“Mary Wright: Why We Need Grandmothers,” Ensign, June 1978, 51–53
When I spent an afternoon visiting with Mary Musser Wright of Salt Lake City, I decided that every woman needs a grandmother—needs that wisdom, that serenity, that sense of joy, and that living testimony to the power of patience. My conversation with her added perspective to problems and clarified confusion.
She’s a spiritual woman first. In intimate conversation she tells how the promise of her patriarchal blessing—that angels will guide her actions—has been literally fulfilled. Her Mondays and Tuesdays in the temple are feasts of rejoicing, and have been shared with friends and family members no longer living on this earth. Her first resource for every problem is to “ask the Lord. He’ll tell us what to do.”
She speaks softly, smiles continuously, and radiates peace; but there is nothing ethereal or otherworldly about her spirituality. At seventeen she fell in love—at first sight—with Cleo Wright, a handsome returned missionary ten years her senior. Both of them were strong-willed individuals with diametrically different personalities, and their first years together were full of fireworks. Learning to live together would have been a full-time job by itself, but to that project they also added eleven sons, four daughters, and the profession of sheep-raising.
With the freedom and humor that come from looking back on difficult times, Sister Wright cheerfully admits, “Oh, many times I might have left my husband, but I loved him so much that I knew I’d have to come back—and wouldn’t that have been embarrassing!” So she stayed.
“Growing in love is much more wonderful than falling in love,” she says. “And I think that our love was there even before we came to this earth. I think the Lord knew two strong characters like us would never stay together without a special love.”
That love has enfolded their children, and spills over bounteously to their 102 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren (with more on the way!). It extends backwards, too—to their own parents and grandparents. Sister Wright was born and raised in the comfortably remodeled farmhouse where they live now, and where her own mother was also raised.
The dead do not forget their loved ones who are still alive, Sister Wright testifies. Once when she was too nauseated with pregnancy to eat anything, she thought longingly of her mother’s creamed chicken, a recipe that none of the daughters had learned before their mother’s death. Later that day, as she tried to stir in the proper amount of thickening and cream, her deceased grandmother came and “stood right by the stove while I was stirring, and the knowledge of what to do came to me.” On another occasion, her dead mother-in-law came in, sat down in Sister Wright’s rocking chair, and assured her that one undecided son would go on a mission. He did.
Being a family that size is a lively project in togetherness, especially as in-laws are loved and woven into its fabric. Going hunting together in Idaho and Utah is a fall tradition for up to thirty-five sons, sons-in-law, and grandsons. Family dinners for seventy-five occur on the slightest pretext. And one daughter-in-law, invited to her own parents’ home for Thanksgiving, “couldn’t stand the thought of all of you here together without me” and came over that morning for a few hours to help prepare the meal with a swarm of other daughters and daughters-in-law.
Giving birth to fifteen children is relatively easy, though, compared to the task of making a united happy family out of them. How did they do it?
Probably the major thing the Wrights did as husband and wife was to capitalize on their individual strengths. Sister Wright says, with a twinkle, “One of my blessings is that it’s very easy for me to tell people what to do.” So on a typical Sunday morning, she would “give everybody just one job to do after breakfast and the house would be tidied, the children dressed and ready for Sunday School, and dinner begun.”
Brother Wright’s gift is details, so he inspected the children at the door, washcloth and comb in hand, to be sure that ears were clean, hair parted straight, and shoes shined.
Next, they taught the children to work—and work hard. When the children came home from school, they told their mother what had happened during the day, then asked, “What’s my job?”
Since the first five children were boys, they grew up helping with housework and thought nothing of it.
When two of her girls insisted that they didn’t have time to make their beds before school, she was astonished. “Why, let’s take the clock in and see how long it takes.” With this encouragement, the girls discovered that it took only seconds—“especially when they helped each other.”
The mammoth job of clothes care and distribution was partially solved by piling the week’s clean laundry on a sheet in the middle of the dining room. Each child was responsible for his own things—and one of them was assigned to do the bathtowels and dishcloths each week. They had definite places for clothes and books—and items left lying around were impounded until a fine of money or work was paid.
Sister Wright made some chores easier by helping. “If I volunteered to wash dishes for five minutes, you never saw such scurrying around to get the table cleared.” If a child dragged his feet on a job she would ask him if he’d like to do it later, or if he could find someone to help him, or even (with a shade of warning), “Would you rather do one job now or two later?”
She reflects, “If you don’t have something for them to do, they get bored; and when they get bored, they start quarreling. I couldn’t have that.”
She helped by being appreciative. “Maybe they didn’t do a job the way I would have, but I let it go. I wouldn’t hurt their feelings by doing it over; and as they grew older, they learned that they could do it a better way—and they always wanted to.”
After work, the most important value they taught their children was sharing. “As soon as the children earned their first money,” she remembers, “their father praised them, reminded them about tithing, and then suggested, ‘Why don’t you give a little of that to your mother?’”
As a result, the children have constantly looked for ways to help their parents—and each other, too. When one brother ran into financial difficulties, an older brother called a family council, took a sheaf of their brother’s unpaid bills, and laid them on the table. Each member of the family took one or two and paid them. No fanfare, no ostentation, and no elaborate pretense of secrecy, either. That’s just the way that family works. The thirty-eighth missionary just left for the field—thanks to the help of the whole family.
As parents, one of the courses the Wrights drew on for their strength was a healthy maintenance of their own individuality. Brother Wright, an avid reader, used his spare moments with the sheep to keep up on the scientific magazines he still subscribes to and the nonfiction he devours. Sister Wright had an inflexible rule: afternoons were naptime for her as well as the children, and anyone who didn’t want to sleep still had to stay in his room and keep quiet for those two hours. “That way, I was rested and happy and excited to see the schoolchildren when they came, not exhausted and depressed to see them so soon.”
Pregnant with her ninth child, she decided she wanted to spend more time practicing the piano, so she organized the household. The school-age children washed breakfast dishes, cleaned the house, and made preliminary preparations for lunch or dinner before they left. The oldest preschooler watched the baby, and from 9:00 till 11:00 every morning, Sister Wright immersed herself in her music.
“Mothers need time for themselves,” she stresses. “You just have to get smart and figure out how to take that time; and if you can’t do it, get the Lord to help you. He will. He didn’t mean for anybody to be a slave, even to their children.” She remembers that when she had eight children in two bedrooms she sometimes found refuge in the chicken coop. “Nice clean straw and the hens clucking around,” she laughs. “It was so quiet!” She wonders now how she managed, “but you get through it,” she says serenely. “You think you can’t, but you do.”
All of their children are active in the Church. The sons have served as mission presidents, stake presidents, bishops, and counselors, while the daughters have been on teaching and executive staffs of every auxiliary in the Church. In addition to many teaching and genealogy positions, Sister Wright has been stake and ward Relief Society and Mutual president, a counselor in the Primary presidency, and secretary of the Sunday School in addition to being president of the Garden Club and even, years ago, Religion Class teacher. Religion Class, since discontinued, was a weekday organization for children in addition to Primary. “I got a lot of needlepoint done while talking on the telephone,” she remembers.
The family’s activity in the Church comes again from the strength of the two dissimilar parents reinforcing each other. If Sister Wright is “spiritual and practical,” she describes her husband as “practical and spiritual” and adds, “That’s one of the things I know is a blessing now. At first I saw him as primarily practical and I was afraid to share my spiritual feelings with him; but my, what beautiful blessings he gives me now that I ask him for them! If he’d been like me, I’m sure we would have driven some of our children away from the Church. In fact, one of our boys told me, ‘I’d never have stayed in the Church if I’d had to do everything you told me.’”
One of their teenage sons once found “other things to do” on Sunday; and sitting in the choir, seeing all of the children before her but him, Sister Wright would feel deep heartache.
Gently she told that son how she felt, then added, “If you’re doing something that is really a lot of fun, I’ll just keep on going and try not to feel too bad about it.”
He said, “Oh, Mom, I’m not doing anything that important. If you feel that bad about me not being there with the others, I’ll come.” And he’s been coming ever since.
What’s her advice for young mothers? “Exactly what we’re learning in Relief Society: we’ve been invited to walk with the Savior. Let’s do it. There’s nothing he wants more than our happiness, and we will be happy if we just ask him for help and then follow his directions. Since I’ve learned that, hardly a day goes by that the Spirit doesn’t touch me until I almost weep for joy. How can we make ourselves any happier than he can?”