Under the Cottonwoods
by Douglas H. Thayer
[p.129]Holding the song book up for Helen, but not singing, Glen looked over the rows of heads at Eric, who sat at the sacrament table between the Terry and Strong boys. Eric held the song book; all three boys sang. Glen had ordained Eric a priest earlier that morning, and now Eric would bless the sacrament for the first time. Hands on Eric’s head, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of the holy Melchizedek priesthood, he had blessed Eric that he would always be receptive to the promptings of the Holy Ghost, keep himself morally clean, prepare himself to go on a mission, study hard in school, love his younger brothers and sisters, and be protected.
“I bless you,” he said, “now that you have your driver’s license, that you will obey all the traffic laws and drive safely.” As he spoke the blessing, Eric’s thick brown hair grew warm, and Glen raised his hands a little, the other hands on top of his, so that the weight wouldn’t be uncomfortable on Eric’s head. Eric wore his hair as long as Glen would let him, his hair thick and brown like Helen’s. People were always [p.130]saying how much Eric looked like both of them.
“Thanks, Dad,” Eric said after the ordination, and shook hands with him, Bishop Simmons, and the others in the circle. But Eric didn’t stand and bear his testimony in the short testimony meeting the bishop had held in the priest class as part of fast Sunday. He didn’t have to say that he knew the gospel was true, but just stand up and say that he appreciated the Church, loved the family, loved his mother, felt he was blessed, lucky to live in Provo, anything, just so he wanted to do it out of himself, but Eric just sat there looking down at his new shoes.
“Well, son,” he wanted to say, “you’re sixteen now. What do you believe?”
“He’s a fine boy, Glen,” Bishop Simmons said after the priest class was over, put his hand on Glen’s shoulder.
Glen had gone to four or five of Eric’s Explorer basketball games that winter, and each time it surprised him how tall Eric was, his body shining with sweat. Girls shouted his name when he made a basket, and after the game before he went to the showers, talking to him, they reached out to touch him. One flashy little blonde reached up to run her fingers through his hair.
For the last six months, maybe a year, Glen had sensed that Eric was moving away from him, that he no longer really influenced Eric’s life much (he saw Eric only at breakfast, maybe for half an hour in the evening; Eric was always on the run, going somewhere—to some friend’s to study, to play ball, to some school or ward activity, out with some girl-never had five minutes to stay home).
He wanted Eric to stay in the Church, have a strong [p.131]testimony, believe, go on a mission, go to college, get married in the temple, live by those values. He couldn’t understand how Eric could live any other way and still have a life that meant anything. He wanted Eric to know that it was all true so that he would be safe. He wanted to know what kind of a life Eric would have.
He wanted Eric to bear his testimony now this morning in testimony meeting so that Eric himself would know that he believed. And Helen deserved to hear that testimony, and his grandmothers, and everybody in the ward who had ever taught him in Primary, Sunday School, priesthood, or ever worked with him in Scouting or Exploring. They deserved to know that it all meant something to him. Eric was the oldest grandson on either side of the family, the best the family could do, and the best the ward could do too, whether he knew it or not.
“Son, why don’t you bear your testimony this Sunday in fast meeting. It would mean a lot to your mother. Your becoming a priest is a special day for her.” All week he had wanted to put his hand on Eric’s shoulder and say that, but he hadn’t. If he had to tell Eric, the whole thing would be meaningless.
He had decided to bear his own testimony this morning to encourage Eric, and to let him know what he believed. He hadn’t borne his testimony very often, perhaps not in the past five years, not since he blessed Carie. Sitting there holding the song book for Helen, singing, he saw Art Johnson, Sid Baker, Al Peterson, others, men he had lived in the ward with for ten years, who were active, had active families, men who never bore their testimonies.
Kirsten and Carie sat between their mother and [p.132]two grandmothers, and Bob sat with the deacons. Eric’s grandmothers had come to see him bless the sacrament for the first time. Glen sang the last verse of “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Sister Lund’s white baton swept in wider arcs as she tried to get the ward to feel the song, come with her. She always made a special effort to get the Aaronic priesthood boys who sat on the benches in front of the sacrament table to sing. Some Sunday mornings she stopped in the middle of a song to get them more books. He liked to sing the songs on Sunday. Even as a boy he had liked to sing, but he didn’t have much of a voice.
During the opening prayer traffic noises came in through the two open side doors at the front of the chapel. The air conditioning wasn’t working again. The front end of their new red Torino was just visible through the open door on the left side. Eric had parked it where everybody in the ward would see it when they walked out of the chapel. All of Eric’s friends had been over to see it. The sun was a weak glow through the milky windows down both sides of the chapel. The two hornets still crawled on the top pane of the left middle window.
After the prayer Bishop Simmons stood up again, and the latecomers moved down both aisles looking for seats. The Bills dragged their seven kids down to the very front as usual, where they could make the most noise. “The first baby to be blessed this morning, brothers and sisters, is the son of Brother and Sister Melvin K. Thompson.” The two babies to be blessed and the three boys to be confirmed meant less time for testimonies. The bishop had made a lot of announcements.
Eric sat straight. His new suit had six-inch-wide [p.133]lapels, and bell-bottomed pants like a sailor’s. Last Monday, his birthday, Eric had come to the office at 9 o’clock, and Glen had driven him over to the city and county building to take his driver’s test. Eric had taken the Provo High driver education course, passed the written part of the state test with only two mistakes, and Glen had changed their car insurance to cover a teenage driver.
But all week he had felt tense, scared, a surge of fear going through him if the phone rang while Eric was out with the car, kept thinking about Eric’s having a license. In a split second, even within sight of the house, Eric could mangle or kill himself, change all of their lives, mangle and kill people he didn’t even know or had never seen before. Two of his friends had been killed last year in a head-on.
He had given Eric the promised set of keys to the new Torino for his birthday, touched his hand; however, a moving violation would cost him his driving privileges for a month.
“I know, I know,” Eric had said, holding the new keys for the first time, feeling them with his fingers.
“I hope you do, son.”
Glen glanced at Helen, who watched Eric. Kirsten and Carie were still quiet. His and Helen’s mothers had finally stopped whispering to each other. Bob and some of the other deacons and teachers already leaned forward to rest their foreheads on top of the next bench, as if suffering.
The women watched Thompson carry his son down the aisle, his father and father-in-law following him.
Yesterday at the office Les had told him about a sixteen-year-old nephew whose girl friend was preg-[p.134]nant. “Sixteen,” Les said. “And do you know where it happened? In front of the TV in the family room. And it wasn’t just once either. I tell you, Glen, the kids today are something. I’m glad my three are all raised and married. You can’t know what a kid today will try next.”
Every week he heard horror stories about Provo teenagers, even the junior-high-school kids now, taking drugs, pushing drugs, drinking, having wild parties, sex a long series of experiments. Kids tried everything there was to try today, dropped out of school, out of the Church, out of life, destroyed their bodies and themselves. Not love, religion, family, or anything else was strong enough to hold some of them, show them what life was supposed to be.
When he was growing up in the old Provo Sixth Ward, kids had been satisfied; there weren’t so many dangers, and a kid’s friends weren’t stronger than his family. A boy could go to hell almost overnight now.
The circle formed for blessing the baby, and the ward hushed to hear Thompson speak into the mike held up for him: “Our Father in heaven, by the authority of the holy Melchizedek priesthood which we bear and in the name of Jesus Christ, we take this infant into our arms to give him a name and a father’s blessing …”
Helen put her hand on Glen’s knee and he covered it with his. Sixteen years ago this month he had and blessed Eric, held Eric’s body in his two hands. His own body heavy with love for his wife and son, that sense of family, a first child, he had blessed Eric’s hands, feet, mouth, eyes, brain, and heart that he might grow up without infirmities, always be protected, and always be true to the Church, willed his [p.135]son’s flesh and blood to obey. He had baptized and confirmed Eric, blessed him then, blessed him when he ordained him a deacon, a teacher, blessed him today.
But he had administered to Eric, and the other kids, only when Helen suggested it. And they didn’t have family prayer, except the blessing at supper sometimes became a kind of family prayer. And he had never done any of his genealogy; he took Helen to the temple maybe three or four times a year if she hinted often enough. He didn’t know the standard works because he had never really studied them. He didn’t bear his testimony.
He could visualize God the Father but not Jesus Christ, although now finally he began to see the need for some kind of redemption. He believed in life after death, yet he never really desired to be a god, gain the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, be exalted. He was satisfied if he could stay out of jail, get the kids decently raised, make Helen happy. But he wanted Eric to believe it all.
He looked up at Eric again. Eric had borne his testimony once, when he was eight. Each child in the Sunday School class, prompted by the teacher because they had all been recently baptized, stood up in turn to say that he knew the gospel was true, then sat down again to be giggled at and punched. Eric was active in the Explorer post, but he didn’t want to get his Eagle Scout badge. They would be lucky if he got his Duty to God Award.
After Thompson finished blessing his son, he held him up for the whole ward to see, and the women turned to smile and nod to one another, the noise picking up again. “The second baby to be blessed this [p.136]morning is the new daughter of Brother and Sister Richard K. Carter, Jenifer.” Carter blessed the baby and then held her up, all dressed in pink. Bishop Simmons announced the names of the Mitchell, Swensen, and Jones boys, who had been baptized and were to be confirmed by their fathers. The ward clerk brought his chair over for the boys to sit on.
His and Helen’s mothers were smiling. He had baptized Eric, and the Sunday he confirmed him, had given him the gift of the Holy Ghost to be his companion, guide, conscience, and protector forever. His mother had brought the twenty-year-old baptism pictures to the special dinner they had for Eric and showed how much he and Eric looked alike at eight in their white baptismal clothes.
Glen looked around at all of the women in the congregation, two or three for every man. The Church was natural for women, absolutely necessary, how they saw life. Women held a ward together. If a man had the natural faith a woman had, he could do anything. The women’s section of the choir was always two to three times as big as the men’s. Some women tried to hound their husbands into heaven (Valerie Wilson bore her testimony every fast Sunday, Stan, who never bore his, sitting there), which was something Helen had never done.
“Brother David Stanley Mitchell, by the authority of the holy Melchizedek priesthood in us vested …”
He wanted Eric to go on a mission, and he wished that he had gone himself. The draft wouldn’t take him because of his eyes, and his father didn’t care if he went on a mission or not, although he said he would pay if he did. His mother had been sick that year. So he hadn’t had to tract eight hours a day, week after week, [p.137]have doors slammed in his face, get shouted down and cursed in street meetings. And he hadn’t preached, healed, prayed and fasted, used the power of the Holy Ghost, seen people converted, hadn’t seen how the Church changed their lives. Not having those experiences had made a difference all of his life.
They had got Eric to start a missionary savings account, but he spent most of his money on new clothes and now girls. (A year ago he and the Nelson kid had been picked up down at Clark’s for shoplifting ties, which they wanted for the Valentine’s dance.) A mission was the farthest thing from some of his friends’ minds. They dragged Eric away from his studies, wore their hair long, dressed a little wild, and were only out for a good time.
The Mitchell boy’s father, Bishop Simmons, and the others in the circle shook hands with him after the confirmation. The Swensen boy sat in the chair and bowed his head.
The hornets had left the high window now, swung low over the Aaronic priesthood boys. The boys turned up their faces to watch the hornets, pointing, whispering, hoping they would sting somebody and cause a commotion, wouldn’t fly out through one of the open doors. The hornets went looping off, rising higher toward the vaulted ceiling, rising above the chandeliers, the kids quieting down again, disappointed, bowing their heads for the confirmation.
Glen watched Bob, his head bowed, reach over to punch the Keith kid. Listening to Swensen give his son the gift of the Holy Ghost, bless him, Glen turned to look up at Eric again. In spite of everything their parents did, some kids grew up today believing that life was just one long X-rated movie. Provo boys ran [p.138]away to places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, got hepatitis, gonorrhea, and they became theives, beggars, homosexuals to get money for drugs. Allen Smith had committed Brent to the State Hospital in May because of drugs, changed the family’s life.
The newspapers, magazines, TV, and movies dealt with practically nothing but world pollution, population explosion, world starvation, the possibility of biological and atomic warfare, and how long God had been dead. Twice in the last year he had been invited to join neighborhood protection groups. Some men had a gun for every member of the family, had taught their children to shoot, and their year’s supply of food and other essentials included a case of ammunition. Mark Henderson had his whole family taking karate.
After the second confirmtion, everybody straightened up, the coughing and whispering starting again. Hand on his son’s shoulder, Swensen walked him up the aisle. On every row men were taking off their suit coats. Outside, the red Torino glimmered in the sun. The Jones boy sat in the chair and the circle closed around him.
The picture of Joseph Smith on the wall above the organ had turned to a mirror in the sunlight. Glen had looked at it every Sunday for twelve years. In October their new house in Indian Hills would be finished. Full of B.Y.U. professors, lawyers, businessmen, and dentists, their new stake was one of the two or three most active in the whole Church. The schools were better (the new high school would be up that way), and it would give Eric a chance for some new friends, boys whose parents saw that they studied, earned scholarships, went on to college.
Ten years ago they had had a chance to transfer to [p.139]California with the company, but they had decided not to take the promotion and to stay in Provo. Saturday he had heard of another Los Angeles doctor who had moved his family to Provo and then commuted once a month. The only bad thing about their move to Indian Hills was that it took Eric farther away from town, where he could get a job now. Glen had started washing dishes in the B and B Cafe when he was thirteen. But now the federal government wouldn’t allow a boy to work until he was sixteen. Hell.
Eric turned his head, and his glasses reflected the diffused sunlight. He had warned Eric every day to obey all traffic laws, wear his seat belt and shoulder strap, drive defensively (Glen had for the past three months tried to obey every traffic law; he had studied the state driver’s manual at his office), but all the time he knew that Eric probably had no useful concept of speed, injury, or death, would have to learn that, if he was lucky.
Eric was already talking about saving his money for a motorcycle. Nearly every kid under twenty-five who was killed in the county died in a motorcycle or car accident. When Glen showed Eric the report of an accident in the Herald, pointed to the pictures of smashed cars and blanket-covered bodies, he said, “Ya, one of the guys told me about it.”
The parents always used a high school yearbook picture for the obituary, sometimes the son or daughter in a cap and gown. Glen closed his eyes against the image of a state trooper, hat in hand, ringing his doorbell, Bishop Simmons standing beside the trooper. Eric had been reported three times this past year for cutting classes. “Ah, we just went for a ride was all. Is that so bad?”
[p.140]”Where did you go?”
“Oh, gad, we just went to Salt Lake and back.”
“You call driving to Salt Lake on a school afternoon just going for a ride? Well, buster, you’re grounded for a week. You don’t go anywhere.”
He had long ago passed the point when he could imagine life without Helen or the kids. He wanted the Church’s idea of the eternal family to be true.
“It’s wonderful, brothers and sisters, to see new babies blessed and children confirmed members of the Church.” Glen opened his eyes. Bishop Simmons stood at the pulpit again. “We will now prepare ourselves to partake of the sacrament. The sacrament song is number two hundred and one, ‘There Is A Green Hill Far Away.’ ” Glen looked up at the clock and then at his watch. They were running about twelve minutes late.
People coughed, opened their books. Sister Lund waited, her baton raised, until all the deacons, teachers, and priests had opened their song books and held them up. Eric had been in her Mother’s Day Aaronic priesthood chorus. Glen had tried to pick out Eric’s voice, wondering all the time how Sister Lund had ever talked him into singing.
“Eric has a nice voice,” she had said. Glen held up the song book for Helen. Every fall Sister Lund invited him to join the choir, but he couldn’t read music, so he never joined.
Glen felt his heart begin to pound when Eric stood and bent to break the bread into the chrome trays this first time. Eric was the tallest of the three priests. Sometimes Glen couldn’t remember when he had touched him last. When Eric was little he liked to wrestle with him, let him ride on his back, liked to [p.141]bathe him, help him put on his pajamas, kneel with him to say his prayers.
For once there wasn’t a “Wonder Bread” or “Peter Pan” wrapper visible on top of the sacrament table. Two or three rows back a baby was crying, but it stopped just before the sacrament song ended. And the whole ward was absolutely quiet finally, hushed, heads bowed. The Terry kid knelt to bless the bread, and Glen, head bowed, his heart slowing down a little (Eric would bless the water), listened for “body.” A kid had to sense something when he blessed the sacrament, used his priesthood.
Glen watched Eric take his piece of bread from the chrome tray held out to him. The deacons were serious as they passed the sacrament. In the kitchen they laughed, talked about sports, bumped into the teachers as they filled the water trays from the tap, spilling the trays. And after the meeting they ate the leftover sacrament bread, and they threw the used cups at each other, hollering and laughing. He had gone into the kitchen about once a month to collar Eric. Glen took his piece of bread, held the tray for Helen, who took it and then turned to help the girls and pass it to her mother.
Glen chewed his piece of bread, sensed it begin to vanish in his mouth, without swallowing. The picture of Joseph Smith, who had seen the Father and the Son, was still a mirror. He chewed. God the Father had always been a reality, necessary to the order of the universe, the source of all law from the Ten Commandments on down. But a Christ was necessary too if you believed in justice, right and wrong, because somebody had to pay. But he didn’t feel anything for Christ. He tried every Sunday when he took the sac-[p.142]rament to imagine Him, yet all he saw was the picture of Jesus that used to hang in the old Sixth Ward Junior Sunday School room.
He wanted to bear a testimony of Christ for Helen, his mother, her mother, the whole family, everybody in the ward, but today mostly for Eric. He wanted to say he knew that Christ lived, was the son God, and that everything was true. It was something he hadn’t earned, but at times he thought that if he just said he knew, then it would be true for him. Eric would have that wherever he was. The last of the melted bread slipped down his throat.
The deacons walked back down the aisles. He took Helen’s hand. Eric knelt, disappeared above the deacons’ heads. His voice filled the chapel, amplified through the mike, blessing the water for all of them, giving them the chance to pledge themselves to the Savior for another week. Glen squeezed his eyes tighter shut, listened for the word “blood,” which Eric might confuse with “body,” have to start over. Glen opened his eyes. His dark brown hair shining in the glow of sunlight coming through the high milky windows, Eric rose above the two lines of standing deacons. Helen turned to shush Carie, and then took her hand away from under Glen’s to get her handkerchief out of her purse.
Glen’s heart began to slow down a little. Both of Eric’s grandmothers smiled up at him. (Glen hoped that Bob would be as tall as Eric.) The ward waited for each priest to stand up on his own some fast Sunday and bear his testimony for the first time, and so tell them that it had somehow all been worthwhile, that his life would mean something.
He wanted Eric to have that sense of congregation, [p.143]believing what others believed, knowing what they would do, feel safe, realize how much that meant. Life meant more in a town like Provo. But Eric had to feel that himself and know how important it was. Glen watched the men who were bishops, high councilors, stake presidents. They seemed to grow, had emotions and understandings he didn’t have, power. He was assistant to the ward Sunday School president, which was about what he deserved.
He tried to sense what other men believed, what kept them active, what they really felt, whether or not they did it because of family, social pressure, heritage, business, habit, or because they believed. He always listened to other men sing. The two hornets had dropped down to circle low over the front rows. People followed the hornets with their eyes, slowly turned their heads, tried to will them to fly out through one of the open side doors.
A deacon, Chad Williams’s boy, handed Glen the tray. He drank the warm chlorinated water from the little paper cup (in memory of the blood of Christ), water dripping on his knee from the tray. Girls that Glen didn’t know or had never heard of called Eric at ten and eleven at night now, and Eric was anxious to be able to take the car at night just to see a girl for a few minutes. He had known for over a year that girls liked him, thought he was good looking.
“Ah, Dad,” he said, “they’re just girls.”
“Maybe, but girls that called boys on the phone when I was in high school were considered wild. Just tell your girl friends not to call here after ten because you won’t be answering.”
“But they’ll think I’m just a kid.”
“You’re sixteen, which means that you’ve still [p.144]got a year or two left yet.”
Kids today went to every extreme-free love, homosexuality, perversion of every kind-so it wasn’t just a fear of Eric’s getting some girl pregnant; he could become another person, which happened now to perfectly decent kids from good homes. He couldn’t imagine what something like that would do to Helen. If the Church just kept Eric from drinking and smoking, kept him away from drugs, and kept him moral, then he wouldn’t ask any more than that. It would be worth all of the ward budget, fast offering, and tithing he had ever paid, or would pay.
“You’ve got your work cut out for you, Glen, raising a kid these days,” people said. “The next two or three years will be the hardest. You haven’t seen anything yet.”
Glen looked up at Eric again, who sat straight, watching the deacons pass the trays. In another year Eric would be as tall as he was, and probably stronger. Eric had gone out for wrestling last year, and had taken a karate class this summer offered at B.Y.U. He worked out with his weights every day. Shirtless, he stopped before every mirror in the house. A boy growing strong changed things because you couldn’t touch him. Harold Banks’s son Karl had grabbed Harold one night when they were having an argument about his long hair, pushed him out of the bedroom and slammed the door in his face.
Stan Tibbs’s boy had stolen the neighbor’s car, and, in a hundred-mile-an-hour chase with the state highway patrol, smashed the car through a guardrail and the chain-link fence to kill himself. The guardrail had been fixed, but not the fence. Every trip to Salt Lake, Glen saw it, the skid marks where he went off, [p.145]the tire ruts where he hit the first time before he started to roll. Glen watched the freeway now for skid marks, torn out guardrails and dividers, burned patches, and at night he watched ahead for the pulsing red lights.
Down at the front of the chapel Bills stood up with his baby, walked past the deacons lined up to return the trays, the baby screaming all the way to the foyer, the sound gradually fading. Glen smiled a little. When Eric was a baby and started to fuss, he had usually been grateful for the chance to take him out and so not have to listen to the speaker. He had liked to hold Eric in church, feel the warmth and heaviness of his body, watch him fall asleep.
Now in two years Eric would be out of high school. They hadn’t gone on enough camping, hunting, and fishing trips together, just the two of them. He had always wanted to own a small business so that he and Eric could work together, know each other. All the small family businesses were being taken over by the big chain outfits. How did a father get to know a son he was hardly ever with?
Last November Eric and the Harris and Nelson kids had broken a window to get into the wardhouse to play basketball in the gym. Now the Nelson kid had a car of his own and tried to pull Eric off on Sunday to go fishing, boating, hiking, anything just to get out of church.
“But, Dad,” Eric said, “it’ll just be one Sunday.”
“Your place on Sunday is in church, son. You know that as well as I do.”
“But it’s so boring. All the guys say it’s boring.”
“Maybe, but as long as you put your feet under my table you go to your meetings.”
[p.146]”Nuts. What’s one Sunday going to hurt anything?”
Nowadays a kid’s friends were more important than his family. He had to practically handcuff Eric to his desk every night while school was on to get him to study.
The deacons filed down the aisles to the waiting priests, the chrome trays flashing light. People stirred again, coughed. More men took off their suit coats in the growing heat.
“We want to thank the Aaronic priesthood for the fine way in which they took care of the sacrament this morning.” Bishop Simmons stood at the pulpit again. “We particularly want to thank Eric Miller, whose father ordained him a priest this morning, and who blessed the sacrament for the first time. You did a fine job, Eric.”
The deacons returned to the two front benches, and the three priests walked down off the stand. The Terry and Strong boys sat with the other priests, but Eric walked up the aisle toward them. He stopped, Glen pushed over to make room, and Eric sat down beside him. Helen put her hand through Glen’s arm, and Glen knew he had that surprised look on his face. He wanted to put his arm around Eric’s shoulders and hug him, but if he did Eric might get up and leave. The last of the latecomers made it. Eric hadn’t sat with them in six weeks. He sat with either his friends or some girl.
“And now we come to the part of the meeting when we have the opportunity to bear our testimonies. I know, my dear brothers and sisters, that God lives and that his son, Jesus Christ, died for us all. I know that Joseph Smith restored the true gospel of [p.147]Christ to the earth and that a living prophet guides us today. My family and I have been truly blessed by the gospel and we see the hand of the Lord in our lives every day. The time is now yours to bear your testimonies. The two deacons will bring the traveling microphones up the aisles to you if you will just raise your hand.”
More than half of the deacons and teachers looked up at the wall clock; they were already thinking about dinner. The meeting was running about twenty minutes late, which meant only forty minutes for testimonies.
Glen watched Eric. Larry Hammond’s boy came up the aisle with the mike, but Eric didn’t raise his hand. “Brothers and sisters, I want to bear my testimony this morning and tell the Lord how grateful my wife and I are for our new son.” It was Thompson down front. “I can’t tell you how much joy this first child has brought into our home. The family is the unit of salvation. A man simply isn’t complete until he has a wife and children. It is these relationships that give life its real meaning. I am grateful to the Lord that I know that Nancy and I will have our son and each other all through eternity if we keep the commandments. I know now more than ever that the gospel is true. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Glen felt the pressure and warmth of Eric’s shoulder against his. This morning when he ordained Eric a priest and then shook his hand, it was the first time he had touched Eric in weeks. He had increased his own life insurance twice before Eric was a year old. Now Eric twisted away if even his mother tried to kiss or hug him. And he was getting more sarcastic. Yesterday they’d had another of their little talks about that.
[p.148]”He’s a good boy, Glen,” Helen had said, after Eric left the room.
“He doesn’t always act like it.”
“I guess that we just have to be more patient.”
Glen raised his hand, took the mike. On the other side of the chapel, Sylvia Tucker was finishing her testimony. He waited, leg muscles tight, his left hand on the back of the next bench. Eric looked straight ahead.
Swallowing hard, Glen rose above the heads. Faces turned to look up at him, then turned back. He saw the bald heads, blue hair, wigs, hats, white shirts. Speaking into the mike, he told how grateful he was for the neighborhood, the sense of neighborhood, for living in Provo, for the peace they all shared.
“I am grateful,” he said, “for the organization of the Church, for all of the good people who help to make the programs work so that we help each other raise our children. My life has taught me that if a man will live the principles of the gospel, he will receive the promised blessings because the gospel works. And he will be able to stand amid all the evil, change, and uncertainty today and give his family a good anchor. It is my testimony that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, as is the president of the Church today. And I want to tell Eric publicly how much his mother and I love him and how proud we are that he is our son and worthy to be ordained a priest. We hope that he will always have a strong testimony of the gospel and keep the commandments, and be worthy to go on a mission. I bear you this testimony in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Glen handed the mike to the waiting Hammond [p.149]boy and sat down. Eric had leaned forward to rest his forehead on the top of the next bench.
His heart still beating hard, but slowing down, Glen lifted his arm and put it around Helen, pulled her closer to him. She put her hand on his knee. He wanted to start family prayer, to do genealogy, start going to the temple regularly, and start studying the scriptures at least an hour every day.
The Church gave a man a framework for his life, something to believe in, something to hope for, gave him values that made a difference, created emotions. And he wanted to put his arms around Eric and say, “Oh, son, son, do you know of a better way to live? Just tell me.” Still flying together, the two hornets bumped along the wall now, didn’t light on the windows, flew just above the heads, people leaning away.
Old Brother Hansen rose above the heads to take the traveling mike from the deacon in the other aisle. “I know that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that our prophet today is divinely inspired, and that our Book of Mormon is true. Amen.” He was eighty. He still sang in the choir.
Behind Glen somewhere Sister Wilson began to speak. He didn’t have to turn. She bore her testimony every fast Sunday and always took at least fifteen minutes.
The sound of a car honking came through the open side doors. The visible front half of the red Torino shone in the sunlight. Eric had washed it again yesterday afternoon before he took it for an hour. They had bought the Torino instead of an Impala because that was what Eric wanted if they couldn’t have a sports car. After Eric had driven for a month without an [p.150]accident or a ticket, he could start dating in the car at night, but he couldn’t drag Center Street.
Kids spent hours every night doing nothing but driving up and down Center honking at each other, squealing tires, and flipping fast U-turns. Girls parked their fathers’ cars to get in with boys they didn’t know and drove off. Groups of boys stood around customized cars as if at altars, and the hippie types, some of them pushing drugs, had their vans.
Sister Wilson was beginning to wind down earlier than usual. “I just wanted to say before I end my testimony how pleased I was to see Eric Miller bless the sacrament this morning. He was one of my Junior Sunday School boys. I watch all of my boys. It is a great testimony to see them grow and develop in the gospel and know that they are worthy to be advanced in the priesthood. We have the finest youth in the world right here in our own ward. Well, I guess I’d better sit down. I’ve taken too long again, but I am so grateful for all of my blessings. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
“Dear brothers and sisters, I just had to stand up today to tell you how wonderful it is to be home again after being away working all summer in California.” It was Cindy, Ted Johnson’s youngest girl. “The gospel is just so wonderful and you’re all such wonderful people and I appreciate you so much after being away. I know I’m going to cry, but it’s just so good to be back home in Provo again where everything is so peaceful and nice. I appreciate my family so much more now and all the things they have done for me. I want to tell them that I love them all so very much.”
Eric still sat leaning forward, resting his forehead on top of the next bench. Glen looked up at the clock. [p.151]They had twenty minutes left. He reached out and put his hand on Eric’s shoulder for a moment, then took it away again. Eric’s suit coat shone in the light. His grandmothers had bought him the new tie, shirt, and shoes to go with his new suit, and Bob, Kirsten, and Carie had put their money together to buy him a belt and a matching pair of socks. Long hair, beards, wild clothes, slovenliness, and half-nudity scared Glen, but it was the well-dressed kids on drugs that scared him the most.
Boys from some of the best Church families in Provo turned their brains into sponges, were on drugs for a year before their parents ever found out. They were clean-cut, wore the best clothes, went to their meetings, blessed the sacrament, were boys everybody in the ward expected to go on missions. They had been loved, raised in the Church, been taught right from wrong, to believe in God, had the priesthood, had every comfort a kid could reasonably expect, had a good family, and still they used drugs, as if all those good things meant nothing. Phil and Sue Rogers had mortgaged their home to pay the psychiatrists for Craig. Sue had all but had a nervous breakdown.
“Ah, Dad,” Eric said when he spoke to him about drugs, “you don’t understand.”
“What do you mean, I don’t understand?”
“Ah, everybody exaggerates.”
“Exaggerates? Do you happen to know what the heroin addiction rate is in this country among adolescents?”
“Ah, good grief.”
Over on the right side of the chapel under the windows, Sister Madsen stood up and took the mike [p.152]from the deacon. David, her oldest son, was a full colonel in the Air Force. Mark was a dentist, and the youngest, Arlo, was an engineer. All three had gone on missions, were married, had good families, and were active in the Church.
A widow for twenty-five years, she was one of those women who kept the Church going. She had worked all her life in the Primary, Junior Sunday School, M.I.A., and Relief Society. Without the women like her, the Church would never make it. Women didn’t have to worry about religion; it was natural to them; it was the way they thought about things.
One of the Hansen girls came up the aisle leading her little brother by the hand. The restroom traffic had begun. A few people were turning to look up at the clock. Glen checked his watch, the clock, then glanced at Eric, who still sat bent forward, head resting on the top of the next bench.
But Eric raised up when Jeff White started to speak. Jeff taught the priest quorum. “I bore my testimony just last month when I returned from my mission, brothers and sisters, but I want to bear it again this morning. I know that the power of the Holy Ghost is real. I know the power of prayer and fasting because I have used that power. I have seen whole families come into the Church and change their lives. I promise any priest here today that if he will go into the mission field and work hard, and have faith, he will receive the promised blessings and testimony. He will learn what love is. I know that the gospel is true. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Sylvia Myers stood with the other microphone.
Glen turned to see Eric’s face, but he was looking [p.153]out through the open door at the Torino. The polished chrome bumper reflected sunlight like a mirror. Glen turned to look straight ahead again. Eric could drive into Wyoming, Idaho, or Nevada on a date now. He could buy liquor, drugs, take a girl to a motel two hundred miles away from Provo. When Glen came out in the morning to drive to the office, Eric still asleep upstairs, the Torino could stand in the driveway dusty in the sunlight, the windshield splattered with dead green insects, the gas tank empty when he turned on the key. For the first month Eric wasn’t supposed to drive with more than one of his friends in the car.
Glen looked at Eric, then up at the clock. He closed his eyes and willed Eric to stand up, bear his testimony, do it for his mother’s sake, if for no other reason, which he ought to be able to understand.
Maxwell’s voice sounded behind Glen, already talking before the deacon could get the mike to him. Glen breathed deep. “My dear brothers and sisters, I feel impressed this morning to rise to my feet and tell you of an experience my good wife and I had while visiting our son and his family in Los Angeles last week. Those of us living in Utah in the safety of the valleys of the Rocky Mountains just don’t know how truly blessed we are to be out of Babylon. …”
Sister Clinger stood up next and told about a grandson’s miraculous recovery from heart surgery and how grateful she was for the power of the priesthood to heal, her voice gradually weakening until she was crying softly, but she went on to finish her testimony, everybody hushed. The lower hornet bumped along the wall, moving toward the open side door, just low enough to hit the top, and then it was gone.
[p.154]Sister Broadbent bore her testimony. Eric looked straight ahead now. Five minutes. Helen was smiling. After the next testimony, the pause came, ward members turning to look up at the clock, up at Bishop Simmons. The second hornet rose higher, bumped along the top of the middle window again, lit.
Bishop Simmons stood up to the pulpit. “Brothers and sisters, I think that the spirit of the Lord has been here in rich abundance this morning.” Glen lifted the song book from the rack. Eric took the other one. Helen’s mother was helping Kirsten and Carie with a song book. Sister Monroe, the organist, moved out of the choir seats back to the organ. “I think that we all have been spiritually fed. We will bring our meeting to a close by singing number sixty-four, ‘Hope of Israel.’ Brother Wayne Spencer will offer the closing prayer.” The organ music started, and Sister Lund stood up, lifted her white baton.
Halfway through the first verse Glen began to hear Eric’s voice above his own and Helen’s. Eric held his song book high so that he could watch Sister Lund directing. Glen lowered his own voice. Eric looked straight ahead, his voice clear, strong. Glen let his own voice gradually drop off, stopped singing, but he didn’t turn. Eric’s voice was strong, the words familiar to him. Eric raised his eyes from the book to sing the last verse, enjoying the song, feeling it, unmindful of everyone else, but his voice with theirs, singing.