On Sunday the opening hymn for sacrament meeting in our ward was “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” which made sense because it was the Sunday before Pioneer Day. I like Pioneer Day much more in theory than I do in practice. Most Pioneer Day festivities don’t do it for me, but that’s due mainly to me being a stick-in-the-mud who eschews festivities in general. But just because I don’t like fun doesn’t mean that I lack holiday spirit entirely. I like the idea of celebrating Pioneer Day very much. I know some people who don’t even like the idea of Pioneer Day because they feel it reinforces some Utah-centric bias in the church and/or makes church members who don’t come from pioneer stock seem like second-class Mormons or something. I don’t know. I guess I understand where they’re coming from, but I just can’t really relate. Aside from the two years or so I spent as a baby in Dugway, Utah, when my father was in the army, I have very little first-hand experience with Utah. And seeing how I don’t remember any of the aforementioned first-hand experience, I reckon none of it counts. I really don’t know what it’s like there. But then, I did grow up in the West (and you know, America), and perhaps there isn’t that much difference between Oregon Mormonism and Utah Mormonism. Maybe my father being from Idaho makes me half-almost-Utah-Mormon. How would I know? My point being that I don’t have strong feelings about Utah, aside from knowing that I wouldn’t want to live there. (Mostly for weather reasons–no need to get offended!) Therefore, I can’t get exercised about things that are Utah-centric unless they are stupid for other reasons.
Also, it may be that I like Pioneer Day because I do come from pioneer stock, technically. I say “technically,” because although I have some pioneer ancestors on my dad’s side, I don’t really know anything about them and therefore have no particular feelings about them personally and therefore cannot say I have warm and fuzzy feelings about pioneers because I’m related to them. I’ve made no secret of my complete lack of interest in genealogy. I don’t mean I “lack interest” in the sense of being too lazy to look up my ancestors. If I were interested in my ancestors, specifically, I would certainly go to the trouble of looking them up. Or at least plan on doing so, someday. But when I say I “lack interest,” I really mean that I’m not interested. I suppose that makes me a terrible human being, but it’s not like I’ve made a secret of that either. I don’t expect my great-great-great-great-grandchildren to have any particular interest in me, personally, unless I happen to be a particularly interesting person—you know, someone that people might conceivably be interested in regardless of whether or not they were related to me. I don’t expect to be that sort of person, so I forgive future generations in advance for not being interested in me. Specifically.
But back to what I was saying originally, which is that I like Pioneer Day, and maybe the reason that I’ve never felt any longing to look up my own pioneer ancestors is that I’ve always felt that I owned all the Mormon pioneers simply by virtue of being a believing Mormon. I feel obligated to remember the pioneers not because they’re my literal forefathers and foremothers but because they are part of my faith heritage. I mean, if there weren’t any Mormons back then, there wouldn’t be any Mormons now. Not even converts because, you know, there’d be no Mormons to convert them. Right? If I converted to Judaism, I wouldn’t feel left out when my fellow Jews talked about remembering Moses bringing the children of Israel out of Egypt. The scriptures are full of admonitions to “remember the captivity of your forefathers” because God delivered them from captivity, demonstrating that with God all things are possible. If you’re a believer, this stuff is worth remembering. Actually, it’s imperative that you remember it, if you plan on keeping your faith for any significant length of time.
Back in my blogging infancy—pre-BCC days—one of my readers asked how someone as sarcastic and brilliant as I could be a Mormon. (Hey, her words, not mine.) So I took it upon myself to explain my own lived Mormonism. I admitted that there were certainly aspects of my religion that I didn’t understand or couldn’t make sense of. But I also said that one of the reasons I stayed Mormon was the emotional connection I felt to the pioneers. What made these people leave their homes and journey into the wilderness? Well, they believed that God wanted them to do it, that He had a plan for them. That hope sustained them through privation and hardship and tragedy. If they didn’t believe it was God’s will, what the heck were they doing? There’s a simple explanation, of course. They could have been nuts. I mean, people still join cults today, and most of us think they’re nuts for doing it. So why couldn’t the pioneers have been a bunch of kooks? Well, I guess they could have been. But the thing is, they shouldn’t have succeeded. They shouldn’t have made it to Utah. They shouldn’t have prospered. But they did. That’s not proof positive of anything for those disinclined to believe that God was with the Mormons two hundred-plus years ago. But I was raised Mormon, so I learned these stories in the context of faith and learning about God’s mercy, so instead of thinking they were nuts, I think they were amazing. These people were forced to abandon their homes and most of their possessions (in many cases, not for the first time), leave behind their families, walk for a thousand miles in extreme weather, fall prey to the extremities of nature and other hostilities, bury their loved ones at the side of the road and keep on walking, not knowing when the journey would end but only that God had prepared a place for them. I would feel like a jerk if I just wrote them off as crazycakes.
I remember the pioneers because I can’t forget them.
Sunday also happened to be my mother’s birthday, which I generally don’t observe anymore. As I get older, the day more often passes without me acknowledging it. My mother did not come from pioneer stock. (Not Mormon pioneer stock, anyway.) She joined the church as an adult and was a believing Mormon throughout the remainder of her life. Aside from a youthful stint baking her own bread and canning her own vegetables, she was not the archetypal Mormon woman. Well, whatever that means. She was just an ordinary woman. She succeeded at some things and failed at others. She lost her temper a lot. She had a silly sense of humor. She was reluctant to ask others for help, but she didn’t always help herself. She yelled. She swore. She made more sacrifices for her children than were probably advisable. She hated Primary. She once threatened to nail a misbehaving child’s foot to the wall. (It was the bishop’s kid, but you probably could have guessed that.) She also once volunteered to take several children into our home for a week while their parents went on vacation because she really didn’t like the mother and hoped that if she served her, she might learn to dislike her less. (It didn’t work, but I’m sure it was counted unto her for righteousness in some respect.) She watched too much TV. She stayed up late listening to my stupid problems (and probably the stupid problems of my siblings as well). She was always compassionate, always empathetic. If she ever got sick of hearing about my stupid problems, she was very good at hiding it. She couldn’t keep house for anything. She also couldn’t lose weight. She spent most of her life, I think, feeling inadequate in many ways. She and I used to joke that we didn’t know how we ended up keeping our first estate; we must have just got swept up in the crowd that was fighting Satan in the war in heaven. And look where it landed us!
When her doctor sent her to the hospital to get her breast biopsied, she cried because she was afraid. After she got the results, I heard her laughing on the phone with my sister. I assumed she must have gotten good news, but that wasn’t it. She had cancer, and she was making uniboob jokes. She was prepared to fight. Her son had survived cancer; she could survive too. She fought for several months, but then the cancer spread to her liver and there was nothing else to do but accept that she was going to die. I must say, she took it better than I did.
I remember saying goodnight to her, during those last couple weeks. She had gotten into bed, but as I was leaving, she remembered that she hadn’t said her prayers and got out of bed and kneeled. I hadn’t seen her kneel to pray in years. It struck me at the time that she seemed very serene, which kind of annoyed me, because I hadn’t actually accepted that she was going to die, even though I knew she was going to. I couldn’t envision a world without my mother in it. How could she be at peace with the idea? Somehow, in that simple act of kneeling down to pray, I saw that my mother was calmly preparing to meet her God. It disturbed me. I didn’t understand how she could be ready.
But she was ready. She died several days later, and suddenly the world I couldn’t imagine was the world as it really was and how it’s been ever since. In some ways, my mother’s death was the beginning of a new crisis of faith for me. I felt like the floor had been taken out from under me. Not immediately, but when I found myself in a deep valley, I no longer had a real live flesh-and-blood shoulder to cry on. I was on my own. God did not fill the void. He was too intangible. At the same time, my mother’s death was also the beginning of a new kind of faith for me, a simpler one that did not depend on my feelings about the points of doctrine that confounded me. When I became depressed, I was far away from God emotionally. But intellectually I knew that even though I couldn’t feel Him there, He was real. I knew He was real because I saw my mother–my ordinary, deeply flawed mother—kneel at the side of her bed and face death unafraid because she trusted God, and I could not forget it. I knew that she suffered from the same affliction I did: much of the time she considered herself a lost soul. But in the end God delivered her.
I admit that I have sometimes found some gallows humor in the fourth verse of “Come, Come, Ye Saints”: “And should we die before our journey’s through, Happy day! All is well.” I mean, it seems like a good argument for the “they were nuts” case. Live, die—whatever! Hallelujah! But it’s more poignant to me in light of the third verse, which is where I found myself choking up on Sunday:
We’ll find a place which God for us prepared
Far away, in the west,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the Saints will be blessed.
The point is not that the pioneers were happy to die (maybe they were, maybe they weren’t). They were looking for the place God had prepared for them. More to the point, they believed there was a place God had prepared for them. Whether they found it in the West or someplace more…cosmological, they trusted God to lead them to safety. This was the faith that made them leave their homes and all that was familiar; it was also the faith that let my mother kneel in peace at the side of her bed while she was waiting to die. I remember it because I can’t forget it. I can’t shake the suspicion that they knew things I don’t know.