Last Thursday I got back from a month-long-yet-whirlwind family vacation in which we visited many parts of the United States that we’d never visited before and from which I am still recuperating. (But since this week is cub scout day camp, the recovery promises to be slow.) Among our many destinations were some incidental-yet-convenient trips to church historical sites–because as long as you’re in the neighborhood, why not?
Well, if you’re my thirteen-year-old, the reason not is that church historical sites are boring and why would you want to visit someplace boring unless you were some kind of religious fanatic, which she is not. My oldest child has a lot of angst about being Mormon in the first place, and every time you remind her that she is one–by making her go to church on Sunday or read scriptures or have family prayer–you risk bringing on another existential crisis. Which wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so much whining and yelling involved. I mean, I’m all for whining and yelling when there’s a need…unless you’re someone else who’s whining and yelling at me. That’s just irritating. But such is the sweetness of Mormon life as performed by the J family.
So there we were in Palmyra, New York, about a week too early for the Hill Cumorah pageant (thank God). The day before we’d visited the Aaronic Priesthood Restoration site in Harmony, Pennsylvania, which my daughter had not been at all impressed with. It’s kind of just a monument and a nearby graveyard that happens to house the mortal tabernacles of Joseph Smith’s in-laws and one of his infant children, but, you know, it’s historical and it’s there and so were we. So was the Susquehanna River, where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were baptized, but this is the time of year when it’s all muddy, so while it was breathtaking scenery, it was less picturesque than one might hope, especially if you’re trying to impress a cynical thirteen-year-old who resents being dragged along on your ridiculous pilgrimages. (Not that we were trying to impress her; we were mainly just trying to make her miserable. At least that’s what she told us.) So Mary (the thirteen-year-old) was already in a mood, and here we were at the Hill Cumorah, where the most interesting thing we’d seen thusfar was the great gathering of wigs the pageant folks were airing out in anticipation of the upcoming program.
Inspirational, to be sure.
Then we dragged her to the Palmyra temple, which is dinky but absolutely lovely, at least from the outside. (It has tree-lined stained-glass windows, a la the Sacred Grove–clever!) Mary was bored. Also, we were reminding her, yet again, that she’s a Mormon, and she doesn’t like being a Mormon. We’re too conservative, too sexist, too homophobic, and how do we even know that any of that stuff with Joseph Smith really happened? Everyone expects you to know, but how can you? We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, Mary and I. Starting with when she told us she didn’t want to be baptized (which she later changed her mind about, but then changed her mind about again, only too late), my position has been that I don’t expect her to believe any particular thing–since I can’t control what she believes–but I do expect her to go to church with us and keep a civil tongue and try not to ruin the worship experience of others. She goes to church with us, but my other expectations in this arena have pretty much only led to disappointment on my part. And did I mention the whining and yelling?
Well, anyway, we were at the Palmyra Temple and about to head off to ye olde Sacred Grove, but I wanted to get a picture of the family in front of the temple first. Because I’m the family photographer (by virtue of the fact that my husband doesn’t want to take pictures and my children really only like to take pictures of things like toilets), and so I’m always looking for the photo op. Just a quick photo was all I wanted, but Mary was not hip to that because, as she had already informed us, she did not want to be there. My husband, fed up with her attitude, told her to get in the picture. She refused, and I–annoyed, but not really caring that much about the photo op–said, “Whatever, it doesn’t matter,” and suggested we just get on with getting to our next destination. So we headed back to the car and Mary yelled, “Admit it, you just want to convert me!”
I am not proud to say that I lost my temper at this point, and me losing my temper is an ugly, ugly thing. I can and do take a lot of crap from people, including my kids–well, especially my kids–because when it comes to parenting, I like to focus on the big picture. Not that my instinct is to focus on the big picture; my instinct is to get mired in the details, but since I know this about myself, I make an especial effort to focus on the big picture. When you parent an explosive child who also happens to be on the surly side of the autism spectrum, you have to learn to shrug off a lot of things that may bug the living hell out of you but are, ultimately, relatively unimportant. So, yeah, 90 percent of the time, I’m suppressing my anger and focusing on the picture and generally acting like I’m Gandhi or something, but then somebody–usually my kid–says or does something that is just. The last. STRAW. And then I’m a lot less Gandhi than, say, the Incredible Hulk (as played by Lou Ferrigno in the popular 1970s television series, only with better hair and less musculature). So long, Big Picture! It was nice knowing you! I offered my daughter a not-eloquent description of what I actually wanted, which was not to convert her but to get her to freaking shut up and keep her misery to herself for five minutes so we could sight-see our religiously-significant sites in peace.
So on that note, we headed for the Sacred Grove. We did not even pretend that we wanted Mary to come into the grove with us. We left her sulking at a nearby picnic bench while the rest of us went off to have an unspoiled communion with that corner of God’s creation where He famously (allegedly) communed with man.
If you haven’t been to the Sacred Grove before, I want to tell you, it’s nice. Understated. Lovely. I recommend you visit if you have the opportunity. I don’t necessarily recommend that you visit with your autistic eight-year-old who is currently obsessed with various bodily functions and simulating various tones and sounds of the digestive process and occasionally yelling out, “POOP!” when the mood takes him. But generally, I do recommend it. Even a belching, potty-mouthed eight-year-old can’t completely ruin it for you. But being angry with your adolescent daughter and abandoning her can come close.
We may have spent about twenty minutes wandering in the grove. I took in the scenery and wallowed in some guilt. When we came out again, Mary was still at the picnic table. I decided to join her while my husband took the other kids into the visitors’ center.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, before I could say anything.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You wish I’d never been born.”
“No, I’m not.”
“How would you know?”
I had her there. She was quiet for a while. Then I said, “It’s nice in there. But I was sad while I was in there, too.”
“Because you’re part of our family, and you were missing.”
She started crying. This is a familiar, oft-repeated scenario. She gets angry, I get angry, she accuses me of not loving her, and eventually we both get tired and there’s crying. Always there’s crying.
“You know,” I said, “people always build these things up–like you have to go to this place because it’s so sacred and the Spirit is so strong and it will be the most amazing, sacred experience of your life–and then you go there and you might think there’s something wrong with you when you don’t have the same feelings.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“So I’ll tell you–I was just in there, and I wouldn’t say it was exactly a sacred experience, or that it was very spiritual–but it was very pretty and very peaceful. I liked it.” Then I asked, “Would you like to go in for a few minutes?”
“Yes. I think so.”
So we went into the Sacred Grove and walked around. And talked. Frankly, I would very much have liked to spend some time there in silence–silence being such a rare commodity in my life–but my daughter is not one for quiet contemplation. Mary doesn’t keep things to herself. She can’t keep things to herself. Everything she thinks and feels, she has to get out somehow–even if what she’s really thinking or feeling isn’t exactly what comes out. She’s a talker, so we talked. And talked. And talked. We talked about some things that have probably never been talked about in the Sacred Grove before, but that’s neither here nor there. We walked and talked, we sat and talked. We resolved nothing, but when we left, we weren’t angry and no one was crying, so that was cool.
Later we all piled back into the car, and my husband asked Mary what she thought of the Sacred Grove.
“It was good,” she said. “I mean, I wouldn’t say it was the most sacred experience of my life or anything. But it was pretty nice. Actually, it was pretty awesome.”