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.