O’ Bourbon!

O'Bourbon!

You, the Kentucky cousin of Crown Royal
that courses through me like a racehorse
(while making time with Stevia Coca-Cola),
turns this classy lass into a good time gal.

Whiskey helped facilitate my firstborn;
now you work your spirit magic,
turning this desperate housewife
into a happy homemaker . . . 

To Bourbon,
..who tumbles over rocks
….to be my lucky amber penny.

To Bourbon,
..who blends well in mixed company
….and takes the jagged edge off.

To Bourbon,
..who smooths the wrinkles
….in my occasionally-overstuffed shirt.

To Bourbon—
..this working-class girl’s whiskey
….and friend to the unemployed.

To Bourbon,
..who makes me laugh at random things
….and gets me rambling about random things.

To Bourbon,
..whose strength I can control and
….whose weakness cannot control me.

To Bourbon:
..You are my lift before a public speech,
….my muscle relaxer before a medical procedure. (Yes, THAT one.)

O’ Bourbon,
give me my Ryan,
even a Madeleine,
or better yet,
pull a Solomon
and separate the egg
(you know the recipe),
and just tell my husband
to “Make it a double.”

Escape from Zion: My experience with leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Tree of life

*The names of the individuals mentioned and the Church have been changed for privacy reasons.

Having been a former Mormon for over fifteen years, I’ve tried to remember just what it was — what little piece of doctrine — swayed me to believe everything else that had come with it, and it came to me the other night during a conversation with my husband, in which I was adamant that unbaptized babies and young children who didn’t have believing parents went straight to Heaven; my rugged half wasn’t so sure because the Bible said you must be baptized to be reunited with God. (The Bible says a lot of things.) As with my husband, I found myself at odds with every Christian denomination in some way, but it was that belief alone — that children were not punished for their parents’ deeds (or lack thereof), for dying young, or even not being born — that showed me the kind of God Mormons believed in. 

It was the same kind I did.

However, I would come to learn that they believed in a great many things I did not. I could never believe that God was limited to a body of flesh and bones and could not be everywhere at once (though, according to them, His influence was) — for the God I believed in couldn’t be explained away by theories but was Awe and Wonder not quite personified — that when He spoke of His image, He wasn’t referring to the physical sense but a cognitive one.

Though I could have remained a cultural Mormon, I had to be true to myself, and so I walked out, burning that bridge behind me. Though there were times I missed the Church, I have no desire to ever go back, even though I still read LDS fiction every once in a while, even though I sometimes catch myself singing “Come, Come, Ye Saints” in the car, and even though I find myself drawn to shows like Big Love.

I had prayed for God to tell me whether or not the Church was true (an admonition from the missionaries), as their Prophet Joseph Smith had quoted from the Bible in James 1:5: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” They’d told me I would feel a burning in the bosom, which would be the Spirit telling me that the Church was true. I should have known not to expect a manifestation, for faith was believing in something absent a manifestation.

My time in the Church was rife with internal conflict, for my feelings often conflicted with what I was being taught; I was told that the Prophets spoke for God, and who was I to question Him?

I try to think back to the first time something didn’t seem quite right, which would be when I got my patriarchal blessing — a personal blessing inspired by the Lord to help guide LDS members in their lives, modeled after the blessing given by Jacob to each of his sons prior to his death. I don’t even remember the man’s name or face — it’s all a blur to me now — but I do remember, in hindsight, it was like the time I went to an LDS hypnotherapist to help me deal with my Utah Mormon life.

The patriarch interviewed me prior to, and I’d felt, even then, that he was fishing for information to help him give a better reading, and so my blessing sounded like a positive rewording of the personal feelings I had just divulged. My eyes were closed the entire time his hands were feather-light on my hair, his wife transcribing it all. 

It was one of the strangest days I had ever spent. 

I remember leaving, feeling as it had all been a farce, but it was a feeling I would bury. I was told I belonged to the tribe of Ephraim. (It was generally either that or Manasseh.) I remember one of the sister missionaries who had given me the discussions had shown me hers, but I wasn’t supposed to read it or compare mine to anyone else’s, which sounded like the admonition from bosses to their employees never to discuss their salaries.

I eventually destroyed that patriarchal blessing, even as I would give away everything that had anything to do with the Church. When I removed the Church from my life, I removed a source of conflict from it, as well, as a desire for my family to join me (my mom did, briefly) sometimes caused friction, but then, did not Jesus say He would divide families?

I learned through my experience beyond the Mormon curtain that sometimes you just have to lose yourself before you can find yourself. 

~

Had it not been for the Mormon Church in Montana, where I was a live-in nanny in 2004, I would’ve been terribly homesick. That’s the thing with the LDS Church — wherever there were fellow Mormons, there was always an instant camaraderie. Perhaps that was why tithing had come so easy for me, for I felt I always got back far more than I ever gave. Perhaps that was why I’d never felt the Spirit in any other Church, but now, looking back, I think that spirit I felt was of fellowship and friendship, which can feel an awful lot like the love of God.

I’d joined the Church right out of high school, after ordering a copy of the Book of Mormon. I can still remember the television commercial advertising it — a lady with a soft voice and hair that blew in the wind, walking on a beach past a lighthouse. It had touched me, and so I’d requested a copy be delivered to me personally by the missionaries, as I was curious about what Mormons looked like.

Here I lived in Pensacola, Florida — the buckle of the Bible belt (also known as Lower Alabama). I’d attended many churches, yet I’d never felt as welcome as I had when I chose to become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I’d felt a belonging, fulfilling a longing I hadn’t realized was there. I’d never been a partier, I didn’t use profanity, I didn’t drink or smoke — my idea of fun was their idea of fun.

However, I fell away not long after I was baptized. I’d stopped attending services after the sister missionaries mentioned tithing, for my parents had always taught me to beware of churches that asked for money. Nine months passed during which I joined the College Republicans at the University of West Florida, where I met my first boyfriend, “Tony,” who happened to be in the same ward (what Mormons call their meetinghouses) I had been in. (He was a returned missionary, and RMs were considered the cream of the crop, the salt of the earth.) He dated me back into the Church, so I guess you could say I’d have never gone back had it not been for him; this time around, I gained a testimony of the truthfulness of the everlasting gospel, the restoration of Christ’s Church on Earth, or rather, I wanted to believe in it so much, I thought I did. It seemed too wonderful not to be true, with all their talk about families being together forever. Anything I didn’t like, I accepted. After all, there were parts of the Bible I didn’t necessarily like, but I was still a Christian.

The sister missionaries had planted the seed, but with Tony’s friendship, it grew. I had more reason than ever then to want to be an active Mormon.

My best friend at the time was a girl named “Dasha” (one of the few black members of Pine Hollow Ward). I became part of a church family for the first time in my life. I attended every Sunday, every meeting, every social I could, and after Tony and I broke up (we had chemistry but nothing else), my family and I often had the missionaries over for dinner. The elder missionaries (the young men people often see in white shirts and ties, wheeling around town on their bicycles) were the first fruits — the extra virgin olive oil. They were the best of what the Church had to offer, or so I thought, in terms of husband material. I had crushes on a few of them, though they had been admonished to lock their hearts before their mission — to live as Catholic priests — so that they would not stray from their real purpose for being there.

So, no matter how they might have felt about me, it would’ve been unseemly for them to give me any encouragement.

It is fair to say that the Church became my whole life. I stopped drinking sweet tea, and I never was much of a coffee drinker. (This was before I discovered the iced gingerbread latte at Starbucks, which, much to my chagrin, has been discontinued.) I dressed even more modestly, I didn’t shop (or eat out) on Sunday, I marked up my Book of Mormon — finally becoming worthy enough to enter the temple. I even gave a few talks, all of which I wrote myself and helped me overcome my paralyzing shyness. I accepted every calling given me by my Bishop, which included working with young children — something I’d never been crazy about. I knew many of the hymns by heart, memorizing them during the passing of the Sacrament. It was my world in a mustard seed, for so immersed in the culture had I become. All my friends were Mormon, and I found, at times, unable to identify with those who weren’t. I’d never been strong in any other church, and the concept of “once saved, always saved” had always seemed flawed. 

I was a true believer.

So, I guess you could say meeting Tony wasn’t so much a turning point in my life, but rather, it led to a boiling point.

With every bearing of my testimony and with every good work, my faith strengthened. I was at the height of my faith in Montana, like the golden angel Moroni that’s on all the Mormon temples — closest to God and His Church.

And then I went to Utah.

I’d always been somewhat of a perfectionist, and this was stressed in the Church. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as I am.” Jesus’s words. The women struggled with this counsel, I believe, far more than the men did. They were supposed to stay attractive for their husbands while having lots of children and preparing wonderful meals and keeping a clean house, while being told that the desire not to have children was rooted in selfishness and vanity. I even remember our Institute teacher (who most churches would call a youth pastor) told our class that his family fell apart when his mom worked outside the home.

If only I could’ve taken these words in stride, but I took them to heart.

When my time in Montana was up, I was ready for a new adventure. I was ready to meet someone, though now I know I wasn’t anywhere near ready. I hadn’t become who I was going to be for the rest of my life. I wasn’t even sure I wanted kids anymore, for I wasn’t sure I was unselfish enough to have them. I wanted to be a rich and famous writer, but that was long before my daughter was a blue-eyed gleam in her daddy’s green eye.

I went on hiatus back home (I was ready for some real seafood) between Montana and Utah. I’ll never forget the night that Tony’s mother and father came over for a Family Home Evening (or FHE, which is one night a week that is designated for LDS families to fellowship together) at my parents’ house. Though Tony and I were no longer together, I still kept in touch with his parents. I told Tony’s father I was going to Utah, and how excited I was. I knew most of the members there had been members all their lives, whereas most of the members in Pensacola were converts. I’d heard Utah Mormons were different, and I figured that was why; they knew nothing else. I can’t recall his exact words, but he admonished me not to go — that all would not be as wonderful as I imagined, that it wasn’t Zion. He’d looked so grave, as if my eyes were little crystal balls. 

How naïve I was then.

I can’t say I wish I’d listened to him, for I’m glad I went, even though it led to my leaving the Church in a blaze of glorious anger.

I went to Provo. The couple I was going to nanny for turned out to be a nightmare, so I ended up calling a friend — an elder missionary my family and I had often had over for dinner appointments — who came and got me. I was a true damsel in distress. He got me set up with some girl friends of his in an apartment close to the BYU campus. They were all kind and sympathetic to my plight, opening their temporary home to me; we became good friends, at least during the time I was there.

However, I felt my life begin to unravel. I was living amongst people who were going to college, who seemed to have it all together and knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives while I worked jobs that didn’t require any skills. Though I’d worked the same kinds of jobs back home, it had always felt like enough. I still had my writing — I always had my writing (though I found that my trying to stay true to the Church stifled it, for I tried so hard not to offend) — but the depression that came about because I was losing my faith held me back. It had gotten to where I didn’t want to do anything, because it never felt good enough.

And then all the uncertainties began to trickle like water through cracks in a vase. I remembered reading Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie, who was a general authority (a member of the Church hierarchy); there was one entry that struck me, especially in light of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping that was still big news: “Loss of virtue is too great a price to pay even for the preservation of one’s life — better dead clean, than alive unclean. Many is the faithful the Latter-day Saint parent who has sent a son or a daughter on a mission or otherwise out into the world with the direction: ‘I would rather have you come back in a pine box with your virtue than return alive without it.’” (124). I knew if I ever had a daughter (now I do), I would never want her to believe that if she ever made a mistake, it would render her worthless. I would teach her that her worth was inherent, and that nothing or no one could ever take that away, whether it was by choice or circumstance.

After my time (but not my welcome) had run out in the other apartment, I moved into a different complex, where I would come home from work to an apartment full of people, when I’d just want to decompress. Because I chose the privacy of my room, I was considered anti-social. I felt like I had nothing that belonged to me anymore.

I bounced around from job to job until I couldn’t deal with the pressure I know that I, not God, had placed upon myself.

I was floundering.

My Bishop at home was a kind and good man, never judgmental, but the Bishop there was offended that I preferred to attend the ward where my white knight attended, for he reminded me of the good times I used to have; he reminded me of home. A bad experience with a bishop had driven one of my friends away from the Church back home, and it was happening to me now. “The Church is perfect, but the people aren’t” didn’t cut it anymore.

One of my friends from Pensacola, who’d hastily married into the Church (and divorced after ten months) had lived there at the time, was a godsend. Though we are no longer friends, I realize she was there for me, at that time and place, when I needed her. We were both having doubts about the Church — she understood me when no one else did. It was different being a Mormon in Utah, and it was almost impossible to make lasting friendships. I didn’t fit in there like I had in the wards in Florida and Montana.

I asked my roommates questions I already knew the answers to, and though everyone pretended to understand, they really didn’t; I don’t think they could. I began to understand why they called it Happy Valley.

There was a big misunderstanding, and the Bishop there called my parents, alarming them unnecessarily. He seemed to think I either came from a broken home (not true) or broken the law of chastity (also not true), because I should be happy if I was keeping the commandments. He even told my parents after he came over the next day that I must be feeling a lot better, because I was wearing make-up, which my mother took as a sexist comment. 

I knew I wouldn’t get well while I was a member of the Church, where people either seemed perfect or were striving for perfection, and it took time, but I gradually turned my troubles over to the God I had known as a Protestant. It took months back home to get to that point; I had to detox (but not deprogram, for it had never gotten that far). I didn’t even bother to contact my friends from the Church at home during that time. As far as they knew, I was still in Utah. I didn’t want anyone to know I had fallen away.

I did some Internet research and found a website called Concerned Christians (who are just as dogmatic about their beliefs as the Mormons) and used their resignation letter template to have my name removed from the Church records in Salt Lake City.

I couldn’t believe how much my relationship with the Church had changed. My friend, who rescued me from that crazy new family I was supposed to nanny for, became defensive when I tried to make him see why I could no longer believe, and so I simply let him go. 

I went back to Pine Hollow Ward a few years later, but my heart (and soul) just wasn’t in it. I think perhaps I just had to be convinced that I had made the right decision in leaving. I attended a ward social a few years later (by invitation from a member who happened to see me working in Albertson’s). Tony’s father had come up to me, looking so sad, and said, “We lost you.”

I had simply nodded.

My faith had been shattered — like a mirror thrown against a wall. I was fragmented, and it took months before I became whole again. Those fragments were never mended, but rather I was made anew.

There has never been another church that had ever brought me into its folds like that, so I just live by faith without boundaries. I’m pretty much a “Creaster,” and it works for me, but more importantly, I try to live a goodly life (I would say godly, but I think God might shake His head at some of the stuff I write). I am a Christian who respects not only His name but the sanctity of innocent life, and I am the best wife, mother, daughter, and friend I know how to be.

The Church did help me become a more spiritual person, and it built me up, even as it tore me down. I am who I am today because of it, and in spite of it.

My kinship with Mary Ann (Tony’s wife, who I always liked more than Tony) was briefly rekindled, but a couple of years or so ago, I ran into her and a couple other Pine Hollow girls on a Girl’s Night Out when my husband and I were on a date. I hadn’t been invited. At first, I was hurt, but then I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t a part of their world anymore, but neither were they a part of mine (and I liked mine better).

From my experience, Mormons had friends and they had “non-member friends.”

When Mary Ann moved to another part of town, we became acquaintances, then strangers. She even admitted (via instant message) that she hadn’t been a very good friend, she, who had been with me during two of the best times of my life (when I married and had my daughter), but I had moved on and made lots of new friends — friends with whom I connected on a deeper level, who had been there for me through two of the worst times of my life (when my family and I became homeless, and I lost my mom). 

It’s those worst of times friends that matter.

And do you know something wild? My life is far more perfect now that I don’t try to be perfect; I’m also a lot happier. I live by the spirit of the law and not the letter. I can write what I want, drink what I want, and wear what I want, and I thank God every day that I went to Utah and lost my religion, only to find a new spirituality with an old friend, who had waited patiently for my return.

Fiction Friday: Novelines from the Book

mormoni

Christmas had come and gone, and the New Millennium had begun.  At Maxwell Manor, burgundies, navy blues, and hunter greens had been replaced with shades of cream, ecru, and chartreuse.  Modern art had been replaced with several of Greg Olsen’s paintings, and the place began to more resemble a Mormon temple than a museum.

“Though the husband is the head of the home,” the elders of the Church had often said, “the wife is the heart.”

It was my house, too, even though I was old enough to move out , but Mother was changing everything.  The house on Harrington Court was mine now, but I would always have a place at Maxwell Manor—a room in one of David’s many mansions, and the one room, besides David’s study, that Mother would not touch.  Did that make it a shrine unto myself?

I would keep the house at Harrington Court as one would a museum, for Mother had changed nothing in it since the Mormons had come, flooding our house with their holy water and setting fire to our lives as we had known them.

He told me that I’d become as she once was, even as he believed who Mother was now, she would always be. She would never change her mind about the Church, for the Church had changed her.  

Mother had put off the natural woman to put on the spiritual, for in her eyes, the two entities could not coexist, for one would always rule over the other.  It was perhaps the first time in my life I acknowledged with defeat that a Force greater than the influences of those who loved her, led my mother now. As she drew closer to God, she withdrew from us, even as David and I grew closer than ever.  A part of me still feared losing him, if he completely lost Mother.

David thanked God for my will that I would never allow the Church to change me.  I had never heard David thank God for anything before, save that night in the hospital, and I wondered, if, in his own way, he was changing, too.

It Happened One Night in Poplar Bluff

The Not-So-Great Missouri Robbery

Clipping of the newspaper article from The Daily American Republic in Poplar Bluff, MO.

Poplar Bluff, Missouri, is the kind of small town that rural America is made of. P.B. (what the locals call it) is just past the Bootheel after you drive out of Arkansas. There is one high school—the Home of the Mules—so generations of children grow up together. It is the kind of place where the names in the newspaper mean something to you. If you didn’t run into someone you knew, you’d run into someone who knew someone you knew. Violent crime is out-of-character for this town that isn’t on every map, and is often mispronounced by city slicking anchors as “Popular Bluff.”

A lot of the outdoorsy residents like to go to Black River to hang out, and Wal-Mart is the biggest non-wild game in town. The newspaper, The Daily American Republic, comes out in the evenings, and is more of a large pamphlet than a newspaper; there’s very little breaking news in this hilly region of the heartland. This area of Butler County is where life has an ebb and flow to it like Pensacola Bay at low tide.

If you want a good barbecue, you have to go to Dexter Queen in Dexter, Missouri, where they put shredded cabbage on the sandwiches and the inside looks like a throwback from a teenage hangout in The Fifties.

P.B. is all built up now, but in the early eighties, it was home to my parents. Dad had grown up there, and Mom had moved in and out several times. Their first place was an apartment on Fairmont Street where my dad’s tenth grade Spanish teacher would bang a broom handle on the ceiling to let them know they were being too loud.

I remember when I became a nanny in Sidney, Montana—eastern and hilly, rather than western and mountainous—I called my aunt Cheryll that first night after my mom left to board the Greyhound bus cross country. Those first few days I was on my own in a strange house with two little girls who were my responsibility, I was rereading my favorite book, Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer, set in Wintergreen, Missouri, where Poplar Bluff is mentioned once.

I was never homesick for Pensacola but for my summer place, for I hadn’t yet established a presence there.

Poplar Bluff was like my Disney World, for so many kids I knew saw their grandmas every day, whereas we had no ties to this touristy, military town on the Gulf Coast.

It often seemed like the only memories of which my parents were fond or nostalgic for were the ones that hadn’t been made in Pensacola; I suppose that made me nostalgic, too.

Maybe that was why the first episode of Bewitched resonated, for when Samantha tells Darrin (played by Dick York, and the only actor I acknowledge as being the true Darrin Stephens, whose name I always thought should’ve been spelled Darren Stevens—much cleaner) that she’s a witch, and he says something like, “I’m from Missouri. You’re just going to have to show me.”

Being from the “Show Me State,” I suppose that’s why we’re all as stubborn as mules and have to prove we’re right about everything (often via Google).

Grandma and Grandpa Booker’s house was like going back in time—from televisions that were a giant block of wood with convex screens in them to the library-orange, hardcover Childcraft books (which included the politically-incorrect legend of “Little Black Sambo”) to vinyl records of The Andrews Sisters. Grandma and Grandma still had the seventies-style paneling in their downstairs basement that was as big as a private bowling alley, with furniture in forest-green and burnt orange, and carpet that looked like autumn leaves after a rain.

I would play away the hours going through Grandma’s Better Homes and Gardens magazines, tearing out all the pictures of the porcelain dolls and writing their autobiographies or just exploring, though I never went in the closet under the stairwell, for it smelled like rubber from all of Grandpa’s boots.

Their house seemed ginormous, with Grandpa’s desk that looked like it belonged to a judge and Grandma’s double closet stuffed with hatboxes and fur coats—relics of women in her time.

The smell of coffee and bacon permeating the air brings me back to Grandma’s downstairs kitchen that is as clear to me as if I were sitting there with her, eating cold cereal late at night. That kitchen was where I had my first scoop of peanut butter with Karo syrup (still the only way I can eat p.b. that isn’t drenched in chocolate). Their house seemed like the land of plenty, for whereas our cupboards were sometimes bare (like Old Mother Hubbard’s), their pantries and deep freezer were always stocked like a famine was coming.

Grandma and Grandpa would sit on their porch swings outside the kitchen door, and I’d be way down the hill, sometimes barefoot, laying in the clover and soft grass while the martens and wrens built their nests in the Jetson-like birdhouse apartments.

Even at twilight, when the lightning bugs would come out with their lime-green glow, my grandparents never worried if I was out of their sight.

As for me, just looking back and seeing the patio light on was all the reassurance I needed.

I didn’t know fear then, but I would learn it.

Now I know I could never live without it, for it is that thing that becomes a part of you— like your shadow; I would go so far as to say it’s like a guardian angel—a gift. My fear of forgetting to be aware of my daughter’s location and surroundings has been with me so long, I don’t even think about it. It’s just the price I pay for living in the modern world.

Times were different then, and Poplar Bluff seemed like the kind of place where nothing bad would ever happen, but it did.

It was the last day of May in 1981, when my parents were robbed at gunpoint at the Mansion Mall Cinema where they worked as night managers. I was there, gestating, hovering between conception and birth. Even though I wasn’t cognizant of what was going on, that experience changed my mother, thus changing me. My mom became more aware, and thus taught me to be more aware.

I grew up as one of the most observant teenagers in America.

That night of the robbery, my mother had tried telling my father that something wasn’t right; throughout the day, a car kept changing places in the parking lot, containing Stackhouse and Patterson (both named James)—two men who had worked for them. These ex-employees had records, and one, my parents had even given rides home to. (“The one with the personality,” Mom told me.)

They were changing the marquee when “the nicer one” approached them with a gun, demanding money. (The other was parked in the alley, serving as the getaway.) He settled for my mom’s purse, containing less than twenty bucks (the story of my parents’ lives), and a Cross pen and pencil set that Mom’s parents had given her for graduation. The nice guy wanted to take them off somewhere, but Mom refused; her grandfather had taught her never to go off with anyone—that to do so would mean certain death—and so she taught that to me.

The robbers were caught at the local Broadway Cafe, eating off the money they had stolen. They’d worn masks, but my dad had been able to identify their voices.

Mom, always wanting to make a point, wore a tee shirt that said “Baby” with an arrow pointing down when she testified. (It’s interesting to note that every time my parents turned on the lights when I was a baby, I’d hold up my arms like I was part of a “stick up”).

My mother would tell me years later that she made sure Grandma Booker knew that the robbers had been white, what with her being an old-fashioned Southern Democrat. (She even had funny ideas about “The Italian” who sold tamales, of all things, from the back of his truck—tamales she’d insisted were made of cats.)

From that night on, my parents had the local sheriff escort them to the bank for the night drop, just as now, I call a security guard to escort me to my vehicle after a night class (unless I am surrounded by classmates).

Because of that robbery, I grew up, always aware of when a car followed me after more than two turns, after which I would take an abrupt or unusual turn. I’ve grown up, appreciating the beauty of the world on its surface but also being mindful of the dark net below—that if I’m not careful, I could be caught in it.

I rarely talk on the cell phone while walking, and I don’t own a pair of earbuds. I have unilateral hearing loss, so I never use anything that further cuts me off from the world. I do nothing to make myself more vulnerable to those who would do me harm. Because of my mother standing her ground, I am walking on it today.

When my mom taught me to be observant, I believe she helped me save my own life more than once—in ways I will never know.

Navy mom

Since this was written in October 2017, my mom, the lady you see here, passed away, but she left behind a legacy of love.  One thing she always told me (and showed me) is that no matter how old your children get, they always have a place to come home to if they need it.

Updated 1/17/2020

Fiction Friday: Micropoetry from the Book

mormoni

With any other youth group,
the idea of dating a lot of different people
seemed like cheating,
but in Mormonism,
until one felt ready to marry,
it was better not to get fixated on any one person,
for that might lead to falling in love
& that just might lead to sin.

Tony had been willing to give up his reputation for Kath
but not Elder Roberts.
Tony had sealed his fate with his beloved by impregnating her,
whereas Elder Roberts had denied himself
by denying me.

It was a jubilee of sorts—
the tinkling of our fluted stems
signaling the beginning of the New Year
& the best years of our lives to come.

A cool gust, a warm breeze,
stirred me from my slumber
like a ghostly lover beckoning me.
I just stood back and watched him,
enjoying him,
& when he spoke to the sky,
it was then that I realized that he was speaking to the God
I thought he didn’t believe in.

I would never know if David lied to himself,
so he could lie to Mother,
but they would have a year before the temple
for her to fall in love with him
without all the trappings of Mormonism,
before she would expect him to take her to the temple
& promise things that he would never do,
not even for her,
even if she were me.

Every Little Thing: A Mother’s Valentine

Hannah's rattle and brush

I was about five months along when I slipped an ultrasound picture into a Mary Higgins Clark book, and handed it to my mom. When she opened it, she looked at the picture for a second, sort of turning it around, and I said, “So, what do you think?”

“I think it’s a baby,” she said, wonderstruck. When she found out I was having a girl and naming her Hannah, she was thrilled. Hannah was unplanned, but like many unplanned things, they turn out to be good things that lead to more good things. Hannah got Brian and me speed up the marriage date (we’d put it off for months for financial reasons) and move into our own home (we had thus far been living with my parents).

It was after we knew she was going to be a girl (we were hoping for fraternal twins—I, contemplating Lucy and Ricky for the names) when my OB/GYN told us something about our baby’s nuchal fold measurements, and how they were an indicator of Down’s syndrome. We were devastated. It took me an entire day to realize that it had nothing to do with my not taking prenatal vitamins the first three months of gestation (I was three months along before I knew I was expecting).

Although I knew if my lovely baby was already affected, there was nothing more that could be done. I had never heard of anyone being cured of Down’s syndrome, but I could pray for a way to handle the challenges that would come from raising a special needs child. “Somehow, it makes me love her even more,” Brian said, and I knew he said it because he felt she would need it more.

I was working overnights at Walgreens at the time, and all night, I agonized over how I was going to be good enough; I didn’t even feel ready for mothering a normal baby. Even as my husband said he felt he loved her even more, I felt I wanted to protect her even more, for the world isn’t always kind to those who are different.

However, once I prayed that I would be able to deal with whatever came, and knew I would love my baby the same, peace replaced fear. By the time we got the more advanced ultrasound done (during which the doctor told us our child was perfectly fine), I wept with relief and joy, knowing this scare had taught me that we are never prepared for what may happen till it happens.

Had Brian and I already had other children, Hannah’s prediagnosis might not have affected me as much, because I knew our children would look after their new sibling, but what if this was the only one we had? Who would love our daughter after we were gone?

When I gave birth, worrying about her welfare didn’t end there. When Hannah was born till she was about three months, I rode in the backseat with her; her crib was also in our room. I didn’t like to take her anywhere (at least alone), but preferred to keep her at home. However, as time went on, I began to relax, but her safety and health was always a part of my consciousness. It was the new me that was born when she was, and it would never die as long as she lived. I had to learn how to co-exist with this heightened awareness that was, at times, exhausting.

Hannah would fail the hearing test twice before passing the third, and always, until she passed, I wondered if perhaps those nuchal fold measurements had been indicators of something else.

When she didn’t walk at a year old, I didn’t think much about it. However, as time went on, especially after a visit to her pediatrician, who said she was developmentally delayed (a term which always made my husband bristle and me want to cry), I began to wonder. When she started walking at twenty months, I was relieved, but I wondered, would it always be this way—her playing catch-up? Would I always be jogging backwards in front of her, trying to make her run faster than she was ready?

When it came time to put her in preschool, I was as excited for her as my husband was nervous. When the administrator of the school told me she was in the one to one-and-a-half-year-old range, I cried. (She had just turned two, two months ago.) When I told my dad about some of her quirks, like staring off into space, doing repetitive things, and her lack of interest in other children, he mentioned autism, but I told him autistic people usually didn’t have a personality.

I know I don’t see Hannah as being anything but perfect because I am her mother, and so I have to see her sometimes as others see her—with a critical, but still caring eye. It is only when I have done all I can do that I can let it go, because I know, as my husband does, that she will get there (as much as is possible) with our help and the others we allow to help. I know and accept there will never be a moment in my life when I will never have to worry about her again—that I will still worry in my own way, about every little thing.

However, I regret I allowed the deep disappointment of not being able to breastfeed to be the thief of joy during the moments when I should have been luxuriating in first-time motherhood. I blamed myself for her delay for a long time, because of all I’d heard about the I.Q. points of breastfed children being higher. I’d tried every kind of pump and every kind of way to get her to take to it. Then one of my best friends told me she hadn’t been able to breastfeed at all; that child is now a gifted student. Hannah is almost three now, and I’ve stopped comparing her to other children her age, and delight in who she is. She isn’t perfect, but is perfect to me and to those who love her. She doesn’t know everything, but she knows we love her. She is healthy and happy, filled with curiosity and wonder, laughter and joy. I teach with love and the rest will come. We are blessed to have a multitude of resources where we can get help for her; we are not alone.

All of us are at different stages in our lives—we all progress in different ways, at different times. I look in the mirror and see what I should have been ten years ago, but am just now getting around to—becoming a college graduate.

The moment I found out I might have a baby with special needs revealed myself to me, and I liked what I saw. When I look at Hannah now, and think back to where she was even a year ago, I see her blossoming into the rose she will someday become.

Published as “Every Little Thing” in The Kilgore Review (2016), having placed second in the nonfiction category of Pensacola State College’s annual Walter F. Spara Writing Contest.

Seven Wonders in Every Wonder

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Through my child eyes,
the ordinary was made extraordinary—
the ivory delicacy of snow in a Florida winter,
the heat that made roads shimmer like infinity pools,
the chocolate milk that came from “How Now Brown Cow,”
the kaleidoscopic rainbow of a pepper mélange under a microscope;

stargazing in the backseat on the way to
Poplar Bluff, Missouri, counting the diamonds,
collecting seashells that washed up like
mermaid Christmas ornaments,
blowing the dandelion seeds
to twirl like tiny pinwheels,
the fascination of lying under a Christmas tree,
the candy lights sprinkling me like a cupcake;

spinning in a chair ‘til I got dizzy,
sliding down the hall in fuzzy winter socks,
swinging in the air, head back, flying with eyes closed,
jumping up and down on the bed
‘till the box springs broke,
falling back on a pile of pillows,
taking the breath from me;

singing songs through the fan on the floor,
my words rippling like music notes on a page,
the feel of bubbles, like glassy mother-of-pearls,
popping like a raindrop rainbow on my sunburned face,
blowing on the window and drawing swirls and smileys
and hearts with names inside them;

the feel of the wheels rumbling up my legs during a hayride,
standing on a stepladder and seeing things as my father did,
running through the sprinklers in bare feet on freshly mown grass,
sitting on the screened-in porch swing with Grandma and Grandpa,
watching the lightning merge day and night in 30 microseconds,
feeling like I was inside-out and outside-in all at once;

watching a helium balloon float to the moon while I imagined it
landing on Mars with my name on it for an astronaut to find,
the underwater ballets at Weeki Wachee Springs,
butterflies, hummingbirds, and things that glowed in the dark.

As a child, there were Seven Wonders in every wonder,
and through my child’s eyes, I live the magic all over again.

as published in the Dec/Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Bella Grace Magazine.

A Memoir of Mother Goose

All I ever really needed to know, I learned long before kindergarten, from the adults who loved me.

Mother Goose was my first exposure to literature. I grew up with my dad reading it to me, and now I read it to my child. I’ve found that having a child is not like reliving my childhood, but enjoying, in a different way, the things I once did.

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My dad, when I was a little girl.

For more than twenty years, I didn’t swing on a swing (just in porch swings, like my grandparents) or jumped on a trampoline. While my daughter colors with crayons or plays with Play-Doh—smells that bring back memories of burnt sienna and purple meatballs—I am not brought back, but rather, the past is brought to me.

That rhyme about the old woman in the shoe, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do? I remember the mother kissing them all sweetly and sending them to bed, not “whipping them all soundly,” as I have since discovered was the original rhyme. The children were also going to bed hungry, with nothing but broth and no bread to soak it up.

I grew up on Disney and its sanitization of fairy tales.

In that way, I had a magical childhood, and that is what I strive to give to my daughter. There is time enough for her to learn the not-so-good things that exist in our fallen world.

Childhood is precious and fleeting, for when else do we get to be kids, to believe in Santa Claus and friendly animals and always-happy endings?

Whenever my dad read me “Little Boy Blue,” before he would get to the part about the boy crying (if awakened), I would beg him not to finish it. When you’re a kid, you never cry because you’re happy—that’s what laughter is for.

Now I can understand why “Little Boy Blue” would cry if someone woke him up, as I feel like crying when my alarm goes off in the morning.

Rub-a-dub-dub,
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick maker,
They all jumped out of a rotten potato.
Turn ‘em out, knaves all three.

When I was a “sack of potatoes,” as my dad called me, my uncle Bill would run me through the rhyme above, just to hear me say, after the first line, “Three foul balls in a tub.”

I’m sure he taught me that.

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My uncle, as I knew him when I was a child.

This was the same guy, after all, who said there was a certain hair in your nose that was connected to your brain, which would kill you if you pulled it.

I think we do things for our parents because we want to please them, but in the case of my uncle, I think I liked the laughs.

Perhaps, even then, a funny seed was planted, and a funny bone was developed.

I just wouldn’t know it was there until many years later.

Hearts, like doors, will open with ease
To very, very little keys.
And don’t forget that two of these
Are “I thank you” and “if you please.”

Every summer, from ages nine to thirteen, I spent my summer vacations in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, with my grandma and grandpa.

My Grandma Booker, a mother of two boys, always told me roughhousing was for outside and to chew with your mouth closed. She showed me the only palatable way to eat peanut butter, which was drizzled (or, in my case, drenched) with Karo syrup. She taught me that a word was only a curse if God was in front of it, which I didn’t really understand, because my parents never used the Lord’s name in vain.

Grandma and Jacques

My grandma, as I knew her when I was a child, with their dog, Jacques.

Even though she also said drinking coffee would turn your feet black, and if you swallowed a watermelon seed, melons would grow out of your ears, she still possessed plenty of wisdom. Even though I wouldn’t understand everything I heard until adulthood, I did understand when she said the three most important phrases were “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.”

It is from your elders that you learn your manners, which are the earliest form of soft skills.

When I was a nanny in Sidney, Montana, I was chastised for calling my boss “sir,” and he said something like, “I know in the South, you do all that sir and ma’am business, but we don’t do that around here.” That was the first time I had ever been criticized for my manners.

Since I was not comfortable calling him by his first name (even Alice called Mike and Carol Mr. and Mrs. Brady, and she was practically part of the family), I just didn’t call him anything.

Now, when someone calls me ma’am, like the math tutor who is technically young enough to be my son, it makes me feel old, but I don’t ask him not to call me that, because it is a sign of respect—just like holding the door open for people, regardless of gender, is having manners.

The two signs my daughter knows more than any other is “Thank you” and “Please.” (“You’re welcome” in American Sign Language is the same as “thank you.”) I still remind her to mind her manners.

A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?

In high school, I was the Bashful Dwarf, but one of my fondest memories was during my sophomore year. I had a such huge crush on an Environmental Science teacher—a man who looked like a Ken doll (except heterosexual)—that I chose a zero over getting up in front of class. Public speaking always made me break out in hives.

That said, it was all worth it not to look like a fool in front of Mr. Bauer, for whom I would’ve learned to become a botanist.

High school graduation night at Mr. Manatee's

Me, May 1999, at my high school graduation celebratory dinner at Mr. Manatee’s restaurant, which is gone now.

Years later, I would learn it’s the smart people that listened more than they spoke. Maybe that was why the other kids always assumed I was the brilliant one.

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,
Had another, and didn’t love her;
Peter learned to read and spell,
And then he loved her very well.

When I graduated from high school nineteen years ago, I didn’t know it, but I was looking for a place to belong; I thought I’d found it in the Mormon Church.

The Mormons say that the glory of God is intelligence. I always thought it was love, but when you think about it, intelligence increases compassion. I think that was why Jesus was so compassionate; He could see into people’s souls.

He knew why they were broken.

It’s strange, but when I was a Mormon, and a college education was encouraged (whereas a career outside the home, for a woman, was not), I was more interested in finding a husband, for a woman’s worth was so tied into being a wife, and especially a mother. It wasn’t till years after I left the Church and had a husband and one-year-old daughter that I was ready for that college education and learned that a woman was no more selfish for having a career and a family than a man was.

Perfectionism is stressed to Latter-day Saints, and whereas men take it in stride, women take it to heart. The irony is that when I stopped trying to be perfect I was happier, made more progress, and even felt closer to the God they’d recreated in their image.

Hannah Bantry, in the pantry,
Gnawing at a mutton bone;
How she gnawed it,
How she clawed it,
When she found herself alone.

I was almost thirty-two when I had my first child. It took me three days to get used to the idea (I was three months along before I knew), for I’d grown up seeing women with young children looking harried and unkempt; I didn’t want to become that, but the first time I saw my Hannah Banana in the ultrasound, I was transfixed.

For me, teaching and nursing were callings, but motherhood was a sacred calling.
I couldn’t find my cell phone half the time, and every plant I had ever owned died (so much for a botany career), so I wasn’t sure about having to keep up with this little being all the time, but a mother’s instinct kicked in when I held her for the first time.

With Hannah, I got a little more than I was expecting, though I didn’t know she wasn’t perfect, for she was perfect to me.

She still is.

Pink bundle

Me, with baby Hannah, fresh from the hospital.

My daughter is a Tuesday child, “full of grace,” and Hannah literally means grace. Hannah Beth Richards is a quirky kid, or “on the spectrum,” as some would say; I say she is every color in it.

She was so curious and into everything—opening the dishwasher and standing on the door, crawling into closets to play, and getting into the pantry, chewing through the onions and potatoes. A refrain that could often be heard was, “Hannah, out of the pantry,” though she probably thought, “Dammit, Hannah!” was her name for a while.
Though we no longer have a pantry, we have cupboards, and now our refrain is “Hannah, out of the kitchen.”

Multiplication is vexation,
Division is as bad;
The rule of three perplexes me,
And practice drives me mad.

When Hannah was a year old, I decided to enroll at Pensacola State College as a Health Information Technology student. Though I was married (and still am), I knew I’d need to make more money—I had an extra responsibility now.

I’d let math scare me away from college—just because I wasn’t naturally good at it.
When I went back to school, I took all my other classes first, pushing the math till the end. It helped to have “the wind at my back,” as my dad would say, because it was that wind that pushed me forward.

In the spring of 2018, I took College Algebra and Elementary Statistics (which was anything but elementary), so I could still qualify as a work-study student. If there’s anything I hate more than math, it’s looking for a job.

So, I stressed out for sixteen weeks, spending eighty hours in the Math Lab, ending up with two B’s; I’d never been so proud of B’s in my life.

My uncle said his brother was the only one he ever knew who went to college to “get an education.” Apart from a little substitute teaching on the side and doing taxes during tax season, Dad never used his degree for money.

Had I gone to college for the same reason as my dad, I might not have sallied forth.

For Dad, education was its own reward.

For me, it was as much about the education as it was about the experience, and the most important lesson I learned was that I was smart enough for college after all.

A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar!
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o’clock,
But now you come at noon.

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Me, December 2018, at my college graduation.

An abridged version of this piece was published in The Kilgore Review (2019), having placed first in the nonfiction category of Pensacola State College’s annual Walter F. Spara Writing Contest.

 

Fiction Friday: Novelines from the Book

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Mother and David were like eloping teenagers, and I, their unmarried, childless friend, who was forced to witness a choice that I knew would end in doom.   

A baby grand sat in the corner of the room; on top, sat a picture of Jesus.  For some reason, it made me think of a picture of a woman’s late husband. “I guess He’s the witness,” Caitlin whispered, and I held back a laugh.

The preacher’s daughter sat on the witness chair, telling Mother, “I hope I can have more than one husband, too, but not at the same time, of course—not like the Mormons.”

“David, when I think of you, I think of the guardian angel who came to us all those years before, bearing good tidings of great joy.”  I did not see Pastor Taylor’s right eyebrow almost fly off his forehead, nor the shock on Mrs. Taylor’s face, nor the curiosity on Carolyn’s.

My vow was simple.  “You’ve not only been my father but my educator, edifier, and friend.” I refrained from saying savior.

I had reached back inside myself, back to that girl I used to be, whose dream it had been to see the two people she loved most in the world married.  Through her eyes, I could see this as she would have—as an occasion for celebration. How happy I would have been a year ago, before I ever knew the Church, yet it was because of the Church that we were here at all.  

That night, David told Mother he would love her for eternity, but only I knew that he meant that his love for hernot their marriagewould abide forever.  I could not portend what had been in his heart at that exact moment, but I knew who David was at his core.  That was how I knew their marriage would last for time only, and a fleeting time at that. 

Pastor Taylor spoke a few words, Mrs. Taylor stone-faced, Carolyn starry-eyed, and I, pledging my allegiance to David Dalton under the banner of heaven.

Fiction Friday: Micropoetry from the Book

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With my hair in a French roll,
Caitlin’s in a challah braid,
& Mother looking good enough to eat,
we could open a pastry shop—
with David as the butter
that made us all better.

The pastor’s house looked a mansion in God’s heaven—
this house of seven gables from which the seven fruits of the spirit
seemed to guard & fight against the seven devils
that sought to penetrate this fortress—
this home that looked even more imposing than it had in its spread  
in Southern Belles & Whistles magazine.  
The Taylors were the creamy pillars of the community,
spreading the Word of God like butter
on the white bread that fortified “Our Town.”

They had written their own vows,
going beyond what was necessary—
just like the Mormons with their
“for time and all eternity”
that one-upped what all other religions
offered in regards to marriage.

Though he had allowed himself
to walk into the waters of baptism,
he would never walk
through the doors of the temple. 
She could have him in this life,
if only I could have him in the next.

For David’s joy alone,
I gave them my blessing. 
For him,
I would do every good
& evil
under the sun
but never in the name of the Son.