I don’t have to be Mormon: A Mother’s Day Post

I grew up in Northern Florida, which is effectively Southern Georgia. In other words, I am Southern in the cultural sense, not just the geographical one. It is not the easiest thing to be Mormon in the South. While the days of active persecution at the hand of the Klan were past when I lived there (at least in most urban areas), I was still very much an outsider. When my family joined the church, the persecution was still active.

My great-grandfather decided to attend a meeting held by Mormon missionaries, in spite of widespread public calumny directed at the elders. He figured that anything that people were working so hard to keep him hearing was probably worth listening to. He liked what he heard, invited the elders to come to his house and preach the next time they were around, and went home to tell my Gramma Rose about it. She thought it was all foolishness. She told him, “We don’t need a new religion; we need to live the one we’ve got.” Nonetheless, she allowed the visit, was intrigued, and eventually joined the church along with all her husband and family.

This means that my maternal Grandmother, Gramma Mickey, grew up and spent her entire life in the South as a Mormon. She didn’t have to do it. Although she’s never discussed it with me, she must have faced great pressure from friends and acquaintances to leave the church. It is with good reason that her best friends were her sisters for most of her life. They were bound by family, but also by the trust that forms amongst minorities within a hostile majority. Nevertheless, she lived most of her life within that majority, knowing their disdain or indifference and not letting it matter.

When she married a young man who had initially set out to date her sister, she did not marry in the temple. The closest temple, at the time, was in Salt Lake City. Besides, he wasn’t a member. He wasn’t hostile toward the church, but he wasn’t all that enamored of it. He did, however, let Gramma raise all of her children in it. Most of them (and most of their children) continue to live in Northern Florida, in the belly of the beast. After 30 years of living together, my grandfather decided to get baptized. I don’t know the story of his conversion, if there was a particular event or if his belief had built up over time. I do know that he could be a hard man to get along with, witty, but occasionally cutting and cruel. In my mind, Gramma Mickey just proved to be more patient and determined than he did. As over time, the religious duel went from being a battle of wills to a quiet understanding, Gramma just assumed he would come around, and he did.

My mother was, in her way, a rebellious teen. It is easy to be rebellious as a Mormon in a majority Evangelical town. She liked being Mormon, I think; it made her distinctive. But she also wanted to have fun. She entered and won a city-wide dance contest in her teens. She loved to go to the beach with friends. She wanted to live and be free. Another way to be rebellious, as a Mormon in a majority Evangelical town, is to not worry too much what people will think of Mormons when they see your example. She wasn’t a wild girl, but she knew how to have a good time.

That said, when she graduated, she wanted to go to BYU. Her father told her that he wouldn’t pay for it. So, she earned the money herself. When she got there, she barely had enough money to get by. She would go to the Cougareat at times, and take some free ketchup and hot water to make herself tomato soup. She loved her roommates and she loved being there, but she simply didn’t have enough money. After a year, and a disastrous relationship, she came back to Florida State to finish her degree.

My mother didn’t have to be Mormon. She wasn’t able to catch a break in Provo. She had reasons to fall away. And, for a time, she didn’t attend church regularly. It was during this time that she met my Father. She was boarding at a house at the beach. The son of the landlord came home from time abroad in the Air Force. She fell in love almost immediately. They were married fairly soon thereafter and she lived the life of a military wife, travelling the country, spending time apart from him when he went overseas. He wasn’t a member, didn’t believe in religion at all really. She didn’t have to be a Mormon.

She chose to be. At one point, after my older brother was born, she decided that she wanted religion in our lives and that it would be Mormonism. She re-activated herself and she raised herself and her children in the church. She has always been one of those busy ladies in small wards, who seem to rotate between callings in Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary presidencies. It wasn’t because of any of her particular talents (although she has plenty of those). It was because she was always there. Week in, week out, my mother brought us to church, usually alone. She sat in a pew, beside her own mother, and taught us all how to be Mormons.

I make no claims to having learned that lesson. I am a sinner, aspiring to be a saint. I hope my life gives people a reason to turn to God, but I don’t know it. However, I know this: If I ever become truly converted (an event for which I fervently wish), it will happen because of my mother’s legacy to me, passed on from her mother and grandmother before her. Because I know the determined persistence with which they have gone to church, fulfilled their callings, visit taught, cooked for funerals and births, and lived the commandments to the best of their ability in a place and time where most everything was working against them. I don’t have to be Mormon, not even because of my mother, but because of her, I want to.

I love you, Mom.

Comments

  1. Amen, brother. :)

  2. What a wonderful tribute to your mother! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Kristine says:

    Lovely, John. Reminds me of my favorite bit of 2 Timothy:

    3 I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day;

    4Greatly desiring to see thee, being mindful of thy tears, that I may be filled with joy;

    5When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also.

    7For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

  4. Thanks, John. The awful allegiance. And thanks Kristine.

  5. Beautiful. Truly beautiful.

  6. I have been informed that it was my great-great grandmother Nancy whose husband introduced my family to the Gospel. This is why you should run your family histories by people who know your family history before publishing. I assure that both she and my (great-) Gramma Rose were equally resolute and determined as the other women mentioned (and equally bull-headed and stubborn if you or they were in a bad mood).

    Thanks for the compliments and such.

  7. Thanks, John; everything about this makes my day.

  8. Absolutely beautiful. Thanks for this.

  9. Hurray for Southern Mormons! (from a SC neighbor)

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    An outstanding tribute to some outstanding mothers.

  11. DeeDee says:

    Love you John! Enjoyed your article!

  12. I’m proud to know you (and by extension your family) John.

  13. Emmaline says:

    This is a beautiful article. Thanks, John. There’s a new podcast on http://daughtersofmormonism.blogspot.com/ for Mother’s Day that gives an interesting view of mothers. (And our Divine Mothers! Which I loved.)

  14. Thanks, John. That was beautiful. My grandfather went on a mission to the southern states in 1923. He spent most of his time in Florida and Georgia. His journal is full of amazing and heartbreaking stories.

  15. mmiles says:

    Beautiful John. It reminds me so much of wonderful mother-in-law who joined the church alone at fifteen. Thanks for this post.

  16. Josh B. says:

    Must have taken you some time to perfect this. Thank you.

  17. John, you have long been one of my heroes. I feel blessed to now know more about you.

  18. Latter-day Guy says:

    Beautiful. Moving. Thank you.

  19. Lovely, John. This helps me- thank you.

  20. As a recent (15 years) Southern Mormon transplant, I have always wondered about how individual families with deep roots in the South dealt with the Blacks and Priesthood issue. Before 1978 the LDS church must have been viewed as strong and appealing, if not somewhat misguided by many southerners. Then one summer day in June 1978 it all changed. How did your native Southern Mormon people put aside these deep seated feelings and beliefs? How long did it take? What did your grandparents and parents think about racial issues?

    BTW, I claim to be bonified Southern even though I was born in Utah because one of my ancestors was a Mormon who fought for the South in the War between the States. I know that in my family as recent as the generation that fought in WWII, some pretty intense racial feelings persist even though they had lived in Utah for 2 generations since leaving the land of magnolia blossoms and alligators and had little contemporary interaction with other races to fuel any hatred.

  21. Mike,
    Race is complicated in the South, as I am sure you know. I can say with confidence that my extended Southern Mormon family has done its best to keep in accord with the Brethren. However, I do know that many people left the church in the South in 1978, as well as nationwide. Big changes are always big changes.

  22. This is great, John. I don’t often think about the sacrifices my mom made to raise me as a mormon (she and her family were midwestern Lutherans), but I think you nailed it.

  23. I didn’t know you had this sensitivity in you John. I truly enjoyed this. Very touching. Thank you.

  24. John, thank you. My mother isn’t a member, but we had a neighborhood in Los Angeles that had some. It wasn’t a surprise to her when I was baptized as a Saint, but it was because of her influence that I chose to enter the waters.
    Every day we had prayed as a family, every week we attended Church, and she always told us that God is ALWAYS here for me. I’ve begun to pass those on to my children and hope they can do the same. Thank you mom for giving me the framework to choose the right path.

  25. Luisa,
    I am just overflowing with sensitivity. I’m like the Queen in Once Upon a Mattress.

  26. Mark Brown says:

    I appreciate this, Crawdaddy. So much goodness.

  27. This beats the living crap out of every Mother’s Day talk ever. (That’s my way of saying I liked it a lot.)

  28. A wonderful tribute; thank you for sharing.

  29. I don’t know anything about this site, since I just found it this morning. I must say, however, that this story is sweet and precious and profound. Thank you for imparting such joy.

  30. Great stuff — I love to get this kind of family history insight into my friends’ backgrounds.

  31. Absolutely inspiring! It is for the same reasons which you give that, although I’m unable to maintain a formal relationship wih the Church, I’m compelled to do everything I can to maintain a friendly sympathy and fellowship with my filial Mormon faith and the Mormon faithful: the faith and fellowship of my Mother.

  32. Hunter says:

    Wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

  33. lindberg says:

    Great story, nicely told. Thank you.

  34. Martin says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks.

  35. Gretchen L says:

    John, I love what you said about your mom and grandma. Your mom is an amazing person. Good job!

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