by Marion Smith
[p.70]There. Finally, I see the lights of St. George. I’ll be there before midnight, stop at an all-night station for coffee and something sweet, fast sugar. Something I won’t gag on. Strange that I’ve only seen that one police car. Nothing is real. I’ll wait ‘til Mesquite to gas. Just before Jeanne turns this car around and heads back to Salt Lake. I’m right on schedule, but what’ll I do if they’re not there? Do I dare call Chris?
They’ll be there. They started way early. I know Jeanne will drive too fast going home, but how many cops are patrolling I-15 in southern Utah at 3 a.m.? She’ll make it home for her 9:00 class at the U. She’ll leave this car in my garage, pick up hers, then get a parking validation at the U. It seems a good plan, trouble is we haven’t left much room for contingencies. What if she has a flat tire! Don’t think about that.
Jeanne’s class is East Indian religion. It’s a graduate class, pretty hard. Too bad they don’t do meditation; she could use some rest. My back is aching badly now. I hope Duncan brought his muscle relaxants. I wish I could take a bottle of pills.
Duncan’s great-uncle was a counselor to Brigham Young and supervised St. George. Brigham Young sent people here for the same reason they’re coming now: a nice warm climate. He thought they could raise cotton successfully. Now Mormons tired of California smog, crime, or Salt Lake winters are flocking here. [p.71]I think it’s the third largest city in Utah. It’s losing its pioneer uniqueness, like everywhere else. Kind of sad. I love these old Mormon villages, like Amish settlements only poorer.
Mormonism has been Duncan’s family identity for generations. Most people think of identity as being male, female, black, chicano, a farmer, or a basketball player; but Jews’ and Mormons’ identity is their religion. When our kids were little, I think Duncan would’ve named himself first as “Mormon,” then as “investment banker,” then added “husband and father.” Now I’m not sure what he’d say—“Mormon” first? then “father”? But I’d say “female” first. Or criminal … Everything about me is related to being a woman. Maybe our patriarchal society makes me feel that way.
It’s sad that Duncan’s identity is first and foremost Mormon when he’s so disenchanted with the church, with its potential for mind control and abuse of power. But he pays tithing, wears temple garments, and still won’t have a glass of wine. It’s in his blood, I guess, his genes. It’s heartbreaking because he pays the price without getting any of the joy in return. He’s so angry at God, but won’t resolve it.
At least he has a god to be angry at. I wonder if Duncan could ever take a leap of unfaith? That might be scarier for him than leaping to Christianity was for Kierkegaard.
Belonging to “the only true church” is heady stuff. It’s amazing what Joseph Smith created and what happened to his band of followers. His six-member church in 1830 has grown to over 10 million. He must have had incredible charisma. His vision of God and Jesus Christ isn’t what amazes me; I believe in mystical visions. It’s the originality of his theology, his daring to institute practices like polygamy and having property in common.
I told Duncan he should read Harold Bloom’s book on American religions. Bloom says that the Mormons and the Southern Baptists are the “most American” religions in the U.S. today, [p.72]because they reflect our extreme individualism. He sees Joseph Smith as one of the most important figures in American history. He predicts that by the year 2020, Mormons could make up 10 percent of the American population. And that the church’s wealth and political power go far beyond its numbers: Why think about this now? Why should I care? I’ve been trying to figure out Mormonism forever. Maybe it doesn’t matter what myth you follow as long as it has power and meaning for you. Like Joseph Campbell said, “follow your bliss.” I always thought I was trying to do that, How did my bliss slip through my fingers so liquid fast? Where is it now?
In my home Mormonism was hardly ever talked about. You were either “good” or “bad,” that’s all. Our family was a little bad because we didn’t go to church much. Daddy would drop me and my sister off at Sunday school where we’d learn songs like “Give Said the Little Stream,” “I Have Two Little Hands,” and “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.” We’d sing them in the car sometimes. In summer we’d play Sunday school, and my sister would break bread and pour me grape juice she said was wine. She memorized the sacrament prayer and said it on the bread.
The Mormon church was “true,” like China was across the world or stars were far away. It was true because everybody knew it was. If people didn’t go to church, it was because they were busy cooking Sunday dinner, like Mother and Daddy, or because they drank or smoked, like Uncle Frank, or because they were Christian Scientists, like Uncle Lewis. But everybody still believed it.
Some of my friends thought my family was pretty bad. We didn’t go out on Sundays to the movies or Lagoon or Saltair. We had rules about the Sabbath. In that way we weren’t different from the other Mormons. But I hated it when friends asked me why my family didn’t go to church. I hated being different.
My family did baptize and confirm me. “Baptism by immer-[p.73]sion for the remission of sins.” I knew the words, but I didn’t understand them. I still don’t. Even now when they might help. Standing in the warm water of the baptismal font, eight years old, Daddy and me both in white. It was nice. The next Sunday I was confirmed in my favorite dress—pink dotted-swiss with blue velvet ribbons criss-crossing across the bodice. They bought it especially for my confirmation. Men laid their hands on my hair, heavy, heavy, almost too much weight to bear on my small dark head. My father’s voice quivered with emotion and the stress of saying a public prayer. “We confirm you a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints …” It wasn’t the words that sent the message, but the power pressing from heavy fingers, an overwhelming force that entered my body and filled me to bursting. My head still feels that weight, my fingers still remember the bumpiness of the pink dotted-swiss.
There’s the St. George temple. White and beautiful in the bright flood lights. It still grips me. Like the old hymns.
Pull into this gas station. Don’t talk to anyone. Slip quietly into the restroom.
I lock the door and sit on the toilet seat with my arms wrapped around me. I’m sobbing, convulsively. “God, god, god,” I gasp out loud over and over. I don’t know if it’s a prayer, or a curse, or a cry to the universe.
Someone knocks on the door.
I’m back in the car, fingers searching for the ignition.
That’s better. Too much Diet Coke and coffee. Too many stops. Forty-five minutes more and I’ll see Duncan and Jeanne. I’ll feel their arms around me and know they’ll always be there.
I’m crying again. I mustn’t cry, or I’ll have to stop the car. Try some country music on the St. George station.
Why is our religious life so mixed-in with the abuse? For [p.74]everyone in our family; except maybe Jeanne. She seems to have it resolved. Perhaps I would too if it weren’t for Duncan’s pain.
I remember the fall of 1948. I broke off my relationship with Blake in September. We were so young, Blake and I, eighteen. Duncan had been in the navy at seventeen, although the war ended before he went to sea. Boys slaughtered in World War II were barely older than Shawn is now.
I’d dated Duncan quite a bit before I fell in love with Blake. Blake was not Mormon, not from Salt Lake, not “our kind” of eligible boy. My parents had a fit.
I was spending the summer at the University of California at Berkeley. I took philosophy classes, went to plays, attended political lectures, spent evenings in San Francisco. The letters from my radical boyfriend Blake absorbed my days and nights. Blake was working in Chicago, living in a slum apartment, writing poetry. Yet this was 1948, not the 1960s,
That summer at Berkeley I read the Book of Mormon twice. I wanted to find out if the church’s claim as the only true church was true. Then I would know if I had to give up Blake.
My parents warned me, “He won’t have your values, and if you ever married him, there’d be all sorts of problems. Especially for your children.” Dad had met me in the front hall after my first date with Blake. “Laurel, I may not be as religious as I should be, but I know the church is true and I don’t want you going out with non-Mormons.” This was the church view preached to all Mormon girls; but Dad wasn’t active in church so his insistence made no sense to me. Decades later, as a grandmother of abused children, I saw the cruel irony of this orthodoxy: we trusted Clint as the ideal husband and father because he was a church member, a returned missionary” who married our daughter in the temple.
But in Berkeley that humid summer, within my small, Spartan, grey-walled room in Stern Hall, I found no answers. Only [p.75]confusion. I wondered how could my tiny sect, among all the myriad world beliefs, make such claims to Exclusive, Absolute Truth? Millions of Hindus had followed the Vedas for thousands of years. Do we dismiss them with a wave of our revelatory hand? Laugh at Mohammed on his white horse on his journey to Heaven? Then weep with sincerity for Joseph Smith’s vision in a grove of trees?
An exquisite Eurasian girl lived in my hall. She wore silky dresses with genuine jewels and talked like a princess. She told me she was going to be a nun.
“How do you know you’re making the right choice?” I asked.
“It’s not a question of right,” she answered carefully. “It’s planned for me. How could r expect to find ‘right’ when all the great minds of the ages are so divided? For me, it’s enough to live my life as it’s expected, gracefully, with beauty. Can you imagine a better way than being a sister?”
I could, but I didn’t wish to disturb her serenity. My own LDS female contemporaries had much the same attitude. Instead of the convent, their calling was marriage and motherhood. “When you’re married, you won’t care about other things,” my Sunday school teacher had assured me. “Your husband will take care of the world’s problems.” Marriage and the church would fulfill all our needs.
My Berkeley ward, relieved from the standard Mormon architecture by its white stuccoed walls and Spanish tile, seemed to me in all other respects a replica of Salt Lake Mormonism. A grey middle-class businessman gave a grey middle-class Sunday school lesson to a grey middle-class audience. He said we should pay tithes, make bread, and do family genealogy. My heathen boyfriend Blake urged me to care about issues fracturing the world, join unpopular causes, help the poor and defenseless, and renounce the materialism of my family and the comfort of my [p.76]Mormon culture. Blake saw possessions as encumbrances and job careers as shackles to be avoided. No wonder my parents abhorred him—he threatened all they’d worked so hard to achieve.
Slowly that summer, I realized that the power by which the church linked me to itself was my need for Jesus as my savior. Not savior from damnation but from oblivion. Not Jesus as teacher, creator, judge, but as redeemer from my nullity. It was Mother who conveyed that he had to be, to hold and save her. I longed for him as my own mother had.
On my first Sunday back in Salt Lake, I went to church; the congregation sang “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” Suddenly I was sobbing out loud. I thought, “I can’t give this up. I can’t. Not for anybody.”
Duncan called me a few days later to tell me he was going on a church mission to South America and would be leaving in a few weeks. He wanted to get together for old time’s sake. I knew Blake would be jealous, but Duncan was too good a friend not to go out with.
We went dancing with friends at the Old Mill. As we sat around a small table, Duncan talked about his dad blessing the sick at the hospital. About his brother Eldon, heart and breathing stopped, until their father blessed strength back into him. And Duncan’s uncle Billy, unconscious from a stroke and unable to die until Duncan’s father released him from his body. About his sister-in-law’s seven years of infertility until his father’s prayer. About his father’s giving to everyone around him—an alcoholic neighbor, a widow who needed money. I’d never heard Duncan talk this way before. His idealism seemed to shimmer on the table top our elbows shared, as transparent and vulnerable as the foam sliding down our overflowing glasses.
As I listened, I felt possessively, almost maternally, protective of him. I wished we were alone in a dark corner booth where I [p.77]could cry while he held me without saying anything. I wondered how I would tell Blake.
After my date, I sat in my bedroom looking in the mirror on my dressing table. Blake’s last letter lay concealed under my jewelry box. “My darling,” it read, “I know what a rough time they are all giving you, but …” I folded it carefully and put it with the others in a drawer with my handkerchiefs and scarves. As I washed the smudged makeup off my face, I had a blurred vision of Duncan blessing sick people in a hospital, and another of Blake typing political propaganda in a smoke-filled Chicago office.
Lying in bed, I turned to my pillow and cried as I had longed to in the dance hall. I knew, deep inside, in some dark well between my stomach and my womb, that I would not marry Blake, that I wanted the safety of Duncan and his family and his church for me and my children. Ironic that I could think I’d found security.
“And in short, I was afraid.” Who said that? It drives me crazy when I can’t place a sentence like that. “In short, I was afraid.” T. S. Eliot? It has to be Eliot. The “Cocktail Party?” No. Prufrock. Poor J. Alfred Prufrock sipping his tea, unable to mount the stair, debating which peach to sample. Like me, Prufrock chose security because he was afraid. God, I can’t bear such a desolate world. I was nineteen, curled on the black and gold striped silk loveseat when I first read that poem, “The Lovesong …”; I cried when I read it; it released some layer in me I didn’t know was there. “In short, I was afraid.”
After Duncan’s departure, I would search my soul to know if I’d simply caved-in to my parents. I never had a certain answer, but I always relied on that night’s surety—the feeling deep in my body that knew where I would ultimately go. I knew then, too, that I would respect my children’s feelings and decisions. I would [p.78]value their chosen mates for themselves. Clint had to have known how much I trusted and valued him.
Why am I doing this? Thinking of those old times nearly a lifetime ago? Archaic. A lost Eden. Now my adolescence seems like a puritanical Victorian memoir.
So many insects smeared across my windshield I can’t see. Turn on the wipers, wash them clean.
I think of it to block out other images. Clint in his car when I closed the door. Him twisting Jasmine’s hair in his fingers. Lying on top of Jeanne in a narrow bed. Rubbing soap inside Alisha’s vagina in her bath. Kneeling at the altar in the temple with Katherine. Sitting on the stand in church next to the bishop. Sitting by his mother at his wedding breakfast. Shaking Melinda, telling her never to tell her mother or she’d hate her. Huge hands on Jeanne’s throat. Pulling off Jasmine’s pajama bottoms.
I hate him. My fingers gripping the steering wheel know my hate.
Clint, I curse you dead and all your kind. I damn you to hell and back again. I scratch your vacant eyes and pull at your long fingers until they’re useless, cracked, dangling globs of flesh and broken bones. I claw your weak receding chin and pouting mouth. With all my force I punch your fat, sagging belly. I trip your big feet and kick your ugly butt down flights of stairs with holy underwear hanging out above your brown trousers. I watch you fall in the muck and lie there muddy, scarred, broken.
I damn you to hell and back where you can feel some fragment of our pain. I’m glad I blew out your rotten brains.