Mother's Day in the Mormon church is one of those really twisted experiences that fills many women with inadequacy and guilt, and others with gratitude and a spirit of reverence. Few of us measure up to the illusions of what a good Mormon mother should be so we find ourselves feeling worthless for our shortcomings and resentful of the expectations. I hated Mother's Day because in my own imagination and from the example set by my own mother, I'd never measure up. Now I'm not sure I want the mantle.
She's really all I claim she is. I'm not making this stuff up or exaggerating a bit. My mother is beautiful inside and out, truly the most compassionate and dutiful woman you'd ever hope to meet. The things she's done, given, accomplished, and helped in her life would fill volumes. If there's such thing as a Mormon Saint, my Mom would easily sit atop that pedestal with few that could top her service and sacrifice. I won't bore you with the lists but suffice it to say that this world will surely be a sadder place when she passes on.
My father had never been very active in the LDS church and had stopped going when he was about twelve years old. I recall some legend about his Priesthood leaders making an offhand comment about the shabbiness of his clothes and so my father walked out and except for a couple of very disastrous experiences never came back to church. He knocked up a local girl when he was still in High School and abandoned her, quit school and joined the Army. It was one of his friends that was dating my mother's roommate in college and they met on a blind date.
Mom didn't know about his child from another woman nor did she realize what she was getting into. Once in the middle of it she took the mandate from her own father, "You made this bed, now lie in it" and that sick part of her Manifest Destiny LDS woman's heart tried to make lemonade out of the lemons she bought. She'd said "Yes" to marriage and come hell or high water she was going to make good on the promise.
Mom and Dad were married on July 24, 1952 (I think) in NYC in the bishops office of a branch there in the city. Mom had come out to see Dad before he shipped off to Korea and they got married two or three days before he shipped out. In true Mormon fashion she was pregnant by the time he left. She dropped out of college and went to live with his parents in a little town in central Utah. She went into labor the day my father returned home from Korea and he arrived just hours before their first child, my oldest brother was born.
They moved to Oregon where she had my second brother and then a few short months later she conceived my third brother but in the eighth month of pregnancy my father came home from work "in a mood" and was quite rough with her. She went into labor and delivered my third brother early. His lungs were not quite developed and he caught pneumonia. He lived six weeks but was in and out of the hospital and not doing well when he mysteriously died one night. My mother woke up early that morning to find my father near the crib with my brother stone cold grey dead. My mom screamed and my father apparently slapped her and told her to shut up because there was nothing that could be done. It was ruled a SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome death and they buried him a week later at a little cemetery in Central Utah.
Mom had two little boys to deal with and a marriage that was not going well so she must have just shut that part of her grief down so she could go on with life. Let the dead be dead I guess.
Back in Oregon they had two more boys and then they moved back to Utah when my father lost one job after another. While there she had my sister and then a month later got pregnant with me. I was born in Idaho and after a brief stay in Pocatello they moved back to Oregon where my youngest sister was born. Eight kids in eleven years.
In between all that was the poverty, abuse, misery, fear, and neglect that so often accompanies big LDS families and people that live on the fringes. Mom dealt with it with grace, dignity, and amazing resourcefulness. We were always poor but never dirty, ragged, or seen as low class.
The years drug on and the marriage did not improve. Dad became more abusive, neglectful, cruel and much more indigent as the years went by. When his abuse got so violent and frequent my brothers would try to intervene but he made short work out of their hides and they left home one after another to try to make a life for themselves away from his tantrums and violent rants.
We moved back to Utah when I was in the fifth grade and lived very much on the edge of extreme poverty and starvation for a few years. Mom worked really hard at several menial jobs and eventually got herself situated to go back to school and get her teaching degree. During those spare difficult years with my brothers gone our father began taking his rage and resentment on my sisters and me.
Eventually we couldn't hide the bruises and abuse and she did finally confront him in her last semester of school. She made him leave but it was obvious to us that this decision was a painful choice on her part. She spent weeks with canker sores from the stress so thick in her mouth that she couldn't eat. She prayed, sought advice from the bishop, and tried every avenue to avoid divorce but it was finally the only thing she could choose given how awful and violent he'd become.
I very well remember the day that she announced they were getting a divorce. Dad had been spending a lot of time in SLC with some of his lady friends and we seldom saw him. Mom had lost nearly 40 lbs. and looked very humiliated but still determined to finish school. She sat us girls down along with my fourth brother who was home from his mission and told us that she and Dad were getting a divorce. It was like when a really flaming gay person comes out to his friends. DUH!!! I remember feeling a little bit afraid but mostly incredibly joyful. FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY!! Now we could go on with the business of healing our family and home and not live in constant fear all the time.
I was in 9th grade and I remember telling my group of sheltered LDS friends that my parents were getting a divorce. Not one of them had ever been through that. Not one. It was not only a novelty but a cultural shame, both on the parents and on the kids but my friends knew that my father was an abusive cruel man and were secretly glad for me, even though they dared not say so.
In my Mia Maid class we had a lesson on temple marriage. Of course this was the ultimate goal of every young LDS person, especially the young women. We were conditioned from infancy to plan for this eventuality and our scrapbooks, journals, and dreams were to be illustrated with our illusion of what this day was to be like. It "garnished our every thought", or so they told us it should. I had little to go on for a model for happy marriage so in my mind I hoped that day would be waaaaayyyy down the road and only if I were in a position to take care of myself so that I would never have to subject myself to the humiliations and deprivations my mother had suffered at the hands of my father.
17 For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever.
18 And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife, and make a covenant with her for time and for all eternity, if that covenant is not by me or by my word, which is my law, and is not sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, through him whom I have anointed and appointed unto this power, then it is not valid neither of force when they are out of the world, because they are not joined by me, saith the Lord, neither by my word; when they are out of the world it cannot be received there, because the angels and the gods are appointed there, by whom they cannot pass; they cannot, therefore, inherit my glory; for my house is a house of order, saith the Lord God.
I recall asking the teacher if my own mother who was NOT married to my father any longer and had never been sealed in the temple was then denied the blessings of the Celestial Kingdom and would be relegated to serving as an administering angel for eternity. The teacher confirmed that YES, my mother was not allowed all the blessings of heaven nor would her family remain intact in the eternities unless she re-married someone or was sealed to a worthy priesthood holder for time and all eternity in an LDS temple ceremony.
At fourteen years old this was a big blow and very painful to hear, especially after all the unjust garbage my mother had already endured. Now the church she loved and served her entire life was saying that she was not entitled to her family in the hereafter nor would she be anything more than a servant to some other family. This one lesson felt like a rough sliver under my skin, working it's way deeper and deeper into my heart and festering with the infection of resentment. The injustice of it galled me and I secretly loathed the church, the scriptures and especially Joseph Smith and God for creating such an arbitrary rule that only favored a Patriarchal order.
There are many inequities in the LDS doctrine and culture but the rules regarding the rights of women in the hereafter are really a bitter pill to swallow. According to the church we can never be free agents but we can be traded up between men. No matter how much we do, earn, learn, and accomplish in this life, how much we single-handedly raise our kids, we are still nothing without a man, any man to validate us. A twelve year old nose mining obnoxious little boy has more value and authority than any LDS woman. I came to resent every man in the church that believed his Priesthood and so called God Given authority justified his unrighteous dominion over me or the women in my family. It is a big chip to carry around in life and one that is all to easily knocked off.
For a few years after my parents divorced my sisters and I would tease and try to encourage our mother to date and re-marry. I recall hoping she'd meet someone nice that would treat her the way she deserved, that would honor her and become the father I'd never known. It was such a silly fantasy at the time but I so wanted to be part of an eternal family, for my siblings and mother to have the unity and promise of being together forever. I was taught to believe this was the ultimate reward for all of life's suffering and deprivations. The poverty, the pain, the shame and neglect would be over and we'd get to spend eternity together in love, peace, and happiness.
I remember driving with Mom to SLC for some event and my sisters and I would joke about finding Mom the perfect man. Even when the grand kids came they would join in on the game. One cute and endearing memory is of my niece and my daughter at about four or five years old promising Grandma that they'd pray for her to get a man for her to marry, "I'll buy you a big tall one!" my niece exclaimed. We all wanted for her to have what she'd never had, the kind of man worthy of her goodness and beauty.
Mom might have dated a couple of times. She was very private about such things and fairly adamant that she would do her own looking if she was inclined. Mostly she was focused on her teaching job, making a living, building her own home, helping her grown kids and being available to her massive hoards of grand kids.
The years went by and the grand kids grew up only peripherally knowing our father. Most of the experiences with him were pretty negative and pathetic. I had decided early on not to allow my kids to have any experience with him at all because of the many reports of painful and humiliating conflict when my siblings would try to interact with him.
When my father died about six years ago my fourth brother called me on a Saturday morning to tell me that Dad had died in the night. I was at my desk working and I remember listening to the news and then the only response I could come up with was, "Hmm, well, do you need some money to help with expenses?" He responded, "Yes, if you can spare some. I'll be bringing him down in a casket for the funeral." That was it. The biggest emotion I could conjure up for the man who sired my siblings and me was an obligation to help my brother with expenses. I'd mourned my fathers emotional death years before and he was little more than a stranger by then. I felt as ambivalent as if someone had notified me that Fidel Castro had died. In a way, it was the kindest thing my father had ever done. Now to bury him and with him any ugly memories or pain. As if that can be done.
My siblings and mother planned a respectable funeral at the church in the town my father grew up in in Central Utah. Mom paid for the casket and formalities from the mortuary as well as a good portion of the grave expenses. I'm not sure what she was intending but I think she considered it a shame and travesty to bury the father of her children in less than a fine casket and respectable funeral. My father had not stepped foot in an LDS church in nearly 40 years and yet they were happy to feign that he was one of them. The tithes of fifty or more offspring can soften the heart of any ol' bishop.
I went to the funeral not out of any desire to pay respect to my father, but because I sincerely wanted to see my siblings and try to commune with them on a level beyond our shared pain and history. I looked at him in his casket, made up to look far more healthy and alive than he had his last years of life and almost happy in his stiffness and plastic makeup. The oddest feeling of finality came over me. "Good, he's really dead" I sighed.
Most of the weekend was spent joking, laughing, a little reminiscing and catching up on one anther's lives and families. Dad was mentioned as a sort of unifying person of interest, but few of us had good memories of him in life and little interest now that he was dead.
A few years later I was with my father's younger sisters and a cousin at a restaurant in Salt Lake City when my aunt mentioned that Mom was working on getting my father absolved from his sins and accepted back into the LDS church so that she could be sealed to him in the temple. I stopped mid bite unable to process the hideous thing she'd just said. "You're kidding aren't you?" I asked. "No, she's really determined that this is the only way she'll have her family in the eternities. She is going to petition the General Authorities so that Ted's work can be done and they can be sealed."
At the time I was going through some of my own relationship problems and was in need of solace, comfort, and advice but when I would try to talk to my mother she only wanted to hear the good stuff, to deny any negative difficult realities and would actually tell me, "It's not our right to ask for what we want, but to take what we get and make the best of it." I was so angry at her for her willingness to give over her rights to dignity, to a self esteem to justice or fairness in order to comply with a cold misogynistic mandate from the LDS men. And then to try to convince me to do likewise. I lashed out and rebuked her for the rumor I'd heard from my aunt.
I begged her to find anyone else, any man but my father to get sealed to if that's what she needed to placate her belief in the Celestial Family. I reasoned that if the old prophet Wilford Woodruff could claim a vision where the founding fathers had come to him and begged him to do their temple work, then she was entitled to seal herself to one of those noble men postumously and thereby earn herself a better place in heaven than with a louse like my father. She insisted that the only person worthy of being father to her children was their original father, and that his salvation was a matter between him and God and not for us to judge.
I asked her how she could subject herself to such a humiliating low position to be sealed to the man who had beaten, starved, neglected, cheated on, and offended her so often in their twenty five year marriage. She said that I had exaggerated the problems and it wasn't really as awful as I had imagined. I asked her if I'd imagined the time he beat her so badly that she had to run away with us kids in tow, barefoot, without any gas, any money and no where to turn. I asked her if I'd imagined the time he held her face over a gas stove and burned her cheek because she was talking back to him. I asked her if I'd imagined that he'd terrorized us so brutally that my brothers had to leave home at sixteen just to escape his wrath.
A few years ago while at a family reunion my four brothers decided to regale the family with some happy reminiscences of our dead father. I could see that they were trying to do this at Mom's request, but also possibly to justify and balance their own heritage and role in the continued abuse and neglect of their own marriages and families. If they could absolve Ted, maybe they could absolve themselves. Not that their crimes measured his, but none of us got out of that childhood without some pretty nasty hangups and poor parenting models.
They told stories about our father as if they were remembering an old friend. A friend who beat, humiliated, threatened, and neglected them. The stories were horrific and my son and his wife and their cousins sat in a bit of freakish awe at what passed for the "GOOD" times. I felt my blood boil and even my two sisters were not amused by the stories. We had few good memories of our father and my brothers did not invite us to contribute to the charade. The grand kids laughed nervously at what passed for humor in their parents childhood.
The theme was, "He meant well but just didn't know how to show his love appropriately." Yeah, like that time he threatened to beat all of us with willow whips and frightened my brother so badly that he fainted. OHHH, that was sure funn-eeeee! But, but, but, he took us all out for burgers and root beer floats at A & W when he realized how much he'd scared us. See, that there proves what a good heart he had.
Mom sat in a sort of awkward happiness that some artificial goodness was able to be carefully gleaned from the horrors of our childhood. I seethed and cursed under my breath and was barely able to sit through it. The next day I was visibly upset and tried to put a little light on what had really happened when we were younger. Mom discounted my memories and dismissed me saying, "Oh Dana, you love to exaggerate and just look for the negative!" My siblings did not come to my defense there but privately my sister gave me the look that she knew what I knew. We knew. We all knew but Mom wanted the illusion of a happy cohesive family and we were obligated to give it to her. What a bully I'd be to deny her that in her old age with my rantings of REALITY. Who needs reality when the Celestial Kingdom is almost within ones grasp?
This year at the Family Reunion she drew my siblings and our spouses together for a family meeting and proudly announced that the General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have finally been inspired to absolve our dead father because he's repented in heaven. The three quarters of a century of all her tithes, the tithes of my siblings and their children have purchased enough of our father's indulgences to pardon him from a lifetime of cruelty and shame. His Priesthood blessings are restored, he has come full circle and is ready to receive all that he neglected and denied in his earthly life. They've given her the approval and go ahead to be sealed to my father for time and all eternity. The blessed day is set for November 20th, 2010 in the Manti Temple. I will not be attending.
Now my mother can go to her grave with all the dots connected. Her duties completed, her humiliations over, and service counted. She won't have to be a servant to another man and his many wives because she is a Queen and Priestess in her own right. The FIRST wife of xxxxxx, destined to be a Goddess as he creates world without end with her at the helm and sister wives to join them in eternal bliss. And my siblings? They're there too, dressed in white and blissful in eternal unity. Happy Day! All is Well!
We really ARE a Happy Fa Mi Leeee! (Note, this image is from a hilarious site called Awkward Family Photos. These are not my kin, but collectively we weigh the same).
4 years ago