For 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.