“Pioneer Lady,” Ensign, Feb. 1981, 58–59
Every Monday morning when I was a child, mama loaded us children, along with washtubs, washboard, lye soap, and a lunch, on donkeys, and away we would go—six or seven miles from the ranch—to a stream where our washing was done. There mama cut wood for a fire, set up her blackened tub, and carried water to fill it. When the water was hot, she rubbed the laundry clean, rinsed it in the stream, and spread it on the bushes to dry.
While it was drying, we ate delicious meat and biscuit sandwiches and cookies with jelly filling. We drank cold milk from a bucket kept in the stream. Then mama spread a quilt in the shade for us to rest while she gathered grapes for jelly or involved herself in other seasonal activities. When the clothes were dry, she reloaded us and got us home in time to prepare supper before dark—but only after she had fed and watered the chickens and pups and pigs, gathered the eggs, and helped with the feeding and milking of cows and goats. After dinner she washed the dishes, put us children to bed, and finally could sit and rest, usually with a basket of mending or sewing. Usually she read Church books to daddy, and we would lie there and listen as they discussed the meaning of certain passages.
Mama was not a large or robust woman; she was a gentle, meek little woman, always a lady and always a peacemaker. “Sister, a lady sits up straight in her chair, with her knees together and her skirts pulled down,” she said to me when I was a tiny girl. Or “A lady never fills her mouth too full, and she chews with her mouth closed.” And on and on until I knew that my mother was a lady and she expected me to be one also.
Yet she was never the sit-on-a-sofa type. A companion who labored alongside her husband, she even found time for laughter as she worked. Like the time the goats were giving birth and a heavy storm struck. Herded into a large corral, the mother goats were having their babies everywhere in the rain and mud, where they struggled to rise but only mired deeper and soon were in danger of drowning. As mama helped the goats who were having difficulty giving birth and led the new babies to shelter, her long skirts became soaked and muddy, draining her slim strength. Finally she struggled to the log house and, for the first time in her life, put on a pair of men’s trousers and a shirt. The men roared with laughter at her ragamuffin appearance, and they often teased her about it afterward.
One time a young chicken, trying for a drink, fell into a tub of water and almost drowned before mama fished him out and gave him to me for my very own. I carried him everywhere, until the poor thing almost forgot how to walk, but as he grew stronger he escaped me and ventured out into the yard. One day a hawk swooped down and grabbed him, rising into the sky as I screamed for help. Mama ran to the door with a .22 rifle and fired a quick shot at the hawk. My chicken came tumbling down, frightened and bruised, but safe. Then I saw mama clinging to the door, blood running down her face. Something had gone wrong when the gun fired, and a piece of metal hit her between the eyes. “Mama, mama, please don’t die,” I screamed. “Fiddlesticks,” she said consolingly, “a lady never dies just because she is shot.” And then she fainted. A small white scar between her eyes for the rest of her life was mute evidence of the event.
Mama was wise, too. From her Indian mother she had learned to take time to be alone and meditate. At any time and for no special reason that we could see, she would admonish us to be good for a while, and then she would leave, maybe for an hour. She would return with no explanations to anyone, but with renewed energy and happiness. Once I begged to go along, and we walked to a grove of trees, hidden from the house by a small hill. Mama sat down against a tree and closed her eyes. I didn’t ask questions; I sensed it was time to be quiet, but I sat near her, wondering what was coming next. I pulled a grass stem and chewed on it, turned over a few rocks to see what was under them, and fidgeted as a child will. When I felt her eyes on me, I asked, “Mama, why are we here?” She frowned and replied, “Sh-sh. Be quiet and listen.”
I didn’t know what we were listening for, but I closed my eyes as she did, and listened. I heard the goats and cattle in the distance and the voices of the men at work, the hens cackling as they announced new eggs, and a restless dog barking. Nearer I heard the hum of a bee, the grass stirring as a thin breeze whispered by, and the leaves rustling in the trees. I don’t know whether mama prayed, but she taught me that day to let nature ease my soul, and to experience God’s peace descending on us.
After that, mama would sing louder than ever at her work, or—horrors—even whistle. Often I caught daddy’s eyes on her, filled with pride and love. Her favorite hymn was “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” and the choir sang it at her funeral. As I sat with tears streaming down my face, my faith was reaffirmed in a life hereafter, and I lost some of my fear of death. If my timid, gentle little mama could face death unafraid, then so could I.