“Her House in Order,” Ensign, Oct. 1979, 59
The letter took Grace totally by surprise. She had been waiting for an answer to her note, of course, but not the answer she received. When she had grasped its meaning, she sank into a chair and stared hard at the single sheet of paper.
Frank came up from the barn a few minutes later and headed into the pantry for his midmorning glass of buttermilk. When she was still sitting motionless five minutes later, he came over to her.
“What is it?”
“Frank, she … Cousin Ellen is dead.”
“Let me see.” He took the letter, read its few sentences quickly, and put it back in her hand. His face was puzzled and angry, the way he looked when things went wrong and he didn’t know how to fix them.
“Well, that’s that, then.” He made a move as if to put an arm around her, then wheeled and walked quickly out the door. Through the window, Grace could see him striding back to the outbuildings.
Grace sighed. Cousin Ellen. They had counted so much on her to … well, to tell them what to do. To help them over what they had not been able to get over by themselves.
When had it all started? Like a ball of yarn that drops from the knitter’s lap and unravels itself across the floor, the past unrolled.
The problem had started with Harold’s death, of course. She and Frank had been able to have just the one child. But somehow Harold had been all the children they had wanted rolled into one. A sturdy, jolly boy who from his toddler years had worked beside Frank, copying his ways and loving whatever Frank loved—glossy horses, rich dark soil, carpentry, fishing, the sound of bullfrogs in the rainy dusk—that was Harold. But he had also turned with open hands to his mother. And from his generous, boyish hands came a stream of joys for her—a fistful of violets, specks of dirt still clinging, or a crayon portrait with “I Love You Ma” sprawling across it, or a string of shining wet fish and the request, “Fix ’em up your special way, okay, ma?”
One day Harold had been alive as only a twelve-year-old is alive. The next morning he was ill. By noon he was much worse, and by evening the local doctor had pronounced him dead. Infantile paralysis—polio.
They had buried Harold in the small grove by the creek, and from that day, though Grace had visited the grave from time to time with bunches of violets and wild flowers, Frank had never been able to bring himself to enter the grove again.
In the months that followed, both of them, sometimes together and sometimes separately, had talked with ministers in the town. Grace had sought out the minister of the small church they had attended as a family. Frank, late one night, knocked at the door of the preacher his parents had known when he himself was a boy. These, and the others they found, were good men, kind men. They spent much time with the grieved couple. They spoke of “living on in the memory of loved ones.” They spoke of the “great unknown.” They spoke of “the mysterious ways of God.”
Somehow, none of their words reached inside, where the anguish was. And then, gradually, Frank and Grace had stopped going to church. They spoke very little about their feelings. Just once Grace had said, “I feel like something inside me has folded up, folded smaller and smaller until there’s nothing there, almost.”
Frank had been silent a moment. Then, “With me, it’s like when the creek freezes over. Everything seems cold and hard, numblike.” After that, they never talked about it again.
So the years had passed. The painful memory of Harold was still with them, and they could not live around it, put it behind them, the way other people managed to do. They seldom saw friends any more, did very little except work on the farm, which they rarely left. Season flowed into season, the ice came and went on the creek beside the grove, and streaks of gray appeared in Grace’s hair, and then in Frank’s.
Then one spring, housecleaning high in the attic, Grace had tackled a corner she had left untouched for long years. Much of the material stored were mementos of Harold—clothes, toys, curling photographs, schoolwork—and in the farthest corner, boxes from Grace’s own youth and early married years. That’s when she had come across the letter from Ellen, and the book.
Ellen was a cousin, actually a cousin once removed, and a number of years older than Grace. But from her earliest days Grace had admired this tall, pretty young woman, who was so jolly and friendly, even to little girls, when she came visiting with her family. She had spent hours hunting wild flowers with Grace, or teaching her the new dance steps, or showing her new ways to arrange her hair. Then one summer she had married and gone far away, to the West. Grace never expected to hear from her again.
But on Grace’s sixteenth birthday, a small package had come from the faraway West, with a letter and a picture and a book. The picture showed a happy, lovely Ellen, with a baby in her arms. The letter rhapsodized over Ellen’s husband and their new little baby girl, invited Grace to visit them should she ever come West, and then, in a last line, said, “Here is a book I think you should have. It is very precious to me, because I know the things it teaches are true. You can count on that, Gracie, I promise you.”
The book hadn’t seemed very precious, just a plain black book with no pictures. It was a history book, and rather dull to a girl caught up in the excitement of her sixteenth birthday.
But then she had come upon it again, and when she had pulled it from its place in the trunk alongside Harold’s things, it struck her somewhat differently. It seemed to be more a book about religion than history, and it was clearly a Christian book, because it taught so powerfully about Christ. She paged through it for several days, reading bits here and there. Then one evening, while she was skimming through it restlessly, her eyes dropped to the bottom of a column, and her heart began to race. She read the words again and again:
“Now, there is a death which is called a temporal death; and the death of Christ shall loose the bands of this temporal death, that all shall be raised from this temporal death.
“The spirit and body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we are now at this time; and we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now, and have a bright recollection of all our guilt.” (Alma 11:42–43.)
“Reunited again in its perfect form!” A picture of Harold came unbidden to her mind, after years of fighting to keep memories out. She saw him as he had been on an August day, the year before he died. He was sliding down a tall haystack, bouncing and whooping, his head up high and his arms out wide, embracing the whole world.
Other lines swam before her eyes: “And even there shall not so much as a hair of their heads be lost; but every thing shall be restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body” (Alma 11:44).
“Not so much as a hair of their heads!” Grace had run up to the attic, scrabbled for an old baby book, now fuzzy with dust, and cracked open the dry pages. There, in a tiny envelope, was a lock of red-gold hair, brightly precious against the pale page. Suddenly, the little strands blurred before her eyes.
Well, that was the beginning. Grace continued to read the book, here and there, as the months passed. As it became more familiar, she found courage to share the beautiful promise with Frank. He hadn’t said much; that wasn’t Frank’s way. But he began picking up the book from time to time.
One night, after reading in the book about prayer, she had begun praying again. It was hard at first, but good, too. A month later, at bedtime, she had asked Frank if he would pray out loud with her.
“No. But … listen, you go ahead, if you want to.” His voice had been more encouraging than his words, and she had prayed out loud for the first time in their married lives. After that, it became a habit for them to kneel each night. Some weeks later, as she had opened her mouth to begin the prayer, Frank had said quickly, gruffly, “All right, don’t you think you can give somebody else a chance for a change?” From then on, they had taken turns.
Something in them began to melt. That spring Grace noticed the wild flowers again, for the first time in years. Frank took to whistling around the place once more.
Other people, Grace guessed, would have done something more, would have acted sooner. But the years had made it hard for them to reach out. It was a long time, a very long time, before Grace decided to do something.
Now she sat in the kitchen rocker, the letter in her hand, watching the afternoon pass, and scolding herself.
“You waited too long. Why did you wait so long? You had all those years. Now it’s too late!” She rocked in anguish.
What Grace had done was simple enough, yet it had occurred to her only a few weeks before. Of course, ever since finding the book, she had wondered about Cousin Ellen. Where was she? How was she? What part did this book play in her life? “I know the things it teaches are true. You can count on that, Gracie, I promise you.”
Yet Grace had made no attempt to contact her cousin until recent weeks when the yearning inside, the need to understand and see the pieces put together, had surged stronger and stronger. At last she had written to the old address on Cousin Ellen’s letter, printed an urgent “Please Forward” on the envelope, and set it off with a prayer.
And it had come to this. She read again the short letter in her lap.
“Dear Mrs. Rawson, “I came across your letter amongst Ellen’s things. Of course I did not read it. But I thought you’d want to know that my dear Ellen passed on ten days ago. It is mighty lonely without her. But I count on seeing her again before too long, being a good deal older than her myself. She was a fine woman, and she left her house in order. My best regards to you and yours.”
It was signed in a clear, though wavering, hand: “Albert T. Beckstrom.”
Ellen was gone, and had not been able to send to them the message they had so earnestly wanted. Grace leaned her head on her hand and continued to stare out the window. The good Lord had taken Cousin Ellen, just as he had taken their son. Yet in her heart there was no bitterness, as there had been years before. Their nightly prayers had slowly, gradually, sweetened that. But still she sat, waiting. “She left her house in order.” An odd phrase, yet it seemed to fit for Ellen. Grace knew Ellen would have answered her letter, given her the information, if she had been able to. But Grace had just been too late. Still, after all that time, all that pain, it seemed impossible that no answer would come.
From the kitchen window, as she watched the autumn shadows lengthen, she saw that there were some people on the road below. Custom had made Grace and Frank reluctant to welcome salesmen, strangers, even friendly townspeople. Yet no irritation or reluctance rose within her now. She stared intently as the two men approached. They were quite young, she noticed, dressed neatly in dark suits, and they were striding purposefully towards the house.
In a few moments they stood at her door and knocked.