Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
A Blessing of Duty
[p.28]Carolyn laid the baby in the crib, quickly putting a pacifier in his mouth. The crib sheet, she noticed, was sticky where Jennie had been playing earlier and dribbled orange juice from one of the baby’s bottles. She must remember to wash it. The baby was irritable tonight. She’d kept him up purposely till after 10 hoping he would sleep through the night. Jennie, Becky, and Kevin were already bedded down. Jeff was still over at school practicing for the state basketball tournament, and Susan was spending the night with a girlfriend. Carolyn felt a quick twinge of remorse for having let her go on a school night. She switched off the light in the yellow nursery and closed the door to the baby’s tired fussing. The pacifier had already fallen from his mouth.
Dr. Neilson wouldn’t be able to see her until Friday.
Walking down the hall, she checked to make sure the night-light was on in the girls’ room. In just the last few weeks Jennie had become terrified of the dark. Carolyn and Paul were wakened nearly every night by her screams. Two days ago Paul had installed a night-light next to the girls’ trundle bed. It seemed to help. Carolyn hoped it would work tonight. She was tired tonight.
Dr. Neilson’s nurse had a pleasant voice over the phone: “How ‘bout 11:45, Mrs. Mecham? … Good. We’ll see you then.” The test would be quick and simple.
The front door opened. That would be Jeff or maybe Paul if high council meeting had let out on time. She padded down the hallway.
“How was practice?”
“It’s going good. We can take state this year. We’re playing Orem in two days. If we win we’re in the finals.”
[p.29]“Good, son. I’m sure you’ll win.”
“Yeah, Orem’ll be no sweat. Is Dad home?”
“No, he’s still at council meeting.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot.” He turned and walked through the living room into the kitchen. He was taller than Paul now. Dr. Neilson had delivered Jeff. “Do we have any of that cake left, Mom?” he called and she could hear him rifling through cupboards.
“Shh … Jeff,” she whispered loudly, following him into the kitchen. “You’ll wake the children. No, the cake is gone. Kevin and Becky split the last piece watching Happy Days. I didn’t know you liked marble cake, Jeff. Last time I made it you told me you were tired of marble cake.”
“I know but I’m starving.”
“Have a glass of milk.”
He went to the fridge and pulled out a carton of milk. As he poured it, he splashed milk on the formica counter top and linoleum floor. “Be careful, Jeff. I just waxed the floor today.”
“Sorry.” He guzzled the milk, spilling it down his chin and basketball jersey. “Night, Mom.” He walked from the kitchen.
“Night, son.” She watched him, then, weary, bent to wipe the milk from the floor. Jeff would be eighteen next month, graduating from school in six. Dr. Neilson would smile when he said, “Carolyn, you’re pregnant again.” Gladys Mitchell’s son had been killed in a car accident up Millcreek Canyon two days before his eighteenth birthday. He’d been drinking. Jeff went to priesthood with Paul every Sunday and blessed the sacrament in the afternoon. Carolyn didn’t think that Jeff drank, but lots of mothers didn’t know what their sons were doing. Beth Bower’s son Mike, a friend of Jeff’s and active in the ward, had been arrested not long ago on a drug charge. But Jeff was a good boy. He paid his tithing and went to church and last week he had conducted family home evening. Sometimes Carolyn wondered if Jeff parked with the girls he dated. She didn’t want to be pregnant again. She was thirty-nine years old.
A pile of freshly laundered clothes was heaped on the table, whites, the last batch of the day. She sat down heavily on one of the vinyl kitchen chairs, pressing her face hard into the clothes. The soft cotton of a pair of Paul’s garments felt clean and comfortable against her face. [p.30]She turned her head to breathe. The zipper in the garment bit her ear. She and Paul hadn’t been to the temple in over a month. Carolyn often slept during parts of the ceremony, and, although she didn’t understand much of the symbolism involved, she usually came home from a session refreshed and determined to be a better mother, make her home more a house of God, like the temple. President David O. McKay had said that a good Mormon home was like the celestial kingdom. Paul once told her that gods never stopped having children, that was what was meant by Eternal Life. He would be happy if she were pregnant. This week she needed to go to the temple.
The whites smelled of fabric softener. Every day she did at least six batches of laundry. She lifted her face from the clothes and picked Paul’s garments from the pile. Then she folded Jeff’s t-shirts and boxer shorts and stacked them separately and soon the table was lined with neat piles of panties, socks, undershirts, slips.
She gripped the edges of the vinyl chair and arched her back. Her lower back ached every night now. David was eight months old and big for his age. It strained her back to lift him. When she’d been pregnant with him, after the fifth month her back had ached constantly. During the last three weeks of the pregnancy, the pain became so severe that she’d had to stay in bed the entire time. Dr. Neilson had prescribed a pill for pain and told her that backache was quite common among expectant mothers, especially in women nearing their forties.
She looked at the wooden plaque which hung above the kitchen door. It read Choose The Right! Carolyn made the plaque in Relief Society a year ago and presented it to the family during home evening. Now and then she would remind one of the children of it when asking them to clean their room or mow the lawn. The phone rang. She pulled herself from the chair.
“Hello, Carolyn? This is Marge. Listen, I’m sorry to be calling at this hour, but we’re kind of in a bind.”
“That’s all right, Marge. What do you need?” Marge was Relief Society president. She had five children. Each month after the spiritual living lesson, she bore her testimony of the gospel and the joy of being a mother in Zion. Motherhood, she told the sisters, was the noblest and most joyous calling a woman could have.
[p.31]“This is the situation, Carolyn. Trudy Hesser’s been in the hospital for three weeks with her gall bladder. She was released today and is back home now. She really needs someone to look in on her Once in a while just to see how she’s doing. It’ll only be for a couple of days and I thought I’d call Zina Tate and Florence Anderson, too.”
“I didn’t even know that Trudy was in the hospital, Marge. I’ll be glad to help out if I can. I’ve got to take Kevin to the orthodontist tomorrow but that won’t be until the afternoon sometime.”
“Oh, Carolyn, you’re a dear. It would really help us out if you could stop by early tomorrow morning. I’ll try to get Zina to take care of it for the afternoon. After you get the kids off to school would be fine.”
“Okay, Marge. Tomorrow morning is fine.”
“We really do appreciate it, Carolyn. I’ve called three sisters in the ward already, but you know how it is trying to find someone with the time. I knew we could count on you.”
“It won’t be any trouble, Marge.”
“Just check in to see how she’s doing. See if she needs anything. Let her know we’re thinking about her.”
“Okay, that sounds fine, Marge.”
“Thanks again, Carolyn, and I really do apologize for not calling sooner.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, if you’re sure. Thanks. Goodnight, Carolyn.”
“Night.” She placed the receiver back in the cradle. She knew she would be sick in the morning. She’d been nauseated off and on all day and thrown up three mornings last week. Sometimes when she was pregnant, she got so sick she could hardly move. When Paul or the children came into the bedroom to ask her how she was feeling or if they could get her anything, she had to restrain herself from crying out, “Don’t touch me. Go out. Go away.” It came in wave upon wave of violent nausea and filled her with festering hostility and sometimes she yelled at the children.
Emma Riggs McKay, in The Art of Raising Children Peacefully, had admonished good mothers to refrain from raising their voices. She exhorted mothers to patience and tenderness toward their offspring. Once, when Carolyn had been pregnant with Jennie, she slapped Jeff hard in the face for walking across the freshly mopped kitchen floor [p.32]with muddy tennis shoes on. Afterwards, nausea churning her insides, she’d gone into the bathroom and thrown up, then come out and apologized to her son. The next day she made his favorite peanut butter brownies for dessert.
She arched her back then gathered up the neat stacks of clothing, being careful not to mix them. Last Sunday in sacrament meeting Bob and Louise Chapman had given talks on parenthood. Louise, who was in her early thirties and had four small sons, reminded the ward members that mothers were co-partners with God in creating new life. In Relief Society during the mother education lesson, she once told the sisters that Bob gave her a special priesthood blessing at the onset of each of her pregnancies and again when she went into labor. The last blessing Paul had given Carolyn was over three years ago when she’d been hospitalized with pneumonia. Carolyn still remembered the sudden, surging comfort that had flowed through her as he had anointed her head with consecrated oil. The next morning her fever was down, the congestion in her lungs cleared. She put the folded clothes away quietly when she entered the sleeping children’s bedrooms. She wanted to ask Paul for a special blessing now.
“Hush, David. Quiet, baby.” The shrieking started a dull throbbing in her head. “Quiet, son.” Fumbling, she unsnapped the crotch of his sleeper and felt inside his plastic pants. His diaper was dry. Maybe he was hungry. She carried him out to the kitchen. He sucked noisily for a few seconds on a bottle of orange juice, then pushed it away and continued crying. She held him, rocking him for five minutes. Her back ached. Her arms were cramped. The noise pounded against her head and made it throb. “I’m tired, David. Please, please stop crying.”
“Mommy, is David mad?”
“What are you doing out of bed, Jennie?”
“I want a glass of water. Will you get me a glass of water?”
“Jennie, you know you can’t have water before bed. Remember when you wet the bed last week? Do you want to wet the bed again?”
“But David woke me up and I’m thirsty.”
“Go back to bed, Jennie.” David still cried.
“No, Jennie. I’m not going to tell you again. Go back to bed.”
[p.33]“I want some water.” And she began to whine and rub at her eyes.
Carolyn grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the hall. “I told you to get in bed.”
“I want some water. “ Jennie was crying now. CaroIyn stopped. David still screamed. Maybe he was sick.
“All right, Jennie.” She heaved a sigh. “All right. Stop crying. You can have a glass of water.”
She walked back to the kitchen and filled a plastic cup from the faucet.
“Here. Now back to bed.”
The little girl drank the water. “I won’t wet the bed, Mommy. I promise.”
“Good, Jennie. Goodnight.”
“Is David thirsty, Mommy? Is that why he’s crying?”
“No, Jennie. I don’t know why David is crying. It’s late. Now go get back in bed.”
“Okay, Mommy. Night, night.”
“Goodnight, Jennie.” Then, sorry for her abruptness, she kissed her free hand and pressed it to the child’s forehead. “Mommy loves you. Night, night.”
She sank into one of the kitchen chairs, her shoulders and arms and lower back in painful rebellion against the weight of the crying baby. Carolyn remembered the horror stories she had heard about the pioneer women; how they had pulled hand carts when pregnant and delivered babies within the freezing shelter of wagons and tents. The women had large families. Brigham Young said it was the duty of all good Latter-day Saint couples to have as many children as they could. The Lord wanted to send babies to Mormon homes where they could be taught the gospel. Carolyn and Paul had never used birth control except for the year after Susan was born when Carolyn had had some kidney problems. She knew that children didn’t come to LDS homes by accident; the Lord sent them. She whispered, “Stop crying, David. Stop crying.” Blood pulsed throbbingly through her temples. She’d been surprised when seventeen months ago Dr. Neilson, smiling, had said, “Carolyn, you’re going to have another baby.” She was thirty-eight years old and it had been over four years since Jennie was born. She didn’t tell Paul for three days. When she’d been pregnant with Jeff, she’d taken a girlish pride and excitement in her condition. [p.34]With the others it was more and more a routine discomfort, oftentimes brutal. But with David she was different, obsessed, almost heady with the sense of her womanhood. At night in the dark cool of the bedroom, she would touch her abdomen and trace the curves of her breasts with her fingers and sometimes she thought about God. She was filled with infinite affection for the embryo-child swelling her body and for Paul and the children. During the day she felt an excitement and energy unfamiliar to her. She watched her children with tender awe. Sometimes she wanted to reach out to them, to Jeff and Susan her eldest, and kiss their faces and stroke their hair and press their bodies to her. The backaches had started in the fifth month and then the overwhelming fatigue. She still remembered the strange joy that had slipped suddenly from her.
“Good, baby.” David was beginning to quiet, just whimper. She held him for several more minutes until his eyelids began to droop and he drowsed. She filled a glass with water from the sink and took two aspirins from the medicine cupboard and swallowed them. Her head still throbbed though the baby had stopped crying. She switched out the kitchen light and walked back to the nursery to lay David carefully in his crib. Then she continued down the hall, stopping to turn out the bathroom light. The smell of a dirty diaper filled her nostrils. She’d left the diaper earlier to soak in the toilet and then forgotten to rinse it out. David had had diarrhea for two days. He had a sensitive stomach. For five months after he was born, he’d had severe colic. All the children except Kevin and Jennie had had colic. A baby with colic sometimes screamed for hours and nothing could be done to make it stop screaming. David had sometimes lain awake all night crying.
She bent to pick the diaper from the toilet. Suddenly she was sick, nausea flooding through her. Gasping, she rushed to the basin and vomited. She retched into the basin for a long time and afterwards sweat poured from her face and her body was weak and trembling, her hands pale.
David would still be in diapers when this next baby was born.
She rinsed the basin, then turned and rinsed the diaper and dropped it into the plastic diaper pail. She stood for a moment arching her back, waiting for the trembling in her body to stop, then turned off the bathroom light. The phone rang. She walked down the hall to the bedroom.
“Hey, we’re kind of tied up here, Carolyn. I just thought I’d call to let you know so you wouldn’t worry. I should be home in half an hour. Forty-five minutes at the most.”
“That’s fine, Paul. Thanks for calling.”
“If you’re tired, honey, don’t wait up.”
“Okay, see you in a little while.”
“See you. Bye.”
Paul was a thoughtful husband. He always called to let her know when he would be late. Shirley Crandell had married her husband, Ray, in the Logan temple. He was inactive now and Shirley came to church every Sunday with her three sons alone. Carolyn had heard that Ray drank beer and in the winter sometimes took his sons skiing up at Park City on Sundays. Paul was a good father. He would ordain Kevin a deacon next month, and he took the boys and sometimes one of the girls fishing almost every Saturday during the summer. He would be happy to have another baby. When she told him, he would be surprised and glad and would hold her, kissing the top of her head and saying, “That’s wonderful, Carolyn. I love you.” For several weeks he would be especially considerate, embracing her often and helping with the dinner dishes. He’d always wanted a large family. His mother had ten children and two miscarriages. He would be horrified and hurt if she said to him, “I love you, Paul. I love the children. I don’t want another baby.” Then screaming, “I can’t stand it! Oh God, Paul, please understand! I can’t stand it!” In her prayers every night she thanked the Lord that Paul honored his priesthood and then asked the Lord to help her be a more perfect wife.
She sat down on the edge of the kingsize bed and arched her back, then unbuttoned her blouse. Her abdomen was fleshy, her breasts shapeless, sagging. She’d put on ten pounds during her last pregnancy that she hadn’t been able to lose. Before they were married, Paul told her that he found overweight women unattractive. Her once slender hips now measured thirty-eight inches.
[p.36]Stiff with fatigue, she slowly took off her clothes and dressed for bed. Friday she would see Dr. Neilson. He could prescribe a pill for nausea. The digital clock on the nightstand clicked 11:03. David woke up every morning at 5:30 crying to be changed and fed. She rose and folded back the bedcovers and laid Paul’s folded pajamas on the dresser top. A framed photo of her and Paul on their wedding day, his arm around her, their smiles radiant, was on the dresser. They stood in white on the Salt Lake temple stair. Dr. Neilson would smile when he told her she was pregnant again. She would ask Paul for a blessing after sacrament meeting this Sunday. And the nurse with the pleasant voice would smile, too, and schedule her for another appointment in one month. A quiver passed through her arms and thighs as she knelt beside the bed to say her prayers. She arched her back.