I slid the library t-slip into the holder and handed the book to the lady, and then looked up to see Lori’s round blue eyes gazing at me over the ridge of freckles scattered across her nose.
“Have you heard from BYU yet?” she asked, the blue eyes sparkling.
“I think you’re more excited about it than I am,” I laughed, although I knew that wasn’t true. I felt as though my whole life, everything that would ever happen to me, depended upon this decision made by people I had never even seen.
“They’ll be bound to accept you,” Lori chirped, as she moved behind the desk and started filing the overdue cards. “With grades like you’ve had the last two years, and then being a new convert and all … well … you shouldn’t have any trouble.” She sighed and wrinkled her nose, squashing the line of freckles into an unhappy mass. “You’re so lucky, Michelle, to be going back to Utah and the mountains and BYU!”
“They don’t know I’m a new convert, silly, and you’ll be going there yourself in just two more years.”
Lori groaned. “Two years seems like forever, especially when you get to go now!”
I laughed at her. I couldn’t help it. She was so sweet and open and sincere. Even though she was four years younger than myself, she was probably the best friend I had ever had. She had introduced me to the gospel. She had changed my life. Lori was the only Mormon girl I’d ever known, and it seemed to me she was a pretty decent specimen of the ideal.
I carried the stack of magazines over to the shelf and began sorting and placing them in order. I had worked in the Franklin City Library every summer since I was a sophomore in high school. Even after going away two years to the university in Madison, it was still the best job I could find in a city of 7,000 people stuck up in the end of the high Wisconsin woods.
Last summer the library hired two new high school students, and Lori was one of them. Friendly and talkative, it didn’t take her long to establish herself on good terms with all the other workers or to make sure that everyone knew she was a Latter-day Saint. I had read about the Mormons and Brigham Young in the history books at school, but I didn’t really know anything. And I couldn’t understand why this girl made me feel suddenly so curious, so interested in something I had never even thought about before.
That was only a year ago. I marveled how one brief year could totally change a person’s life. Nothing was the same as it had been before I learned about the gospel and joined the Church. I was involved in different activities now and had different friends. I thought different thoughts and wanted different things. And I was happier, and more miserable, than I had ever been in my life.
I shuddered, remembering that first day I had asked my parents’ permission to be baptized. They knew I had been studying with the Mormons and going to their meetings, but I don’t think they had admitted to themselves how serious I really was. My father is a quiet man, and kind. He thought about it for a long time before he replied. But my mother reacted immediately. Her face went pale and her mouth hard and tight.
“Absolutely not, Michelle,” she said, and her voice sounded cold and deeply angry. “It is absolutely out of the question, so don’t mention it again.”
“But why?” I demanded. “Why?”
“Why?” she screamed back, her eyes blazing. “Because you don’t know what you’re doing. I’m trying to save you from making a terrible mistake, Michelle. I know. You just have to trust me. I know.”
I wondered what awful things she knew or thought she knew about the Mormons. But no matter how persistently I questioned her, she wouldn’t talk. She just kept saying no in that hard, tight way. In the end, though, my father prevailed. He usually did because he was so reasonable and so patient. He kept reminding her that I was 20 years old. In a few months I would be able to decide for myself, without their approval. He reminded her of what a good girl I was: smart and hard-working, obedient and truthful. “She deserves to find her own way in life,” he told my mother gently.
So we made a bargain. I was to meet with the minister of my own church for classes in theology. I was to learn everything I could about the beliefs and doctrines of the church I had belonged to my whole life. In other words, I was to give their way one last, real chance, as much a chance as I had given the Mormons. Then, if I still wanted to leave—to reject their ways, to become a Latter-day Saint—they would give their consent.
I stood up, arched my back, and then walked to the main desk. There was a cart piled high with books to be replaced on the shelves. Lori, checking out books behind the counter, threw me a smile.
“I’ll do that,” she offered, “and you can take over here for a while.”
“No thanks,” I answered, “I don’t mind.” I wheeled the cart to the fiction section and stopped at the A’s. Adams … Anderson … I picked up a book and began filing automatically. Ashley … Austin … Jane Austin … one of my favorite authors. I picked up a copy of Pride and Prejudice and made a place for it on the shelf. Pride and prejudice. I smiled wryly. It could well be the title for my own life over the past few months.
Those visits with our minister, I reflected, had led to one of the most solemn, impressive experiences of my life. I remembered vividly how nervous, almost foolish, I had felt as I walked the path to the old stone church and pulled back the heavy door. My footsteps sounded loud and obtrusive as I crossed the hard, polished floor and knocked tentatively on the door of the pastor’s office. The office, itself, was enough to make me feel overwhelmed. It was large and thickly carpeted, and one entire wall was lined with shelves that supported hundreds of thick, old, impressive-looking volumes. The remaining walls were paneled in oak, and Dr. Allred sat in a brown leather armchair behind a massive mahogany desk, which separated us awkwardly as I perched on the edge of a chair across from him.
“So you think you want to be a Mormon?” he said suddenly, and his face never changed expression. I couldn’t begin to tell what he was thinking. Before I could find an answer, he continued. “It’s your parents’ idea that you come here, isn’t it?”
I nodded, while he gazed at me, and through me, until finally a slight smile began to break up the corners of the thin, long line of his mouth. “Well, let’s see what we can do,” he said, leaning forward across the desk.
We met together three different times, and I read the books and pamphlets he gave me. I answered his questions and he answered some of mine, but our discussions were always very polite and restrained. On our last evening together he sat behind his desk and looked across at me, and he left unopened the heavy book we were supposed to talk about together. Instead he lifted his eyebrow in a thoughtful manner and said, “I’ve done what your parents desired, Michelle. But there’s really nothing I can teach you; both you and I know that. What you do now must be your own decision, of course.”
He hesitated, and I found myself leaning forward in my chair, drawn by the expression on his face and something I felt in the tenor of his voice. He pushed his chair back suddenly and rose, walked quickly to the expanse of books and pulled down a small, slender volume. Returning to the desk he set it down firmly, then pushed it over until it rested mere inches from my own hand, which was gripping the smooth edge of the big desk. The lettering on the leather cover was close to me and easy to see. I gave a little gasp as I read the words: Book of Mormon.
“That’s right,” he said, “the Book of Mormon. I get some of the material for my sermons out of that book.” His voice was soft, but it penetrated deep inside me so that my heart began to beat wildly, and I felt a warm, tingling sensation across my skin.
“I would be a Mormon myself if it were possible.” He picked up the volume and balanced it thoughtfully in his hand. “I am a minister; it is my life. It’s all I’ve ever known. My father was a minister, and his father before him.” He paused and looked up, and his eyes held a sadness that was almost an intrusion to look upon. “But if I were you,” he continued in the same soft, firm voice, “I would become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Dr. Allred rose and replaced the book. I rose from my chair. I knew there was nothing left to be said between us, but I was wrong. At the door he shook my hand warmly, holding me with his eyes. “What I said tonight I have said for you alone. If you repeat it, I will deny that it was ever spoken. And you know, of course, which of us would be believed.”
I nodded, trying to answer with my eyes and my smile, too overwhelmed to be able to do more, and walked home alone through the crisp, silent night.
The next week I was baptized. None of my family attended the baptism. This was something I wanted to do, and I had their permission. But permission and support are not the same thing. Even my kindly father could not offer support for something he could neither agree with nor understand.
My mother drew her hard shell around her, and the barrier between us became something very concrete and real. “It’s all right,” I kept telling myself. “She’ll come around. It’s difficult for her. Be patient.”
But she didn’t come around. And after a few weeks everyone settled back into the ordinary routine of things, and life went on as before, and the fact that I had become a Mormon was something everyone conveniently ignored. They didn’t understand how different I was! And they weren’t interested; they didn’t seem to care. That was the worst part. There was no one to talk to, to share things with. I was learning and growing and discovering so many things. But when I came home, no one asked any questions or expressed any curiosity. Perhaps they thought if they ignored it, it would go away. But mother made a point of asking my brother and sister about their activities, laughing and talking with them. Yet she refused to talk with me. We lived in the same house together, but that was all. There was no longer any communication, any companionship, any warmth.
Brian, the boy I had been dating for over a year, stopped coming around so often, and then stopped calling me altogether. We had very little in common any more. Even Corinne, my best friend since I was in high school, stopped asking me to go to the movies or listen to records, or go swimming in the lake. It wasn’t her fault, of course, but it wasn’t mine, either. I was the odd piece in the puzzle, and there was no place I fit in.
It might have helped if there had been some young people in the local branch. But there weren’t. Franklin City is a small, out-of-the-way place and, except for two brothers, one 12 and one 14, Lori was the only Mormon teenager there. Things were growing. There would be more, but for now it was just Lori and me.
I pushed the empty cart back to the desk and realized with a start that it was nearly quitting time.
“Are you all right?” Lori asked. “You seem kind of quiet.”
“Just thinking,” I replied. As sweet as Lori was, she didn’t really understand. She had been a member of the Church all her life. Her parents were strong, active members. They had family home evenings and family prayer. She didn’t know what it was like to have her own mother refuse to talk to her, or her little brother say rude things to her, or to see a puzzled sadness in her father’s eyes.
I left the library and walked to my car. The heat of the day had softened into evening. I could smell the pines and the roses that trailed and twisted along the library wall. I felt happy and clean inside. I knew what I was doing was right. I had prayed and fasted about it. Now I just needed the faith to follow it through.
When I walked into the house, the first thing I saw was the letter, propped on the narrow table in the front hall, my name typed on the white envelope and the Brigham Young University letterhead in the corner. With trembling fingers I tore it open. I was accepted! And the scholarship my counselor at the University of Wisconsin had recommended I apply for had been granted! I read the words again and again, unable to believe that the dream was really coming true.
I looked up and my mother was standing in the doorway watching me. “You don’t have to tell me what’s inside the letter,” she said. “I can see it in your face.”
“Mother—” I began, but her eyes were blazing and she interrupted me angrily.
“You really think you’re something, don’t you? Cocky and smug and sure of yourself. Just like my sister, Beth. That’s how she was, you know. And she walked out on us, just like you’re going to do.”
“Mother,” I cried desperately, “I’m not walking out on you. I’m just going away to college. Nine months at the university. That’s all.”
“That’s what you think, Michelle. But what if you never come back? Beth never came back.”
“But that was different! She had done something disgraceful. Grandpa Hunter sent her away; he wouldn’t let her come back!”
She stood staring at me, with the strangest look in her eye. “The minute you joined the Mormon church, you turned your back on us and all we stand for. You’re not one of us any more, Michelle. When you go out to Utah, that will break the last tie.”
“Mother, no! Please don’t say such things.” I stepped toward her, but she moved away.
“How could you do this to me?” she cried. “How could you be so selfish and cruel? Beth was my big sister and she turned her back on me. She left me when I needed her the most. You’re just like her, Michelle; you’re just like her!”
I ran past her and through the kitchen, out the back door, and into the quiet yard. I was trembling all over and cold, though the summer night was mild. I had never dreamed that my mother compared me to her lost sister, Beth. I’d always known the old story about the mysterious sister who was disowned by her stern father and who disappeared to live her life in shame and seclusion somewhere. As a child I had thought it a romantic story, sweet and sad. But I had never dreamed of myself as becoming the main character in such a story. How could my own mother think of me that way? Was she ashamed of me? Did she want to disown me, as her father had once disowned the sister she loved?
Later that night when I was alone in my room, my younger brother, Paul, came in. “I just want to tell you what a creep you are,” he said. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know what I mean. You upset mother, and she screams and takes it out on all of us, then ends up crying half the night. All you do anymore is cause trouble, Michelle.”
“That’s not true, Paul!” I defended myself. There was a hard knot growing in the middle of my stomach, and I felt humiliated having to apologize for myself every time I turned around. “I never mean to cause trouble.”
“Well, you do. I hope it’s worth it to you, making your whole family miserable just so you can do what you want!”
He stomped out of the room without giving me time to reply. Hot tears began to gather behind my eyes. His words were unkind and unfair. But how could I make him understand what was really happening, what I really felt?
Later, when my little sister, Katy, came in to kiss me goodnight, she looked up with wide, innocent eyes and asked, “Why do you want to go away and leave us, Michelle? Mommy says you don’t really love us anymore or you wouldn’t go away.”
I pulled her into my arms and hugged her fiercely. “That’s not true, princess! I love you dearly! And it will be fun for you when I go away because I’ll write you a letter every week and send surprise packages in the mail.”
She brightened a little, and I hugged and kissed her half a dozen times before I let her go. Finally I went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. What was my mother trying to do? Why did she have to punish me for being different from what she thought I ought to be?
After that the days seemed to drag, gray and dull, one after another. Part of the time I felt defensive and angry at my mother, wanting to hurt her back. But at other times I felt small and frightened, like a little girl, longing for her to hold and comfort me and dissolve my fears. She had taken the excitement and anticipation out of the whole thing, and sometimes I weakened and felt that maybe I shouldn’t go after all. But too many of my prayers had been answered, too many signposts pointed that this should be the direction my life ought to take. I kept telling myself that things would work out. Perhaps it would be easier for my family if I went away. If I weren’t so close, such a source of conflict and friction, it might be easier for them to understand, to get a broader, kinder perspective. Perhaps they might even miss me and appreciate me a little.
But I was afraid. And there was no one to understand. Lori could only see that I had the world at my feet, that I was going to Zion, Mecca, where everything would be sunshine and happiness and dreams-come-true. But I had never been to Utah before. I didn’t even know what a mountain looked like in real life. I didn’t know a single person in all of Utah, much less at BYU. What were other Mormons like? Would they laugh at me if I was different, if I did things wrong? Our little branch was so casual, so experimental. What would it be like in a congregation of hundreds of Latter-day Saints? What if they all knew ten times more about the gospel than I knew?
Finally, suddenly, the long days were past, and it was time for me to leave. The day before the bus came that would take me to the airport in Madison, I prayed and fasted all day. I couldn’t bear to leave my mother like this, with her hating me and thinking that I was deserting her, rejecting her as, somehow, her older sister once had done.
That night I had a dream. In the dream I was a little girl again, with long pigtails and a dirty face. Some mean little boys were chasing me down the sidewalk and I fell and scraped my knee. I stumbled back up and ran across the lawn, sobbing for my mother, screaming for her to come. Suddenly she was there, sweeping me into her strong, soft arms. She smoothed back my hair and kissed my cheek, and cleaned my scraped knee, painting it with iodine, then sticking a big, beautiful band-aid on top. I woke suddenly, feeling still her gentle fingers against my skin, seeing the smile of love on her face.
I sat up in bed and it came to me that my mother didn’t know how much I needed her! How long had it been since I’d asked her advice or her help? In her eyes I seemed efficient, self-contained, and sure of myself. Mormonism had excluded her from my life, and I had done nothing to compensate for that—to let her know I still loved and needed and valued her! And all these months I had been thinking it was all her fault, that I, alone, was the wounded party!
The next morning I called her into my room and asked if she would help me pack. She’s very neat and efficient, and I knew she could organize and fit in all my last-minute things in a way I never could. I told her so. I talked with her and I praised her, and soon the look of guarded puzzlement left her face and we both began to enjoy being together. It didn’t work miracles; there wasn’t enough time for that. I still couldn’t tell her how frightened I was, how much I really loved her and would miss her. But the look of cold anger had gone out of her eyes, and she came to the bus station, and when I pushed the note I had written into her hands and reached out to hug her, she reached out, too, and held me close a minute and kissed my cheek. It was all I could do to hold back the tears. I looked through the glass and waved to my family, wishing they knew how very much I loved them.
By the time my plane approached the Salt Lake airport, I felt worn out with the traveling and emotions of the day. The plane had crossed the high Rockies, which in the early sunset presented a fairy world of peaks and crevices, clouds and shadows in changing, shifting patterns before my eyes.
But now, as the plane touched down, as I moved with the press into the crowded terminal, it seemed everyone had someone to meet them and some place to go. I hesitated, uncertain what to do or where to go next. I noticed a woman approaching, an older woman, very attractive, with rich brown hair and a lovely face. As she drew closer, I thought she looked familiar, so I glanced at her again. It looked as though she was coming directly my way. I shifted my feet and stared down at the floor, and when I glanced up again the woman was standing right beside me. She smiled, and the feeling that I had seen her somewhere before grew stronger.
“Michelle?” she said, with a little question at the end of the word. “You are Michelle Briggs, aren’t you?”
“Why … yes …” I stammered.
“I thought so,” she said. “You look very much like your mother, Michelle; you have her beautiful eyes.” She smiled again. “I don’t mean to alarm you, my dear, but I’m your Aunt Beth.”
“I don’t understand,” I cried. “What are you doing here? How did you know where to find me … or … or that I exist at all?”
“Your mother, Michelle,” she said, and took my hand gently in hers. “All these years I have written to your mother, but not once did she reply.”
“You, you mean, my mother’s known where you’ve been all along?”
“She’s known, but she hasn’t wanted to admit it. Your mother was very young when I went away, and your Grandpa Hunter did a good job of poisoning her mind. By the time she was old enough to understand … well, it was too late.” “Understand? Understand what?”
She paused, and her eyes began to sparkle. “When I was a girl I defied my father and joined the Mormon church. I was young and unwise. I hurt his pride, and he refused to forgive me. When I left and went to Utah, he refused to tell anyone where I had gone or what had really happened to me. He died without knowing that I had married and that he had three grandchildren he had never seen and another one on the way.
“But, you see, Michelle, I kept taking the Franklin City paper and I read about your mother’s wedding, and I wrote to her faithfully, hoping that sometime something would touch her heart and she would respond to me.”
“All these years?” I breathed in amazement.
“All these years. And all these years I have prayed that the Lord would soften her heart; and he has answered my prayers, Michelle, through you.” The sparkle in her eyes was wet now and her hand tightened over mine.
“But what …” I stammered, “how …” I still didn’t understand.
“Your mother wrote to me telling me you had joined the Mormon church, telling me you were coming to BYU and asking me to take care of you.”
“My mother … did that … ?”
My aunt nodded. “She told me what a special girl you were and how much she loved you.”
I couldn’t see too well, for my own eyes were clouded with tears and my throat ached trying to hold them back. My prayers and Aunt Beth’s prayers—and the prayers of a mother whose concern had overcome her pride and prejudice, and who could still teach me something about sacrifice and love! I smiled at the lovely woman who held my hand.
“I’ve got a long way to go,” I said.
“You’ll make it,” she replied, and I felt she understood all the things I was unable to say.
“Yes, yes,” I agreed, “I have to make it. I want to be a real Latter-day Saint. I want to make my mother proud of me.”