “kinder, gentler world,” while in the same breath, their policies neglect, betray, ravage; and kill children? [p.40]How dare they say women are “less feminine” if they care about the rights and lives of other women?
I’ve stopped the car. I’m sick. Quickly. Heaving over and over in the bushes by the road. Sour stink. Nothing to clean up with, nothing to rinse the taste away. I’ll get something in Cedar City. At the gas station, I wash my face, take some Advil. Pay in cash.
Calm, indifference almost, is back.