When England was mostly farm country, part of the autumn celebration each year was the making of corn dollies. Young men often braided the straw favors for their sweethearts. But corn dollies were also a symbol of gratitude to God that a year of work had been rewarded with a bounteous harvest.
Days start early for 16-year-old Jenny Flinn, who lives in the little town of Broadway, near Ilminster in Somerset, England. There’s lots of work to be done, animals to feed, and cows to milk—at least an hour of chores, all told—before she leaves for school.
But there are also rewards.
The morning air is brisk, and Jenny breathes deeply and feels renewed. The sun is warm, more tan than yellow as it chases fog away. The fields are damp, but the dew seems to wrap each plant in crystal. The animals, already awake and eager for attention, seem happy just to be alive. Jenny wouldn’t say it out loud, but living here is like living a prayer of thanksgiving. Each day she finds herself full of gratitude. Yes, there’s work to be done. But work is life, and life is good.
Jenny isn’t the only Flinn up early. By 6:15, her 17-year-old brother Peter is already off, pumping his bicycle down the lane to do his paper round, which covers most of the homes in Broadway. Peter isn’t particularly keen about getting up at dawn, at least not until he gets going. But by the time he’s halfway into town, he knows the joy of the morning too—the feeling that the day is his to conquer, his own marvelous opportunity to see things through.
Peter’s mind is on work this day, too. As he folds each Daily Telegraph and slips it into a door slot, he’s thinking of all the jobs he’s done, from egg selling to fruit picking, to put money away for his mission. He’s thinking how that mission is getting closer all the time. Peter might not say it out loud, either, but he’s glad he’s learned to work. It’s a skill that will help him as a missionary. And it feels good to start the day by getting something done.
Jenny and Peter are the oldest of Bruce and Margaret Flinn’s children. The others are Lindsey, 14; Neal, 12; Elizabeth (“Lizzy”), 9; and Rachel, 5. To visit the Flinns on their six-acre smallholding (family farm) is to see not two, but eight people who know a lot about working. To visit them is also to see much of what can make a family succeed.
“We moved here as much for the children’s sake as because of our own feelings,” explains Brother Flinn, who works full-time as a seminary teacher supervisor in addition to maintaining the smallholding. “Because of my work, I travel a lot. It would probably be easier to live in town.”
“But if we moved,” Sister Flinn says, “our quality of life would drop. We couldn’t keep all the livestock. We wouldn’t learn all the skills about being self-reliant. We might not know as much about how to love work.”
How to love work?
“We believe in the principle of work,” Brother Flinn explains. “We believe it’s a spiritual principle. It’s not just obtaining the end result; it’s the actual doing of the work. It’s good for you.”
And how does that fly with the children?
“When we complain about having to do things,” Lindsey says, “Mum will say, ‘Fine. Shall we move to the town?’ None of us has ever said yes.”
“There are pros and cons to everything,” Peter says. “But I’d say I’m fine here.”
Now all this talk about willingness to work may have you thinking the Flinns are ready to be translated. Far from it. They’re a typical family with teasing and quarrels and sometimes tears, just like any family. But they’ve learned to work at being a family, too.
“What do we gain from being together?” Jenny asks. “Patience, mainly.”
Does she ever think about being with her family forever?
“When they’re not annoying me,” she teases.
Her ability to laugh is typical of the entire family. They enjoy jousting verbally, but also know they have to do it with love so that feelings aren’t hurt.
“Everybody’s got their own personality,” Lindsey says. “We’ve learned to adjust for that. Besides, if you say anything negative, Dad makes you say two things positive on top of that.”
Other challenges? “One of the biggest ones is juggling time,” Jenny says. “I have to care for the animals twice a day, so that’s an hour each morning and evening, and in between I’ve got school. And there’s homework, two hours every night, and seminary is home study, so I have to find time for that, too.”
Church activity can be a struggle because of isolation. “We’re 50 miles from the stake center,” Peter explains. “There’s lots of traveling involved, and not everyone has a car. There’s only two of us in my quorum, and the other one lives 40 miles away. We make an effort to see if he wants to come out, but there are various problems, like parents who don’t want to bring him in because it’s out of the way. Distance is the major drawback.”
And in school, being a Latter-day Saint doesn’t mean that there isn’t temptation all around. Twelve-year-old Neal says a survey showed there were only two people in his entire class who hadn’t used alcohol. Jenny says there are “quite a few” girls in her year that have become pregnant.
What’s the counterbalance?
“We have good lessons at church,” Jenny says. “We have good lessons at seminary. And good home evenings at home. We live for Fridays (Mutual night) and Sundays to be with Church kids and strengthen each other.” And, of course, there are scriptures, and prayer, and family support.
“If I have a really major problem, I know I can turn to my family,” Lindsey says. “I suppose I’d call them my best friends. If I didn’t have them to turn to, where would I go?”
That’s an attitude Jenny exemplified when, even though she was sitting exams (taking finals) and needed to study, she walked down to the school to help Rachel. “Mum and Dad were late getting home,” Jenny said matter-of-factly. “I knew Rachael would panic if no one showed up.”
That’s part of being a family, part of what the Flinns learn every day.
Step into the Flinns’ family room, and you’ll notice one wall is adorned with corn dollies, the kind actually made from wheat.
“You have to braid the stalk while it’s flexible,” Sister Flinn explains. “When it gets old, it’s brittle and won’t bend.” It’s an analogy that isn’t lost on her.
“That’s what we’re doing as a family,” she says. “We live the gospel. We learn about family love. And the children braid them both into their lives.”