Emerald Grass and May Skies

JFP-MDO-141For the dozen odd years since I joined the church, I’ve been sort of an outlier. All of my experiences with the organized church and with my church community have been through the lens of being an adult convert. Nothing about that is unique, of course— there are adult converts everywhere, and in probably every faith— but joining a church that revolves in a potent way around an idealized family makes those coming in poignantly aware of our shortcomings. (Yes yes yes, I know there is no such thing as a perfect Mormon family, and I know everyone wears their best faces on Sunday, and every family has problems and struggles and challenges. I get all that. But bear with me.)

When I first joined the church, I experienced church as a woman with a non-member husband. Then, I experienced church as a woman with a husband who had joined, but to whom she was not sealed. I experienced having three babies “not born in the covenant”. Only one of my children was blessed as a baby. I didn’t understand what that meant, until I was suddenly experiencing church as a divorced mother and two of my children were not listed on the records of the church anywhere. I experienced church as a single mother. I experienced church where I had to find someone to baptize my children, because there was no family to whom the responsibility could be given. I experienced church as a single woman dating, while juggling three children and full-time college. I had never sat in a sacrament meeting with pews of people related to me. I had been a member of the church for almost ten years before I heard someone give thanks for me over the pulpit, and I remember it stunningly, because only in that moment did I realize it was a first. I burst into tears.

There have been tremendous kindnesses and generosity along the way. I have experienced the very best my church community can offer in love and support. My children have been valued, wonderful friends have cared for us, and included us in their families and in their holidays. Loving friends walked with my children into the baptism font, and countless hands have tenderly and richly blessed us. I attended the temple with friends I count as family, and with whom I have shared profound spiritual experiences. It has been a rich and complex journey, and I wouldn’t trade the perspective and joy for anything.

Because of the lens through which I experienced church, I have been guilty of being cynical at times. It’s hard being a convert. It’s hard being in an unsealed marriage, hearing constantly about the pinnacle of Mormon life, temple marriage. It’s hard being divorced. It’s hard being all these complicated things, hearing constantly about the importance of family, and feeling like no matter what, you fall short. I have been, at times, critical of our myopic focus on one type of family. It’s particularly painful for children, for singles, for divorced people, and for the myriad of folks who, for one reason or another, who fall outside the idealized family structure.

The family I come from is wonderful. I enjoy close relationships with all my siblings and extended family, and while my parents do not understand my Mormon conversion, or my raising my children in the church, they love us tremendously. Because being Mormon is a large part of my identity, my family simply cannot relate to some of my life. The warp and weave of a Mormon life is understandably foreign to them. They do not understand our vernacular, our idiosyncrasies, our vocabulary, our shorthand, or our rhythms. The Mormon rhetoric of the family is even more alienating to families outside Mormonism- Imagine how parents who have spent decades loving and building their family would feel at some of our expressions. My mother is already worried about her grandchildren’s weddings- and I can’t blame her. In many ways, I have straddled two worlds. My children are also going to have to manage that tension. It’s made me, at times, raw and kind of prickly. I’m aware of my faults, probably never moreso than now.

This last weekend, I experienced something I had previously only seen with my nose pressed to the glass on the outside. I experienced belonging to a Mormon family.

My husband and I flew to Utah for a family baby blessing. It was a slingshot trip for us from the Metropolitan DC area to Salt Lake City, but it was important for him to be there for his sister. The weekend was happy and boisterous and full of the commotion and laughter found in any big family— my husband is one of seven children— it was lovely and welcoming and wonderful. But I want to focus on two experiences that tectonically shifted my sprit and my perception.

The first was early Sunday morning, Memorial Day weekend.

Out in the vast yard of the homestead near Cache Valley, one of my sisters-in-law was gathering fresh cut flowers into white buckets from the Aggie Creamery. There were mums and irises and hydrangea and wildflowers overflowing the buckets onto the kitchen counters, as they were sorted into bouquets. There were siblings and children and dogs bouncing around the enormous kitchen, and the air of a holiday. Some had already headed off to different cemeteries; siblings talked about who was going where, and what time to meet at the main family memorial. All of the dead would be visited this day.

I had never… This was an utterly foreign land to me. My family are cremated. My beloved grandma had her ashes scattered at sea, and the Golden Gate Bridge, where we stood on the day she left, is her memorial in my heart. I can count the funerals I have attended on two fingers.

Heading up Cache Valley towards Old Main, we pass the Logan Temple, where several of Jon’s siblings were married, and where we are considering our own sealing. We turn into the Logan City Cemetery, where there is a sea of flowers, peppered with laughing children, balloons, visiting family and more flowers. Fresh, vibrant flowers are everywhere. The cemetery is full of cars and families, and people are working on their loved ones headstones. We park the car, and Jon takes my hand and walks towards “our people”. At the family plot, I meet more family members, and there is an air of celebration with contemplation. There are children, and mothers nursing while sitting on familiar markers. The kids know the stories of the lives marked here; they are nearly as familiar as anyone living. I am suddenly choked up. Jon walks me around, introducing me to folks living and dead, and quietly shows me the swath of rich emerald grass close to the rest of the family that bears no marker. It’s for us, hopefully far in the future, but there it is, bright and shining in the May sunlight, overlooking Cache Valley on the northern end of the Wasatch Front. This is where I will someday lay. There is, literally, a place for me.

Tears constrict my throat; there is something deeply meaningful and comforting in this beautiful certainty. It was like finding something I didn’t know I was missing. Whatever shape life may take, whatever happens between now and…then… there is this place. And there are the stories that will be told, the flowers that will be brought, and the children that will go on laughing and playing above the beautiful green lawn and beneath the splendid May skies.

We rejoined the family and gathered our armfuls of flowers and went in search of the family members to whom they belonged. No one was forgotten.

And I understood a little bit more about what family means.

Later that afternoon, washed and spiffed and in our Sunday best, we entered a chapel in Brigham City. Half the congregation was family. Row after row of family— smiling, happy faces greeting each other, leaning over the pews and chatting quietly, happy to see one another, and warmly welcoming me, the newest spouse. I found my sister-in-law, and helped her tie the booties I had knitted on her son’s tiny wiggling feet. The baby would be held in his father’s tartan Plaid, dressed in a beautiful outfit his grandmother had made him, and in booties my hands had knit.

The service was no different than any Mormon Sunday in any chapel anywhere. When it was time to bless the baby, seven brothers and their fathers stood up, buttoned their jackets, and formed a circle. My breath again caught in my chest and my eyes stung. This baby, so precious, so loved— all babies are, or should be, of course— but the men who will mentor, care for and raise him up were literally holding this baby in a circle of love. It was a visible proclamation and manifestation of the child’s relationship to the world.

What a profound blessing. And it had nothing to do with the words (though they were beautiful) spoken of actual blessing by his earthly father.

And I understood yet a little bit more about what family means.

Several years ago, I wrote:

We talk about our congregations being our ward-families. I hang onto this, out of necessity. It’s mostly true. Sort of. But family isn’t supposed to all disappear when some lines are redrawn on a map- and when your ward is your only family, that’s exactly what happens. Then again, family isn’t supposed to disappear when one person finds faith, either. Imperfections, it seems, are the norm both inside and outside the church. And those Sundays when a lesson is particularly painful or difficult or handled ham-fistedly by a hopefully well-meaning person and hurts me or my children, I wonder which imperfections are harder, and if I chose the better part.

Then I remember where the light comes from, and why I can even make it… Here is where I found my long-sought answers, and there is no reasoning or rationale or hurt feelings that will change that fact.

I am keenly aware of the imperfectness, and the flaws inherent in systems—all systems, including the church— and of course I haven’t forgotten the tensions, issues and problems that accompany so much of that family focus. But for today, I am grateful for the additional facets given to my vision, the additional nuance that broadens my compassion not in only one direction, but in all ways and places.

I am grateful to this magnificent family— both my earthly families and the family of the church— for folding me and mine in, for showing us with their actions what they mean by love, and for the healing they are working on my hurt soul. I did choose the better part.

I think I am just starting to understand.

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Comments

  1. Your writing is always so beautiful, Tracy. I count myself lucky to be your friend!

  2. Beautiful. Thanks for this contemplation. Utah really does Memorial Day right!

  3. I think I am just starting to understand.

    I was lucky enough (though there have been days when my wife, my children, and even I myself, have questioned this) to be born into the world you are describing and praising here, Tracy; I’ve known it for all my 46 years. And yet, often–more often than the above doubts–I think those exact thoughts you end with, and feel the same mystifying gratitude for it all. Thank you for writing this. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful post–as they say, full of grace and truth. Thank you.

  4. Anon for this says:

    Lovely!
    FWIW, some of what you describe isn’t necessarily Mormon, but Mormon-belt. I’m a 5th generation member, but wasn’t raised near Utah. My family and extended family is scattered over both coasts and several countries (including the middle east.) I didn’t grow up with family occupying multiple pews, visits to the graveyard, only saw cousins every 2-3 years, etc.

    My wife from N. Utah, on the other hand, grew up with all of her extended family on BOTH sides living within a two-hour radius. They are more like what you are describing here, which is just as foreign to this non-convert as it is to you.

  5. Thanks for being part of our family here.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Thank you.

  7. You said: “We rejoined the family and gathered our armfuls of flowers and went in search of the family members to whom they belonged. No one was forgotten.” This is exactly how I feel about Memorial Day. Everybody should be remembered.

    You said: “Then I remember where the light comes from, and why I can even make it… Here is where I found my long-sought answers, and there is no reasoning or rationale or hurt feelings that will change that fact.” Thank you. That is exactly what I needed to hear right now.

  8. That was great. Some of what you describe would resonate with my convert wife. This past Memorial Day she marveled at the number of flowers placed at the headstones and wondered if caretakers at the cemeteries placed them. The idea of all those graves visited and decorated by family caretakers was foreign. Like yours, her family cremates the dead.

  9. Coffinberry says:

    Interesting and beautiful. I am grateful for your shared insight so precious. It is so good to feel so at home.

    To me, a lot of what you describe sounds midwestern, not Mormon.

    Here it is I, the active married-in-the-temple third-generation Latter-day Saint that senses the opposite craving. It is my Methodist kin (my father was a convert) that share this profound Memorial Day family bond. Every three years, we go back home to the midwest to reunite with my dad’s extended family. We attend church together, sitting in the pews my children’s great-great-grandparents once sat in with their large family. We go out back to the graveyard where loved ones are buried — all except my dad, who died in his 20s and is buried in the generic graveyard in town, over in the “Mormon Corner” of the cemetery. The little branch that dreamed big 60 years ago long since has closed down, and suits in Salt Lake City sold their building paid for dollar-by-dollar earned through Relief Society Cinnamon Roll bake sales. My Methodist aunt always remembers to put flowers on my dad’s grave in the years I can’t be there. But the separateness feels so obvious.

    I should probably remember how that separateness feels when I empathize with new converts.

  10. Pokemom says:

    Thank you so much for this lovely post, with moving writing and honest thought. I appreciated the contrasts of family life. Also, having grown up in Cache Valley, I especially enjoyed the photos and written images. I moved away when I went to college, and my parents moved away about 10 years ago. It was a beautiful and warm place to grow up. University, church, land, community, the arts, family, diversity–all these were huge parts of the Cache Valley psyche when I was growing up, and I loved and absorbed it all. The smells of May and June, the quality of the light in the late summer, the hoar frost in the winter. It was magical to my mother, a convert, who arrived there as a young bride and thought she had landed in paradise. It was magical to me as well, and I still miss it.

  11. Antonio Parr says:

    This is beautiful. Really, really appreciated your observations. Thank you.

  12. Jane Kinsel says:

    Growing up in rural Itah(Heber) this was called Decoration Day…and the scenes you described were like mine. Today it is different. I not sure when I became aware that it is Memorial Day. I love them both.

  13. You broke my heart today. This used to be our family, until we moved away from Utah, and much of both our families. With our children and grandchildren all living here in Washington state, we hope that this becomes the family tradition, when our time comes. And I am so happy for you, that after all you have been through, that you have found your place in multiple families.

  14. Terry H says:

    Thanks for this. I’m rarely moved so strongly. Your writing is beautiful, but your viewpoint is piercing.

  15. Jason K. says:

    Thank you, Tracy!

  16. Thanks for sharing this, Tracy. Lovely experiences, so beautifully described.

  17. Matt Whiting says:

    Beautiful, thanks for bringing me to tears.

  18. Beautiful Tracy! I’m so thankful our paths crossed, ever so briefly, in Houston all those years ago. I have loved reading your posts, your words have touched my heart and helped me to understand so many different things. I appreciate your viewpoints – your struggles and your joys – and once again I have been moved by your words. Thank you.

  19. Sharlee says:

    Beautiful and moving. Thank you, Tracy.

  20. You have articulated so well what I find most painful about living in Utah. I love my ward and I love my job and don’t think I’ll move away from here, but one of the hardest things about living in Utah is my jealousy of all those big, functional families. My family has generations of church activity, but there has been a lot of dysfunction and most of us (besides me) are inactive now. Plus, my parents and my siblings live all over the country and we’ve never managed to get it together enough to have traditions. If I lived somewhere else, the ward could be my family, but here most of my ward members already have family and I feel left out. Before I moved to Utah I used to have dinners with friends on Sundays, but now everyone I know is at a family dinner in the afternoon. When I see baby blessings with large circles, I remember how I felt embarrassed a few years ago when the bishop and two other people got together to bless my daughter, or how I had to scrounge around to find enough active men to come to my son’s baptism so that we could have a baptizer and two witnesses. I have also hoped that some day I might remarry and that it will be to someone who has a large, loving family like this. It sounds amazing.

  21. A very well-written and touching figurative example of “the baby in the bathwater.”

  22. the other Marie says:

    I grew up having those exact experiences in the Logan Cemetery with my parents, my grandparents, and my dead people (though as a child I didn’t love driving two hours to stand around in a cemetery and hear stories, it was part of the foundation of my eventual love for family history). I often feel guilty for having this richness and warmth to my family experience, coming as I do from a family and extended family that is freakishly stable, pretty much uniformly active in the church, and very loving. It’s unfair that some of us have and others have not and that comparisons to the ideal are so frequent and painful for so many–but it’s good for the vision of such happy possibilities to remain among us so that we at least have some idea what beauty we may expect when grace has done its work on our imperfect families.

  23. I went through similar things.
    It is nice to read about experiences of others similar to mine. And still struggling and being torn. Thank you.