As the soft, gray drizzle grew into a steady downpour, Mackinzee Waters pushed a damp wisp of hair from her eyes and quickly finished filling the bucket with wild blackberries. She pulled her shawl tighter about her and glanced up at the steely sky. Huge black clouds were unfurling, and thunder boomed like Civil War cannons. The weather seemed much like her life—harsh and indifferent, even though her family was trying hard to live by God’s commandments. Sure, she sometimes argued with her older brother, Chase, or did her chores begrudgingly, but were those offenses worthy of all the misfortune that had befallen her family?
Lightning seared through the dark day, its crooked fingers of white clawing the heavy air. It had been lightning that burned down their prairie home just two years before.
Mackinzee and her family had been in church at the time. Why would God let such a thing happen while we were worshiping? she wondered now as she hurried back toward the sod house built in the face of the small hillock by a stand of cottonwoods. Was he punishing us for something, or had he somehow completely forgotten us?
She paused by a small grave under a scraggly willow and gazed at the little headstone:
Born December 15, 1867
Died May 22, 1869
Her baby brother had passed away the year before, stung to death by a swarm of bees. Why? Why did God let it happen?
Distracted by the sound of someone’s knuckle tapping at a window, she glanced at the sod house. Papa was beckoning through the rain-smeared glass. He was lying in bed as he had been since being mauled three months ago by a grizzly that had wandered down from the timber. Doc Gunnerson had said that it would be another three months before Papa’s leg would be mended enough for him to go back to the fields. It had been a real struggle for Mama and fourteen-year-old Chase and herself to manage without him.
Mama met her at the door. “You’d best get out of those wet clothes, honey, before you catch your death.”
Mackinzee set the pot of berries down hard on the table. “Why should I expect anything different, Mama, after everything else that’s happened to us?” She turned abruptly and disappeared into a small adjoining room, the door closing behind her with a bang.
Chase looked up from a boot he was polishing with soot from the bottom of a stove lid, shook his head, and chuckled to himself. “She sounds more growly than a hungry bear.”
“She has been awful moody lately,” Papa admitted.
On Monday, Chase dragged the big black washtub into the yard and fetched water from a nearby stream. Mama heated water in a kettle on the stove, and Mackinzee carried it out and poured it into the tub until there was enough to do the laundry.
The washing took most of the day. Finally mother and daughter hung out the wet clothes on a rope stretched between two trees. As they did, Mama paused and glanced over at Mackinzee. A gentle breeze tugged at the young girl’s auburn hair that glowed in the sunlight like rusty gold. She was a pretty girl. “As pretty as a spring fawn,” Papa often commented, “with a gold-dust shine that could dazzle the hardest of hearts.”
But today that simple loveliness was overshadowed by lines of deep despair. This wasn’t the first time Mama had observed her daughter’s unhappiness. But whenever she had asked about it, Mackinzee always smiled and shrugged it off.
“What are you staring at, Mama?” Mackinzee asked, at the same moment realizing she had just given her mother an opportunity to enter her most guarded thoughts. Mackinzee was attempting a quick evasive smile when her mother stroked her cheek.
The gentle gesture broke the barrier that held back a sea of pent-up hurt and anger, and she broke into sobs.
Mama quickly pulled her close. “What’s the matter, honey,” she soothed. “What’s been tearing at you so?”
Papa pulled back a curtain by his bed and squinted out through the weather-streaked glass. “Do you know where your sister and your mama are, Chase? I saw them hanging out clothes about an hour ago. Now they’ve disappeared.”
Chase splashed water on his face and neck and rubbed them vigorously to get off as much sweat and field dirt as he could, then turned to his father. “When I came in from the field just now, I saw them sitting on the big log by the creek. They looked to be deep in talk.”
Papa gazed back out the window and nodded. “Good,” he said quietly. “Good.”
Out in the field, Mama put her comforting arm around Mackinzee. “I don’t expect there’s anything sadder than a body keeping a world of heartache to herself, honey, unless it’s thinking that she must.”
Mackinzee rubbed at a hot tear that oozed from a swollen eye. “I didn’t want to add to your or Papa’s worries by—”
Mama placed a gentle finger across her daughter’s lips. “Do you think your papa and I haven’t been concerned over not knowing what’s been troubling you? It’s a lot easier to puzzle out a problem once you have all the pieces before you on the table, right?” At Mackinzee’s slow, tentative nod, Mama continued, “And now let’s try to do that, shall we?”
Mackinzee agreed, but her first question almost caught in her throat. “Why does God allow bad things to happen to us? Is he punishing us?”
“Sometimes he allows misfortune to befall someone because of wrong choices. For every one of our actions, there is a consequence.”
Mackinzee’s eyes dropped. “Sometimes I haven’t done my chores with a good heart, Mama. And Chase and I get in arguments. Maybe Heavenly Father—”
Mama squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Shame on you for being normal,” she chuckled. “Besides,” she added, “I don’t believe that even bad experiences are wasted. Most can be for our profit and learning. It’s all in the way we accept them. And in how we deal with them.”
“Then you don’t think God has forgotten us?”
“If he counts every sparrow that falls, like the scriptures teach us, it’s a sure fact that he keeps track of the rest of us.” Mama’s eyes misted. “It’s in me to know that he keeps company with the afflicted,” she added with a granite conviction.
“Then why … ?”
Mama regarded her daughter with a look that was so profoundly reverent and alive with testimony that it made Mackinzee pause. “How do you suppose one would get to the top of that mountain over there?”
Mackinzee gazed off at the purple form that rose and fell at the bottom of the sky. “By climbing it, of course.”
“Yes. And always remember that heaven is up too. By climbing the mountains of adversity in our lives, we can develop our spiritual muscles. Doctrine and Covenants 136:31 [D&C 136:31] says that the Lord’s people ‘must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that [he has] for them.’”
As Mackinzee thought about this, Mama reached down and picked up a shiny river rock. “We must learn to let the waves that beat upon our shores wash away the weaker parts and leave in its wake a stronger man or woman.” She stood and went over to a wild rose plant and plucked a blossom with its stem. “If rain can make the flowers grow, then why not the rest of us?” She ran a finger lightly across a large barb on the stem. “This thorn flower can teach us a valuable lesson, honey,” she counseled gently. “A rose without a thorn is only half a rose.”
A slow smile rippled across Mackinzee’s face. She would learn to be happy, even when it rained.
Mama pinched off the thorn with her thumbnail, then put the rose in Mackinzee’s hair. The girl stood and took her mother’s hand, and they started toward home.