Tears in the Washtub


This can’t really be happening! I’m just dreaming it

Gazing in wonder at the white-robed family and friends seated around the sealing room, I am tempted to give myself the proverbial pinch. A kaleidoscope of past incidents flicks rapid-fire through my head, each one captured forever by its moment in time …

First, a partly toothless seven-year-old with mousy brown pigtails—the me of a generation ago. Hot tears stream down her cheeks and splash into the old galvanized washtub, making round ridges like the top of a tin can in the soapy water. She squeezes her eyes shut, blindly moving her hated long cotton stockings up and down the scrubboard, and wails.

“What in the world!” Mamma bursts in, alarmed at finding her “happy little bluebird” in such distress. “What’s the matter?”

I gulp down sobs with hiccups. “Daddy’s not a—a Mormon!” Last Sunday’s lesson about temple sealing has struck home to at least one squirmy little class member. “We—we can’t be a—a family when—when we die.”

Mamma sits down, takes me in her arms, and cries with me …

Next in my memory, that same knobby-kneed tyke, probably somewhat younger; she squats on the hot cement porch, hitting at nails in a piece of scrap lumber. Daddy carpenters beside me; we are earnestly discussing my life’s ambition.

“So you think you’ll be a lady carpenter.” He considers me seriously: “Well, now—that would be all right, a carpenter daughter.”

Just then I miss the nail in the board and hit the one on my thumb. I howl and reconsider my chosen vocation. Daddy takes me on his knee to examine the budding blister.

“Well, now, Gabby,” he observes, “I guess there never was a carpenter that didn’t hit his thumb at least once.” …

My mother’s oft-repeated words play again on my memory tape: “Daddy’s a fine man and we love him. Everyone likes him: It’s ‘Hail-Fellow-Well-Met’ and ‘Come on, Buddy, have a drink.’ That’s what started his drinking problem.” …

Yes, he is a fine man and we love him. And yes, he had a drinking problem—which grew so large it became more and more difficult to find and love the fine man. All hope of any eternal family unity had evaporated; we merely struggled to maintain a semblance of home from day to day.

Images continue to gyrate through my brain. The teenaged me of twenty years ago returns, and once more I feel humiliation ride rampant in a wave of shame from neck to scalp.

“Boy, was your dad on one last night!” It’s Angie talking. Her dimple twinkles in malicious glee. “He missed the curve and almost smacked right into our house. Drove right up on the lawn.”

I mutter something about my class and run to it—early …

A pensive bobby-soxer shoots into view behind my eyes, pin-curling her frazzled hair and gazing meditatively out the window. She watches the visible segment of Mesquite Hill to the corner of Cedar Street.

“He’s been sober for two weeks,” I reassure myself. “That’s a record. Maybe he’ll make it this time.” I am almost convinced.

Just then he lurches and reels in a crazy zigzag up the hill into my field of view. I lay face down on my bed, put a pillow over my head, and try not to hear the wobbly rendition of “For Sentimental Reasons” come up the walk …

A gray-suited mailman flashes on the scene, handing a know-it-all high school senior a letter in familiar, distinctive handwriting.

“From Daddy! Golly!” He is working out of town.

“Dear Gabby,” he writes. “You are my special girl and I want you to make the most of your life. …”

And so goes the advice and counsel of father to daughter, inspiring renewed efforts toward better things. In spite of his struggles through an alcoholic haze, I have always known he loves us …

Several more random pictures rush through my mind now, in even more jumbled succession.

Daddy drunk once more—for the last time—and assaulting Mamma with shouted obscenities and accusations. He hands her an icepick and demands: “Put it right there in my heart; that’s what you want!”

We spent that night at the home of an aunt.

Next, an impromptu council, convened in my aunt’s living room. All who have presumed to give Mamma advice (including me) are unanimous: “It’s hopeless; leave him and make a decent life for yourself and your family.”

Mamma prays and fasts; her answer is to stay.

And now, an excited college girl returning home for the summer, wondering what her dad will be like after no booze for six months! An entirely new home—she soon forgets how things had been …

A group picture crowds briefly in: three men in rough work clothes and logging boots; two in business suits and ties; one woman neat and prim as the cliché of a schoolteacher; another with lank, stringy hair, a faded dress with the hem hanging in two separate places. This incongruous group is the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Love and gratitude radiate from each of them to Daddy; he and the Lord have straightened him out; now he has begun fishing others out of the drunk tank. These have survived, and they are celebrating Daddy’s first birthday—one year without a drink. The same smile of congratulation on each face, and the same hope in each pair of eyes—for him, for themselves.

Daddy’s all-encompassing, hail-fellow-well-met grin takes them in, and he blows out the candle …

The old Globe Ward chapel appears, a white casket enthroned below the pulpit. “Abide with me, ’tis eventide.” The strains float into every corner of the room. Daddy sits with bowed head, mourning his long-time friend, Bishop Smith. He raises his eyes, and a new light shows through the unbidden, unhidden tears.

“The feeling suddenly came over me that the Church is true,” he says later. “I finally knew it was important to my exaltation, and I had to be baptized.”

And so Daddy is baptized. And as he climbs the stairs out of the font, his eight-year-old grandson steps in …

My own home projects now in vivid action: one child clinking dishes off the table, another doing homework with much pencil chewing, the third plunking his way through piano practice, and the fourth making sound effects for a large and noisy truck laboring across the kitchen floor. The ringing phone slices through the commotion.

“We’re going through the temple at Easter,” Daddy says. “Can you make it and be sealed to us?”

Of course I can! What’s a 1500-mile trip but the beginning of a journey through eternity?

So here I am, with brothers and sister, to be joined together in an eternal family unit. It is hard to believe that this long-awaited, prayed-for, and despaired-of event can actually be happening. A little girl inside me cries tears of joy.

Sights and sounds stop their mad tumble through my mind, and I look at my parents. I meet their eyes, and we all smile with happiness.

Wed for 36 years—familiar with each other’s kinks and quirks and joys and sorrows as only the long-married can be—still they are as much a bride and groom as any before them in that sacred room. They stand upon the threshold of eternity.

The temple president summons them. “Will you come to the altar, please.”

And they kneel there, in purest white, to say “I do” forever.

Sister Harvey, a former schoolteacher and now the mother of four children, is a member of the Richland (Washington) First Ward, Richland Stake.