The Wilderness of Faith
Edited by John Sillito

Chapter 7.
The Ghost of the Pioneer Woman
Linda Sillitoe

She is so engrained in our consciousness, perhaps embedded in our genes, that we fail to recognize her ghost almost everywhere—especially within ourselves. Yet she appears in generation after generation, changing her fashion to suit the times.

In Utah she is frequently Mormon. While she shares attributes with other pioneer women just as her descendants share with their contemporaries, she is also a particular within a universal.

We know her as she was. She crossed prairies, cooked biscuits over a campfire, bore children without anesthetic under a leaky cabin roof, and eventually was photographed (with every whalebone stay in place) posed on a rock pile, having dressed to the teeth to take lunch to her husband. Her faith did not falter when her children died of plague, her husband took other wives for godly reasons, or became a foreign missionary for several years. Then because he was engaged in his Father’s business, she became a competent breadwinner. Within our living vision, she can still split rails or go east to medical school. She is midwife, healer, seamstress, and bakes wonderful bread.

As the women’s movement belatedly reached Utah and Mormonism, we wanted to know her better; we, too, had frontiers to conquer, for American society was opening some hostile territory to women. We looked into the wilderness of possibility and found her bringing civilization to the sagebrush—our own expectations rose accordingly.

[p.72] As a surge in women’s history retrieved our heritage, our foremothers fired our imaginations and nourished our self-images. We watched Emma Smith wade the Missouri River with infants in her arms and clinging to her skirts. We cheered when she mobilized the Relief Society to fight her own husband’s revealed order of plural marriage; we were as discreet about her defeat as we were when women’s “auxiliaries” became “correlated” under the male priesthood. We watched Eliza Snow, Emmeline Wells, Susa Young Gates, and others exercise influence and creativity as Utah was born; and we saw women forbidden the exercise of spiritual gifts once the chaos of the frontier came under control. Our surprise was for their one-time power not their loss of power; yet at core we must have known both already through our mothers and grandmothers. For many of us, she is heredity and environment.

During the periods when there were no Indians, no Feds, no Germans, Italians, or Japanese for the men to fight, women’s place became domestic again. Then the exertions women performed as pioneers and breadwinners found impressive if private expression in impossible standards of housekeeping, childbearing, or upon emotional battlegrounds. One bore children, the more the better; one did not divorce no matter what; one did not complain; one did not gossip; one did not admit failure. After all, she and her sister wives had raised a remarkable posterity.

Consider the story popular at one peak of this era when church president David O. McKay told Emma Riggs McKay that she had more important things to do than iron sheets. If one didn’t iron sheets, one might prepare a casserole for the neighbors, or create silk flowers, or read the children a story, or prepare a Sunday school lesson, or quilt, or garden. This well-loved anecdote showed her meticulousness and commitment, his generosity and an apparent discontent with a woman who was more Martha than Mary. Martha, you see, prepares dinner, but Mary is more fun to take to lunch; for centuries we have tried to be both for men who have wanted both.

Another McKayism was that a woman should raise her voice inside the home only in case of fire. The guilt this adage helped to inflict is incalculable; the silence it perpetuated is lethal. Yet who could complain of such kindly dictates with campfire and outhouse only a generation or two in the past? She endured to the end with no modern appliances. If she wasn’t happy, so much the greater her [p.73] righteousness. Meaning that if our grandmothers, our mothers, if we weren’t happy, we were probably doing what we were supposed to do; therefore we had our reward and could expect even more later.

She shadowed the superwoman rising in the national consciousness, gaining among Mormons a peculiar style. On the neighborhood level, jogging and early morning scripture reading were added to the list of home births, home pre-schools, home schools, and cottage industry. We filled our suburban split levels with home-ground wheat, canned peaches, gave lessons in everything from piano to smocking, sewed frilly dresses, and won extra points for tailoring husbands’ suits. The invisible income we earned became a guiltless means of financial survival, though no less exhausting than entering the workforce. Still, she looked back at our weary, fervent faces in the mirror. In any gathering where a woman spoke, the rest of us spotted her in collars, stays, and cuffs behind the smiling face, impeccable testimony, and sweet voice of the Mother in Zion who did it all.

We saw her, too, in the pained eyes of the courageous women documented in “Mormon Women and Depression.” We saw her again in “The Plan,” a film in which Utah’s Young Mother of the Year races from housecleaning, to home pre-school, to handball with her husband, tensely demonstrating how she won her title. But we rejected her in both shocking reflections, denying that she had anything to do with us. In our denial we were saying, “But we do it better—with laughter, with flexibility, with personal fulfillment,” not realizing that we had just upped the ante.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the real extremes erupted, as Mormon mothers urged or threw their children from balcony or bridge, gassed themselves and their children, burned down the house while the children slept. A few years later a younger woman who wanted out was slain with her baby because a Fundamentalist “revelation” had designated her “an alienated woman and her bastard child.” Again we found these occurrences too exceptional to be relevant, failing to see her and ourselves behind the headlines.

Still, something spoke to us—for women’s essays, poems, talks, and even testimonies relented. It became acceptable to express the hardships of pregnancy, birth, motherhood, widowhood. Even in these complaints we honored her, for they implicitly recognized her commitments. She was married; yet often among the journals and [p.74] letters of women who had the time and education to record their lives, sister wives often lent her more independence than had the monogamous woman. Looking back, we tend to assign her both the status of marriage and the liberation of single life. It’s a hard act to follow, especially when monogamous marriage is now the prime prerequisite for everyone. Choosing to be single, choosing not to have children, choosing an alternate lifestyle of any sort, remain peculiarly silent pockets within the national span of women’s literature. Instead Eve, Sariah, and the pioneer woman herself became more accessible, more vulnerable, permitting an emotional leeway that produced more essays, more poems, more fiction. Yet her mountains, plagues, and trials of spirit could instantly reduce ours to molehills. How hard to admit that on one level, especially on Mother’s Day, we hated her guts.

All of the above, of course, is a stereotype of her and of us. All of it, of course, is true. I, for instance, fancy sometimes that I created myself; I had no role model as a writer or journalist. With two radical decisions—which were linked, making them all the worse—I felt I tilted the universe and all its eternal implications. Against all her examples of faith and sacrifice, I chose to cease having babies rather than further compromise my health; despite her righteous priorities, I chose to spend my life writing even though I might not be any good. (This combination had the cheery potential of wasting my life and sealing my damnation.)

Nor had I any role model for my impatience with the icons, real and on paper, in blue suits or beards, on earth or in heaven, that teach my rising blood the meaning of “iconoclast.” Yet she is all about me here and in another dimension; and when I reckon with myself, I reckon not with the dark suits no matter where they fit in the eternal chain of command. I reckon with her. Maria Ann, Elizabeth, Emma, Rosemarie, Fern, my mother, my sisters, my daughters. When I am discouraged or rebellious beyond reason or comfort, one of them comes. We didn’t or can’t or don’t often talk about what matters; we all share the same informed current.

Long before I heard the phrase “Mother in Heaven,” I knew my mother’s mother was in heaven. Elizabeth became an “angel mother,” dying when my mother, the last of eight children, was only five. Quite naturally my mother came as close as humanly possible to being an angel mother for the eight of us. As we grew up, she became [p.75] a confidante, a friend, and the family diplomat, often at cost to her own feelings or health. Even as a very young child, I used to think about Elizabeth in heaven and mourn for my mother’s loss. I was relieved when my mother did not die the year I was five. I later learned that my sisters silently shared the same fear, dreading each younger sibling’s sixth year. Only much later did my mother, who created a storybook childhood for us, admit her resentment that she had been kept from her mother’s sickbed. She learned of her loss early one morning when her two eldest sisters, Rosemarie and Ruth, burst into the bedroom, weeping. And then Elizabeth’s own mother arrived at the house and told the traumatized children they had worked their mother to death. Ruth and then their father died several years later.

Elizabeth had done her share of pioneering in Nevada, American Fork, and later Murray. She was one of the first women in her community to drive a car, which she filled to capacity on Relief Society day. After her death, her grown daughters supported the family as the sons went on missions, to college, and then married. Rosemarie, a schoolteacher and musician, married late, at age forty, and moved to Downey, Idaho, becoming a pioneer of education and culture in the dusty farmland. Despite poor health, she worked extremely hard all her life and died at age fifty-seven. She was profoundly devout, orthodox, and obedient. Within her bookcase I discovered Art Linkletter and Ezra Taft Benson, then secretary of agriculture. Childless, Aunt Rosie fiercely loved all her nieces and nephews. At seventeen, I was asked to give her life-sketch at her funeral. But I cannot imagine sketching my life for her.

Nor to Emma, my father’s mother, a self-effacing woman who in Poplar Grove raised six children and lost one to prematurity. I remember her warmth, her soft laughter, her confusion playing games at wedding showers, but mainly the creations of her hands—dolls in elaborate costumes, the embroidered, crocheted, and painted pillow cases and dresser scarves I still use. Even in death she didn’t trouble anyone; just sat down in her easy chair, gave a little cough, and was gone. When I look at the plaque in my office that reads, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Been,” I doubt she would understand.

Still, there is Maria Ann, a great-grandmother, who at age ten stood at the top of Emigration Canyon, spied the settlement [p.76] below, and ran all the way down the mountain. She didn’t know what she was racing toward; she would support a family after her husband deserted her, turn down his requests to take him back, and then dictate a letter shortly before her death asking to be resealed to him in eternity.

Such ambivalence is inherited. If some strait-laced ghost forever chides, “You are not what I expected,” Maria Ann is still poised somewhere in my mind at the top of the canyon, willing to dash into whatever the future holds.

Recently I’ve thought often of Fern, a middle child in my mother’s family; a tomboy, Fern would outdare her brothers standing on the tracks beside the house as a train bore down on her. In the 1950s, Fern became one of the few female managers in the church bureaucracy, one of the few women whose death was ever mentioned in general conference. She had a full-time career, she traveled, she entertained, she nurtured. When I think of Fern, I think of abundance—dozens of chocolate cookies, blond brownies, wedding dresses for friends’ daughters, Thanksgiving dinners, Fourth of July parties for the whole tribe. Yet Fern had married disastrously, a secret she protected while lavishing her attention on her siblings’ children, becoming in the absence of grandparents the hub of the family wheel. Divorce was not an option; even after seven years of leukemia, she didn’t see death as an option. She would not jump from any track until the last moment, and died incrementally, horribly at age forty-two, leaving her secret at last exposed.

It took years for our family to accept and deal with Fern’s death. My sister Susan and I were adolescents then. Years later we found ourselves confronting leukemia again, this time in Susan’s third daughter. Abby fought the disease for years, but by the time she was five she could not be kept in remission. The day the fateful tests came, Susan talked with Abby about death and about heaven, naming loved ones who were already there. When she came to Fern, Abby suddenly leaned over and kissed her mother’s cheek. “What was that for?” Susan asked.

“I had a dream, and Aunt Fern was in the dream. She told me to give you a kiss for her.”

My mother stoically related this incident that evening at a family meeting called to prepare for Abby’s bone marrow transplant that now would not occur. As a family, we coped better than we had [p.77] with Fern’s dying. We fasted, we prayed, we hoped and grieved, but we faced Abby’s death. Hurting, we let her go.

Fern shadowed our lives again when we learned that another sister, Janean, was in an abusive marriage. Even a generation later, divorce was still not an option; she was protecting her secret. In long conversations we explored her feelings and philosophy, and finally the myth Fern had died upholding helped to free Janean. When she left her husband, she felt she had to hide herself and their babies for a time. We met at an inexpensive apartment we had located quickly through a friend. Janean looked around the shabby rooms, out the windows at the alley and broken bottles, and back at me. Hesitantly she signed the lease. As she climbed into her car, she smiled radiantly, joyously as if she were not about to plunge into the unknown. At that angle in the sunlight, for the first time I saw her resemblance to Fern—an aunt she hadn’t known but now regarded as a kindred spirit.

Recently as I lay exhausted and waiting for sleep the night before one daughter left home to launch a new life, I felt Fern nearby. She had stayed on the tracks, I realized sleepily—but when we jump, she is with us.

Several years ago when our children were in grade school we read them a newly-compiled history filled with the drama of my mother’s stalwart family, plagued by ill health and early death. Repeatedly, commitment, determination, drive, and faith were emphasized as the hallmark virtues until our perceptive and all-too-objective children began to remark upon the costs. Within the family tradition, only serious illness could deter one from duty, if even then; suddenly my radical choices seemed downright healthy.

Within the history are letters between Fern in Salt Lake City and Rosemarie in Downey, in which each lists her projects—Fern’s baking, the status of her gardens, the bridesmaids’ dresses she is sewing, her office work, and Rosemarie’s accounts of the children she has tutored, the chorus she accompanied, the lessons she has given, the stream of overnight guests. For years Susan and I have sent our lists back and forth across the continent, all we, our husbands, our children, have done, all we have yet to do. We beg our mother, who turned in midlife from a bread-baking homemaker to a business partner, not to work so hard. Between family birthday parties, church work, and frequent rescue missions, she denies she’s [p.78] overdoing it, then admonishes us. It does little good. She listens in on our telephone conversations, she edits our letters. Nor are we uniquely afflicted. Over lunch our women friends exchange lists, accomplished and pending. From the next table she eavesdrops, knowing we can do the impossible.

Yet as we come to know her and ourselves, perhaps we can learn to acknowledge not only her accomplishments but her heartaches. We can project her sympathy rather than her judgment. We can believe, if we try, that she remembers how the campfire leaped to scorch the biscuits, the maddening leak in the cabin roof, the singe of jealousy, the noise of loneliness. We can assume she preferred her complexities to ours. We can picture the ghost of the pioneer woman or a mother in heaven approaching with outflung arms. We can tell our daughters they are doing fine.

Though I like to think that becoming a writer defeated the myth, it’s hard to maintain the delusion. When stressed, I start baking (not for myself, of course, but for whomever I can think of to feed). I want Fern’s brownies and cookies at family parties for those of us who remember and for the little cousins who delight in swiping them just as I did. In the midst of writing Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, Allen Roberts, my co-author, was sometimes nonplussed to arrive ready to work on the manuscript and find me up to my elbows in flour.

Once I moved my office home for the last round-the-clock months of writing, we fed the occasional cop and our researchers became part of daily life. Kathy Ballard (another sister) and Lin Ostler watched me synchronize folding the laundry to feeding the printer and agreed no man could ever accomplish what we would. The official editorial “retreat” (involving all men but me) was held at our home—meaning day-long critiques of the rough draft, plus accommodating a houseguest, and hosting an evening party for all involved with the project. That night in the kitchen, Lin gave me her most feminist look and said, “You shouldn’t be doing this; you’re writing the book.” I shrugged. Try telling that to her.

Sometimes I think I see changes; then I am not so sure. No one has mistaken me for an angel mother. Neither of my daughters is an expert cook or seamstress, though, like my son, they forage well. However both have high expectations for their lifework and for rich relationships. If she watches over their shoulders, I hope she is more [p.79] encouraging than formidable; she probably looks a lot like their grandmothers and I worry that she looks like me. Imprinted at a formative age, my youngest began writing a novel at eleven and is now plugging away at six of them. Recently she counseled another junior high student, who tends to be an over-achiever. Warned my daughter, “As long as you never write the first novel, you’ll be okay.”[p.81]