The Fire Side

by Angela Hallstrom

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That night I came out of the cold, drawn by something warmer than fire.

I don’t look anything like my mother. I am short, muscular, and athletic, with my father’s dark eyes and curly hair. She is tall and thin, with long wispy hair, full lips and round eyes. She is the type of woman with color-coordinated fingernail polish. I never wear fingernail polish. First thing, the smell gives me a headache. Second thing, I also have my father’s hands: short and stubby and masculine. Polish just makes them look silly and fake, and I feel like I’m my 12-year-old sister, who tries way too hard to look chic by wearing blue eyeshadow. Besides, my left hand got slammed in a van door when I was 12 years old—at my first Mutual activity, in fact—and now my ring finger and my pinkie are permanently crooked. So, as you can see, fingernail polish has never really been my thing. Neither have Mutual activities.

Today I tried to slip out the door and get to school before my mom could catch me. I knew if she caught me, she’d make me go. And going to the annual youth canyon fireside was the last thing I wanted to do. Even though my mom says she only wants what’s best for me, and honestly thinks she’s trying to help, she just doesn’t understand how hard these things can be. Testimony meetings are the hardest, everyone breathing and shuffling around in silence, wondering what, if anything, I’ll say.

My mom was called to be the Young Women president in my ward last year, so when I skip meetings, it’s pretty glaringly obvious. When I was 13, I could get away with not going to Mutual because I would just conveniently forget to tell my mom about things, but now she knows everything. Everything. And so does everybody else. I can imagine the Young Women presidency discussing the less-active girls, all of them avoiding my mom’s eyes when they come to my name. I know that people talk. I also know that many of them think I don’t care what they say, but I do.

So today I walked extra carefully down the stairs, skipping the one that squeaked. And right as I put my hand on the doorknob and almost felt safe enough to breathe, I sensed her behind me.

“Leslie,” she said, and she put her hand on my shoulder. She was wearing dusty rose polish, and I could still smell it fresh on her fingertips.

“Leslie, honey, I really feel you should come tonight. You don’t want to miss this. I promise.”

I shouldn’t have glanced up at her face, because that’s when I saw the look. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen it before. I see it almost every Sunday when I decide I want to stay asleep, those weekend nights when I come in late and she is wrapped up in the old blue blanket, waiting. I see it all the time. But at that moment, I looked up at my mom, and it struck me hard that she was a little bit scared. Of me. Of what I’d say. And you know, most teenagers like me would have thought they were powerful, making their moms look that way, but I didn’t like it at all. It must have really thrown me off, because somehow my mouth popped open and the words, “Okay. Okay, I’ll go,” came out.

I kicked myself throughout the school day for saying okay because now I was stuck—really stuck. I kept seeing the relief on my mom’s face when I said okay. I knew that I wasn’t terrible enough to change my mind on her, and the knowledge that I had gotten myself into something that I couldn’t get out of sat and simmered at the bottom of my stomach all day long.

As my mom and I drove to the activity, she hummed to the radio and tapped her fingernails on the steering wheel. She kept looking at me and smiling, just barely, like she was excited but didn’t want to be too excited in case she’d scare me off. It was a look I remember from when I was a little girl and we went camping and she got a squirrel to eat out of her hand. She talked to it softly, smiled quietly, and tried to stay as still as possible so she wouldn’t break the spell. I remember the squirrel snatched the food from my mother’s hand but didn’t run away. His curious eyes were fixed on hers as they stood inches apart, his hands tucked up against his chest. I remember reaching out my hand to pet him, but when I moved, he scampered away. “They have to trust you quite a bit before you can touch them,” I remember my mother telling me.

When we stepped out of the car onto the gravel parking lot of the campsite, I stuffed my hands deep into my pockets and studied the ground, avoiding all the eyes that I knew would be staring my direction. Then I heard my name being called. “Leslie!” “Hey, Leslie, it’s great you came!” “Leslie, long time no see!” Six or seven girls came toward me, waving their arms, smiling and squinting into the dusky sunlight. I remembered all the lessons—fellowship the less active. Let them know you care. When they came close enough for me to see their eyes, I searched them for the insincerity I knew I would find. Maybe it was the setting sun casting shadows across their faces, but I studied their expressions, and their smiles seemed genuine.

Megan and Natalie grabbed me by the wrists, pulled me over to the refreshment table, and started loading me up with chips and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and orange slush. They were my friends once, before I hit my “stage.” (That’s what my dad calls it, my stage.) As a matter of fact, they were the ones that took care of my hand when I slammed it in the van door. I still saw them at school, and they always said hi, but I was never sure if they meant it or if I was just another “service project.” I wasn’t sure now, either. In many ways, I wanted to sense they were being false. I remembered the countless Sunday mornings complaining to my father, “I know they don’t like me, Dad. Nobody likes me there.” I had used that justification so often that I had begun to believe it. But here they were, talking with me, laughing, like there wasn’t one thing wrong with me and never had been. Amazingly, I found myself laughing right along with their jokes, almost feeling like I belonged, a little bit afraid that I’d have to come up with a new excuse for my dad on Sunday mornings.

Night fell quickly, and the leaders managed to get everyone in a circle around the fire. Already huge and bright and hot, the flames cast themselves on everyone’s faces, lighting up their eyes. Shining in the glow of the fire, our faces seemed transformed, like we weren’t the teenagers who just 20 minutes before had been getting in water fights and toilet papering the bishop’s car. The dark and silent forest surrounded the circle of people, and all we could see or hear was each other.

For the first few minutes everyone was quiet and shifted in their seats, just like I’d expected. I sat as still as possible, staring at my hands in my lap, listening as the fire popped and crackled and everyone breathed. Then I heard a rustle, and someone stood up. I didn’t look to see who it was. But once I heard his voice, I knew. It was John Caldwell, the star football player. Big John, scary John, John who had been gone all summer so he could work out some problems and had just come home.

He cleared his throat. I could hear his feet shuffle nervously in the dirt.

“I don’t know where to start,” he said. “I’m not too good with words, really. But I have something to say that you all need to hear.

“The last year of my life has been really rough. One night I felt really bad. So bad I didn’t think I wanted to see the morning. That feeling scared me a lot, so much that I did something I hadn’t done since I was a little kid. I got down on my knees.

“I was scared to pray, almost too scared to even try. I wasn’t sure if there was a God, and if there was, I didn’t know why He’d want to listen to me. But I needed to do something. Anything.”

I lifted up my head and looked up at John. He was staring straight out into the fire, and his face was lit up and shining. For the first time, I looked at his eyes. Dancing and sparkling, they reflected the light from the fire, and he looked more alive than I had ever seen him.

“I don’t know how to explain it, really,” he said. “I don’t know what to say except that it felt like a blanket. I didn’t even have to try to say the right words. I just got down on my knees, and I could feel Him, and He was all around me. Right then, I knew everything would be okay. Somebody loved me, even if I didn’t even like myself, and for the first time I felt like I had the strength to go on.

“Now I want to make something out of my life. I still have a long way to go, but there’s one thing I can say without a doubt. I know there’s a God. He watched over me that night, and He’s been with me ever since.”

John sat down and it was quiet again, but not the quiet like before. It was something more than silence. It was a hush. I felt a peacefulness surround my body that I hadn’t felt for a long time—a peacefulness I had forgotten how much I missed.

The rest of the night passed, and people stood up and bore their testimonies. I couldn’t stop thinking about John. I kept seeing the light in his eyes, the way he looked so powerful and so sure when he said, “I know there’s a God.” I was shocked to see what I had been trying to find for so long—real faith and conviction—embodied by a humble football star who learned how to pray.

At the end of the meeting, we all sang “I Need Thee Every Hour.” I even remembered the words. As I sang, I looked across the fire at my mom. She looked around the circle at everyone, smiling, and I sensed how much she loved us all. I was glad for the chance just to watch her, to see her as a person on the outside would. She was so beautiful, and so happy, and for the first time in much too long, I was proud to claim her as my mother.

The drive home was dark and quiet. There was no radio. No sound, really, but the hum of the tires along the pavement. Then we turned up the hill that led to our street. I saw the light coming from the windows of my home, and I knew I had to say it. I hadn’t felt the love and peace and power of that night for so long, and I didn’t want to let those feelings go again. By saying four simple words I’d kept locked inside me for so long, I knew I’d soon find myself on the path I never should have left.

I laid my hand on top of my mother’s.

“I love you, Mom,” I said.

She was silent for a moment, and then I saw her smile.

“I know,” she said. Then she took my hand in hers and squeezed it, tight, and neither one of us tried to let go.

Illustrated by Shauna Mooney Kawasaki