Hanging with my daughter in the Sacred Grove

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.”

“You’re wrong.”

“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.”


  1. Mommie Dearest says:

    Brings back memories.
    And yes, that’s pretty awesome.

  2. This is lovely — and so “Mormonly” human.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    “Actually, it was pretty awesome” FTW.

    I’ve only been there once, many, many years ago, but I still remember the powerful understatedness of the place, as you say. When the sun came filtering down through the leaves of the trees, I swear I saw a pillar of light myself….

  4. Wonderful.

  5. Well, I can only add I took my daughter to Yosemite when she was 13, dressed fully in black as a “Goth”. She would only leave the car to eat, sleep, and pee.
    She is now 37, lives across the street, and says she is “making it up to me by having 5 kids”. Right.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    When my daughter was in her purple-haired rebellious teenage stage, we visited Cove Fort in Utah. This kindly old grandfatherly missionary learned that she was a vegetarian, and his eyes lit up. He took us all out back to the big vegetable garden that the missionaries maintain onsite, talked to us about the different vegetables, and filled two large bags of veggies for us. That was his ministry to my daughter. My daughter loved the visit, and although I have only visited it that one time Cove Fort has held a warm spot in my heart ever since. That’s my idea of what a missionary ought to be.

  7. My parents went out of the way on a road trip to show us Adam-Ondi-Ahman. My teenage self thought it was such a waste of time to drive longer just to see, “a big dumb field.” I haven’t gone back yet to find out the opinion of my adult self.

  8. My recollections of the Sacred Grove from about 20 years ago, was pretty much the same, a peaceful, calming place, and not so much a huge spiritual experience. But then, I don’t think that is what I expected. I guess I expect that I am responsible for my own spiritual experiences, or the lack of them. Sacred spaces are an interesting concept in our religion, and while we have temples that are by definition sacred spaces, we most often create our own within our families, homes, or via acts of service. I’m glad that your daughter felt at least some peace, which was created as much by your conversation and patience than the place itself. A very nice story and reminder for all of us.

  9. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but my own 11 year old daughter is very similar in attitude to your own. She didn’t want to be baptized, then she changed her mind, now she says she can hardly wait to grow up so she doesn’t have to be “Mormon” anymore. It’s a draining hassle. I completely empathize with you and I’m so glad you have shared your story of the visit to the Sacred Grove. I’ve often fantasized about visiting the historical sites of the church with my family, but I know it would devolve into the hysterical rather than historical. Sigh.

  10. This was great.

  11. beautiful story. Part Gandhi part incredible hulk. awesome.

  12. RJ should get a cross-stitch, too. She’s definitely a better parent than the rest of us.

  13. Kristine says:

    This is lovely, Rebecca.

    And I’m so right there with you on the Gandhi/Hulk thing. When Peter was about 4 years old, his grandmother gave him a pop-up book with the story of David and Goliath. The text was a little too dense for his attention span, so I was doing that picture-book-summarizing thing, and asking questions to see if he was following. We got to the page where the huge, hairy Goliath pops out and I said, “oh, look–is that a giant?” And Peter said “No, that’s David’s mommy. She’s mad.”

  14. It was a hot day about 22 years ago that we went to the Sacred Grove just at Pageant Time. There were tour buses from everywhere and lots of people who spoke only Spanish. The toilets were overflowing from all of the traffic and water was running down the sidewalk.

    In the grove it was sort of peaceful but for the throngs of people and the crazy man running through the understory who periodically threw himself to the ground in the over-accentuated attitude of primordial prayer. I thought of the press of crowds at Lourdes, of people who come expecting something more than trees, sun and earth.

  15. Love it, RJ.

  16. Hey Rebecca, thanks for sharing. I have several kids in the spectrum and I just cant imagine what it would be like to take them to a trip like this but hubby and I went to Palmyra before the kids were born, in WINTER time, it was ridiculously cold but a great experience.

  17. My own 12 year old daughter sounds a lot like your 13 y.o. –attitude/behavior and all. I took her to the grove, and other Palmyra-adjacent sites and the pageant late last week. It was not a reenactment of “Oh how lovely was the morning” or a Kirtland temple dedication-type event, but I really think *something* touched her on the trip– softly, gently, but real nonetheless.
    It was all worth the dragging/pushing.

  18. This was touching, Rebecca. Thank you.

  19. Wow, your poor daughter. It must be so incredibly hard to experience so much family/religious dissonance, and at such a young and sensitive age. It sounds like this is causing her a lot of stress and pain.

  20. #19 – Wow. Nothing like missing a huge part of a post and creating a reason to blame religion and family – and blast very good parents in the process.

    Seriously, how in the world did you get that response from the post?

  21. Hi there Ray. Don’t we usually fall into a contentious pattern almost immediately? Let’s try to skip it this time, if possible. I’ll be courteous to you even if you’re rude to me. How’s that for a starting offer?

    I don’t believe I’ve said anything wrong here. It’s perfectly reasonable and in keeping with the post to express empathy for what the daughter is going through. Certainly Rebecca J seems sensitive to the difficulties her daughter is experiencing. Being compelled to participate in a religion one doesn’t wholeheartedly accept would be difficult for anyone, especially for a young teenager. While I don’t think there are any easy answers for parents who sincerely believe their religion is important enough to compel their children’s (limited) participation, it’s not a happy situation for anyone. So I really can’t understand what your objection is.

  22. “So I really can’t understand what your objection is.”

    I know you can’t, z. That’s the real issue, at the heart of it all.

    I sincerely apologize for my rudeness. You’re right; our history reared its head and caused me to be more incredulous than I should have been. Please take out the expression of disbelief over the wording of your comment and simply realize that I don’t think you sensed, at all, the message Rebecca was conveying OR the dynamic she presented in relation to her daughter’s situation. I think you comment, as worded, horribly misrepresented her family situation. That’s all.

  23. You’re a good mama, Rebecca.

    The only fault I can see is that you didn’t let me know you were around–I totally could have gotten you in a family photo in front of the temple.

  24. Your daughter is wise and I think your pressure on her is sad, unhealthy and wrong. She will never feel like you approve of her unless she gives up her free will and succumbs to your control over her. Forcing her to visit those sights is sad. I feel so sorry for her and I am Mormon.

  25. Sarah (and z), there are details of the post describing the overall situation that I think you’re missing. Until you have been in the type of parental situation Rebecca actually describes in the post, it is very, very difficult to understand a huge part of what this post presents so well.

  26. Ray, you know what? They won’t understand….I have several kids in the spectrum and I’m sure people think we’re awful parents, they’re just clueless at the ROOT of the issues. They just sit back and criticize and give their opinions in something they probably never experienced. I had. It’s darn HARD.

  27. #19 and #24 I am with Ray on this one, though I read z’s comment much more benignly. What teenager doesn’t experience family/religious cognitive dissonance? Its going to happen (usually) and when it does it is a tough experience to go through for everyone involved. 12 does seem kind of young and that does make it even more sensitive to z’s point. If you are atheist, it is not unlikely that your kid will flirt with being evangelical. I fully expect mine to sanctimoniously pretend to be into Ayn Rand since he knows I think she is an anti-Christ. Hopefully it is at 16, not 12.

    The whole establishing your own identity thing, especially when you come out of a strong identity giving culture/religion such as Mormonism, happens to us all. I think we can have empathy for both the daughter and the mother. Rebecca’s post is at its heart empathetic for both her daughter and her own humanity in trying to walk the line here.

    Sarah, not sure what you think the option is here. Leave the kid behind on the long family vacation? You could replace majority of the post with a trip to the Grand Canyon and it would still resonate with lots of parents with kids saying “why do we have to go see some big, dumb whole in the ground?!?”. Parents of all stripes “force” 12 year-olds onto dumb family vacations all the time, go to school, eat greens, go to camp, “volunteer” at the homeless shelter, see their grandma, ban violent video games and Skins from the house, participate in things like family prayer and yes even go with the family to church. There is no reason this needs to devolve into some “brainwashing” debate farce. That is not what is going on here.

  28. Steve Evans says:

    RJ, I love you forever. Thanks for sharing this.

  29. Kristine says:

    Sarah, did you miss this part?
    “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.”

    That’s sort of the definition of enlightened parenting for religious parents, I’d say–the family culture includes church attendance and requires respect for other people’s beliefs, while allowing freedom of conscience.

  30. Chris Gordon says:

    Ditto on what Kristine pointed out. I loved that Rebecca’s at least trying to honor her daughter’s agency. I’d love to read more about how that plays out in practice as I’m certain that it’s something we’ll come across at some point in our family.

    I am curious as to what z and others might suggest alternatively (if there really is a disagreement at all) that someone might do with a teenager experiencing stress and angst in that context. I mean, there’s some sort of middle ground between granting a teenager independence of thought and exploration of belief and also ensuring that they participate in the family’s activities and culture as well, right?

  31. Thank you, Ray, I appreciate that.

    As I said, I don’t think there are any easy answers. Especially with a young or special-needs child if it’s difficult to arrange childcare. If there are some good times or reason to believe the child is getting something out of the experience overall, which definitely seems to be point of this particular post (is that what you think I’m missing, Ray?), then I can definitely see the benefit to pushing through the difficult parts. But how many years of struggle are too many? It’s very hard to be at odds with one’s family for long periods of time, especially about something so fundamental, and especially if it raises the possibility of also being at odds with God. Just thinking about it makes me feel like I’m getting an ulcer.

    As to your question, #30, I think there are a few different issues here that would have to be considered separately. 1) Being required to be respectfully present at religious events and locations, but not to participate in anything. This seems not-so-problematic although I’m sure it’s a total drag, especially when it takes away from activities the person might actually find spiritually fulfilling. 2) Being required to participate in ceremonies one feels or believes are untrue, meaningless, or substantively wrong and oppressive. That seems like a much bigger deal. I can’t really see myself forcing that on a kid of any age, even if she wasn’t digging in her heels and making it difficult. Especially for a sustained period of years. 3) Having one’s parents announce one’s religious identity over one’s objections. In what sense can a parent declare that a child “is a Mormon” if that child doesn’t willingly participate or believe in many of the basic concepts and practices? That’s the other thing that puzzled me about the original post.

    In part, I think it’s a formal theological question. If one believes the theological benefits (e.g., salvation) of participating in a given ritual are there even if participation is forced, then it might be more worthwhile to require participation even if it causes a lot of grief or conflict. But not all rituals are like that, and not all religions are like that, so I guess it would just depend on the details of one’s beliefs and the particular activity in question. And then of course there’s the pragmatic consideration of damage to the relationship and the risk of backlash and rebellion, obviously. I think parents should ask themselves exactly what are the reasons for requiring certain things, and whether those reasons are truly sufficient.

    Here’s an alternative way of thinking about it. What if a kid said “My parents insist that I’m a Catholic, but I’m not. I really feel that the LDS church is true, but my parents keep making me go to the Catholic church, and it makes me feel terrible.” At what age should this person be allowed to investigate? Because, you know, the shoe fits both feet. Can a child simultaneously be old enough to “know the Church is true”, but not old enough to hold the opposite view?

  32. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    Kids who want to carry on running arguments and dominate the experience of the entire family are not acting like adults and don’t deserve to be treated like adults, as if their current views about religion (or anything else) are considered opinions resulting from careful study and deep reflection. They are no more entitled to autonomy about religious behavior than they are entitled to drop out of school or take the family car out alone at 2 AM.

    The last time I was at the Sacred Grove my wife and I were spending our wedding anniversary week in the area, and we attended church at the Palmyra Ward, and ran into the former managing partner of my old law firm, who was serving as president of the visitors centers around Palmyra and Fayette. He invited us to dinner that evening, where he was discussing management of the Sacred Grove with the Church historian for the sites in the East, and Robert, the professional forester for the Sacred Grove, a non-member. During the dinner conversation, Robert told us where he believes the First Vision took place. He is sensitive to the details of trees and plants in the forest, and perceives that they are visibly distinct in one place. That one simple testimony was like having a face-to-face conversation with John Whitmer about handling the golden plates, or with Lorenzo Snow’s daughter recounting his testimony of meeting Christ in the stairway of the Salt Lake Temple. I felt the reality of a divine entry into my physical world.

    The masterful job the Church has done in restoring the Smith farm to its condition back in the 1820s, when Joseph had his visionary experiences in the grove, the family log cabin, the fence at the apple orchard, and at the hill we call Cumorah, is all in the hope that we can understand the reality of the entry of holy persons and artifacts into our physical world, that God and angels are just as real and solid as the trees.

  33. Don’t forget that this particular case involves a special-needs child, though. And doesn’t genuine religious feeling count for something? I don’t believe religious insight is limited to those who have formally studied, and teenagers are capable of deep reflection.

    It’s not a matter of being treated like an adult, it’s a matter of determining what is the appropriate treatment for a given chronological or developmental age.

  34. #32: Raymond, You are not making sense to me: Rebecca’s daughter and Joseph Smith were about the same age in the Sacred Grove?

  35. Thanks for sharing this. I really loved it

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