Life in the Backseat (A Mormon Girlhood)
Siblings in THE BACKSEAT
When I sat in the backseat with my brothers I never got bored. I had one brother—the oldest of our siblings—to tease me, and the other—closest in age, with whom I could pick really good fights. Up front things were calm enough, but nothing ever happened. I couldn’t see out up front, either, because I was between my parents on either side—and they were both tall.
When my baby sister came along, she always had to be in the front seat—which I didn’t envy. I missed her up there though; there was such a barrier between the front and back seats. In the front it was boring. In the back it was hard to behave.
But sometimes I got tired of sitting between my brothers. I never got an outside seat, because I was the youngest, and I had to be a sort of creme-filling between boys. I didn’t have a place against which to lean to sleep, which really wasn’t an issue, because I wasn’t a good sleeper—and I never slept in a car—ever.
On very long trips—trips to see my grandparents in Texas—my mother would take my sister into the backseat, and my brothers would sleep on the floor, and I would get the front seat--to keep my father awake. I had to listen to old country music stations, the only kind my father liked. And closer to Texas we listened to the Spanish stations. My father wasn’t a sleeper either, so he drove through the night most of the time. It worked out well for the sleepers, and I usually caught up on sleep once we got wherever we were going.
Late at night I watched my dad. If I saw his head start to drop I called out a warning to him, softly, so as not to awaken the others in the backseat. But, I need not have feared that; the rest of the family were sleepers.
I used to think, on those long trips, about how unfair life was. The sleepers had it made. They could sleep anywhere, and then when we got to wherever we were going they were ready for a good time. And I, the non-sleeper, would have to go right to bed and stay there a good, long time in order to get back to normal—whatever normal was. For a non-sleeper, it was hard to tell. My mother used to say with a deep sigh, “Oh, honey, if you would only SLEEP.” It’s not that I didn’t try. If closing eyes could do anything I would have slept many hours in the car. But nothing I did would help. I wasn’t a sleeper. And I used to feel that if I had been a sleeper, my life would have been entirely different.
Sometimes my father teased me by closing one eye—and I would say, “Dad, don’t fall asleep!” Then he would chuckle. The next time he did it I would be just as frightened; it was only when I grew much older that I realized he was teasing. I thought he was amused because he was an adult and found humor in odd things.
My favorite place in the car was in the very back. In the 1950s cars there were broad back window wells upon which a small child—and I was always undersized—could lay. Back there I could see the stars coming out and imagine I was in an entirely different world.
Back there it was formidably hot during a summer day. But in the winter, when the sun came through the back window it was warm and comfortable in the back window. And when it rained it was delicious.
In one of our cars, there was a place where the window opened close to the back well—or in the back window, and I could smell the night. Freshly cut alfalfa on the night air was a comforting smell wherever we were going. A home smell. A grandpa’s barn smell. I would close my eyes and be back home.
By the early 60s cars with large back window wells began to disappear. Or at least we never had one again. We got a station wagon, and the backseat would lay down at night. The sleepers would all go back there, and I would be in front again. Riding shotgun. Dad’s right-hand girl. I was part of the brotherhood of all-night radio station operators, truck drivers, and other night workers. Someone had to take care of the sleepers.
MIA In the back of a convertible--
It was in the summer of 1966. My brother who was just older than I, and who was usually my good friend, was there with me. There were several other people, including the new, very young and unmarried boys’ leader, and a boy from some other place in Oklahoma who was visiting his grandparents who lived in our ward. It was a small group; our ward was tiny.
“We’re going to Oklahoma City tonight,” the youth leader announced.
My brother’s eyes went wide. The leader had a new sports car, and he was hoping—.
My brother managed to ride in the front seat of the convertible all the way to Oklahoma City. I rode in the other car.
This was the 60s when a trip to Oklahoma City was an event. But I don’t remember the event. I do remember that the people who drove the other car, the one in which I had gone to Oklahoma City, had to return early, and it was decided that I should remain with my brother. So, the young unmarried youth leader, the visiting grandson, and I were left to ride back together.
I asked my brother if he would ride in back with me. And he shook his head. He wanted to ride in the front seat with the youth leader. That left me, and a boy, in the back.
A boy. My age. 13. Yikes! Riding in the back of a sports car, at night, going home from Oklahoma City. It was too much. The car was tiny, so in spite of myself I was too close to the strange boy for comfort.
My brother and the youth leader were in another world. A world of cars.
“How much power does it have?” I heard my brother ask. And the leader displayed the car’s abilities as we sped down the freeway home.
The boy turned. He was wearing braces. Oh my!!! A boy in braces. I had them myself. My face burned. Why did this have to happen—that we both had braces? Did this mean something? I was humiliated. I did not want to be in the backseat with this boy who had braces. In my imaginations I thought that someday I might ride in the backseat with someone. But he was always fuzzy, always dramatically handsome, unconcerned; he would not EVER be wearing braces. There was something vulnerable about a boy in braces. A boy in braces had lain back in a chair in some orthodontist’s office and endured hours of pain—without ever once whipping out his gun. He had handed over his horse, taken off his boots and submitted to the humiliation of braces; he couldn’t be my knight in shining armor or even in blue jeans.
I mumbled something just to be polite, but I didn’t want to be too polite. When I met “the one” he would have crooked teeth. When I met “the one” he would be driving, not sitting in the back seat. When I met the one he would ride up on a horse, and he would have crooked teeth, and he would pull me up to sit behind him, and off we would ride—into the sunset.
But, though he did wear braces, he was a decent boy. Decent enough to stop talking to me and look out at the sun setting in the West. Decent enough to let me enjoy the wind blowing through my hair all to myself. The leader was going too fast, but it had to be o.k.—I guessed; this was MIA.
The radio in the front was on; a gravelly voice was singing: “Hot Town Summer in the City, Back of My Neck Getting’ Dirt and Gritty—Cool Town Looking for a Kitty; Doesn’t Seem to be a Shadow in the City . . . “
And I was—in my mind—much, much older . . .
Driving in the front, beside my knight with crooked teeth—off across the Oklahoma prairie.
IN THE BACK OF GRANDPA’S PICKUP
We were in Idaho for a few weeks at the end of summer. Driving up into the mountains, we children and my dad were crowded into the back of grandpa’s pick-up. My grandmother and grandfather and mother were driving. Dad would always sit, sensibly, towards the back of the pick-up, but we children would stand above the cab—the wind blowing our hair, our mouths open—loving the speed. Grandpa asked us to look for jackrabbits, and when we saw one, we would pound on the roof of the cab. I didn’t like to see the jackrabbits’ being killed, but I loved to pound on the cab. Later, when I was old enough to ride in front—when I was alone with grandpa and grandma I felt the privilege of being able to ride in front. But I missed the back in the carefree days before my brothers left for missions and married—when we were young and ignorant and innocent—and the greatest joy in life was anticipating the fresh bread and cheese and milk and bottled fruit waiting for us at grandma’s table at the end of a long day in the mountains. As we got older, I remember that my older brother began to sit towards the back of the pick-up; it was no longer a thrill for him to stand, the wind pulling the skin of his face back—tight. I remember when I began to sit toward the back of the pick-up, when I realized that my grandparents were simple, rural people, and that some of my friends “back home” would laugh at them. I was troubled. Grandpa and grandma were beyond that surely. But I lay awake at night and wondered about it. That was the end of my innocence—or at least the beginning of the end. Later I remember writing letters to my grandparents from Japan—and how carefully I worded my sentences so they would understand what it was like in that faraway land. I went through years of feeling that I had outgrown my simple grandparents who worked very hard and spoke little and were satisfied with few material possessions. It was only when I became much, much older that I realized they were the wisest of all and wanted, greedily, to remember everything they had ever told me—wished I had not forgotten.
GETTING OUT OF THE BACKSEAT
Bobbi Jo called and asked me if I wanted to go to the college football game that night. I asked my mother, and she agreed. Bobbi Jo’s father worked with my dad at the college; she was a nice girl; we walked to school together every day. I was barely 14, new in town, new at school. New in the state of Nebraska.
My parents were going to go to the game also; they were taking my little sister. I walked down the street to Bobbi’s house; when I showed up her parents were getting ready to leave to go somewhere. Bobbi was on the phone; she put her hand over the receiver and called out in my direction, “I’m waiting to hear if some of the other girls want to go with us.” I assumed we would be walking. I sat down in the chair Mrs. Streumpler waved me towards; the Streumplers had a nicer house than ours; it was decorated.
Bobbi and I waited there a while at her house. “When are they coming?” I asked. “Oh, in a while”, she answered vaguely. A few minutes later a strange car drove up; there was a boy at the wheel.
I didn’t say anything, but I felt uncomfortable; I wasn’t supposed to ride around with boys.
I looked questioningly at Bobbi; she tossed her head, “These are just friends of mine”.
I did not want to over-react. It was strange enough being a Mormon—the only Mormon in my grade.
So I got into the backseat of the car. I was sitting next to Bobbi; there was safety in that.
We were going to the game at last. Once there I would be in neutral territory; I could either stay with Bobbi or go look for my parents.
We drove down to the end of the street, and where we should have turned right to go up to the stadium, we turned left. I looked at Bobbi. She didn’t look at me. I waited; maybe we were picking up some more kids. We were already crowded, but we could have packed in one or two more.
We did stop at someone else’s house—another girl came out and was pressed into the back. Another boy ended up in the front.
We drove around a while. I spoke up; “It’s almost time for the game.” Bobbi gave me a look, a tight-lipped look that said, “Don’t say anything more.”
So I didn’t. We drove across town and towards the edge of town. The driver stopped at the liquor store. My heart began to pound. What were we doing here? All the girls were silent, still. I looked at Bobbi, but she looked straight ahead.
The driver got out and went into the store, then came back out, “Our bootlegger’s not here yet; we’ll drive around a while longer”.
All the other kids were absolutely quiet.
Back across town, going farther and farther away from the stadium. It was dark now. We crossed one intersection, another.
The boy in the middle turned to the driver; “Do you think he’s there yet?” The girls in the back were motionless.
“Please let me out.”
It was a voice from somewhere out in the unexplored universe. It was I. I was holding onto the handle of the car door. I was unlocking the door. I was shaking all over.
Bobbi turned, “Be quiet!” she whispered fiercely.
“I want to go to the game.”
Someone else muttered, “She wants to go to the game.”
Bobbi narrowed her eyes and spoke in a voice no one else could hear, “If you leave now, I’ll never walk to school with you again.”
Bobbi was popular; she had introduced me to all the right kids.
I felt a little dizzy.
“Please?” my voice was soft as I looked towards the back of boy at the wheel.
The driver turned around and looked at me. Bobbi had said he was one of the best football players Assumption Academy (the Catholic high school in town) had. He was nice-looking.
He stopped the car. I opened the door. It was late September and cold in the Nebraska night. The car drove on ahead a ways and then turned around, going back in the direction of the liquor store. I was in a bad part of town. I had a long walk ahead of me. But I was no longer shaking. I looked up at the stars; the sky had never looked so immense. I felt completely, completely alone. And so much at peace.
My mother IN the BACKSEAT
Coming from Texas to attend BYU my mother visited first with her brother and sister-in-law in Idaho. They lived in the same ward as my dad-—who had just returned from Japan after World War II.
Dad had Japanese silk. It was WHITE Japanese silk given to him by a silk factory owner whom he had helped in Japan. And some of the girls in the ward were giddy about him. My dad was not bad looking—so my mother said. And my mother learned from some other girls in the ward that my father intended to have his wife wear that silk to get married.
My mother was very aware of her own worth. She despised girls who chased men. And when she heard about the silk she determined never to let anyone catch her giving my father a second glance—
My mother was to have caught a bus to get to Salt Lake where her sister would drive her the rest of the way to BYU. But when my father and his friend heard about that, they invited her to ride to BYU with them.
In the backseat.
When my father and his friend stopped in Salt Lake to get gasoline, my mother got out and left her handbag in the back.
My father saw an opportunity.
He took the handbag, bought a cigar and a can opener with a beer label on it, and put them back into the bag.
When they dropped my mother off at her sister’s house my father showed great concern about the purse having been left.
“Perhaps someone took money out of it,” he told her, a worried look on his face.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine; the purse was there when I got back to the car”, my mother said, eager to hurry away.
“Oh, please, I would feel so terrible if you lost anything”, my father urged.
So my mother opened the purse.
My father’s friend laughed. My aunt smiled. My mother first blushed with humiliation, then was indignant.
Slamming the door on my father and his friend she told her sister, “If I never see that young man again it will be fine with me!”
But that didn’t happen.
In Front of the Congregation
My mother showed me how to lead the singing in my fifteenth year. Four four time was down on the first beat of the measure, across, over, and up at a slant—then do it all over again. Three four was a triangle with a loop in the lower left-hand (from the conductor’s point of view) corner—you sort of swayed the upward line a little. Two two time could be used, according to Susan, who was our branch pianist, for six eight; it was easier for the pianist that way. And then of course two two was used for two two time and two four time—a very efficient pattern!
I practiced in front of the mirror. I practiced in front of my family. I practiced in my mind at school, pounding out the rhythm to various hymns with my teeth. As I walked to school I walked to certain beats, seeing the pattern before me in the air.
I began in Sunday School—leading my mother and sister in song. A few weeks later, because our branch was desperate and my mother didn’t want to lead the singing, I started in Sacrament meeting. There they were—mom and my sister Linda in the congregation, sober and ready to be led. As usual, my brothers were doing the sacrament, the branch president and my dad, his counselor, were on the stand behind me. The branch president’s wife had always been in the congregation before, but she had been sick and in the hospital for several weeks, so there were my mother and sister. Susan’s husband was a member, but he didn’t attend church. Sister Farrar, an older sister in the branch, had been visiting out of town for some time.
Here I was, leading my mother and sister—again. I led them at home, I led them in Sunday School, and I led them in Sacrament meeting—backed by my coterie of priesthood holders—and flanked by Susan at the piano. It was too much; I was only 14. And I tended to see bizarre humor in everything. I had only barely made it through singing at a funeral, and I feared the time would come when I would get the giggles in the middle of a song. I struggled with giggles at school, and now I battled at church.
I went home and prayed. “Please, Lord, help me; I can’t keep wanting to giggle while I lead the singing.”
The next week I began to raise my hand, waiting to beat the upward stroke. I looked over at Susan for the song to begin. There was a glint of amusement in her eyes. And I laughed. My father, my brothers, the branch president, my mother, and my sister all waited.
It was over almost before it started. I had laughed in church; the forbidden fruit was gone.
My prayers were answered. I raised my hand.
BABY IN THE BACK
My mother didn’t have the heart to waken me. Less than a year old I didn’t nap well. So she left me where I had fallen asleep in the backseat, the car parked in the shade of a giant poplar that bordered my parents’ vegetable plot in my grandpa’s back pasture. My mother was glad not to have to worry about keeping me out of the irrigation ditch. She hadn’t wanted to ask grandma to tend me again; after all she tended me every week when she taught primary.
She and my two older brothers, old enough to stay out of the irrigation ditch, weeded and watered.
Less than an hour later, the car was in full sun, but my mother had just a little more to weed, and was intent on her work.
A half-mile away my grandma was doing her breakfast dishes, but she kept thinking about the back pasture. Would her daughter-in-law and the children be down there working today? It was a beautiful, clear, summer day, and it would be hot later. Grandma went to the back door and looked towards the pasture. She could see my parents’ car.
Back at the kitchen sink she had an urgent feeling that she should walk down to the garden. She pushed it away; she didn’t want her daughter-in-law to think she was interfering. After all, this was her first garden, and she was proud of it. If grandma, a seasoned gardener, showed up, she might feel like she was being supervised.
The feeling came to grandma again—“Go to the pasture”.
Grandma began walking down the road, and as she went the feeling came more strongly. She began to hurry—and by the time she reached the car she was striding.
She saw that only the boys were working alongside my mother.
Where was the baby?
By the time grandma reached the car I was struggling to breathe.
When my mother turned around and saw my grandmother there she realized with horror what had happened. The sun on the window of the car and the baby gasping for breath. She ran to my grandmother and grabbed me out of her arms.
“How did you know? Oh, how did you know to come?” my mother cried.
But my mother did know; grandma had been listening.
FRONT SEAT RIDERS WHO CARED ABOUT ME WHILE I WAS IN THE BACKSEAT
Sister Berry was my Beehive teacher. My mother did not—quite—approve of her. She rode horses and took her champions to shows around the state. The young people in our ward earned money by helping out at the horse shows. I remember Sister Berry standing around in a circle of judges at some far-flung horse show—watching intently as a young girl dressed in English riding clothes took a thoroughbred with a braided tail over the course to the sound of “Hi lily, hi lily, hi lo” on a pipe organ. When she was put in charge of the ward Christmas program she painted an enormous mural of wicked Nephites reveling on the eve of Christ’s birth. My mother thought it was slightly indecent. She didn’t think the immodest clothing was necessary. I can still see Sister Berry sitting, head up, a look of glory on her face when someone played a musical number—on a violin or piano, anything, I believe—in Sacrament meeting. Face up, a faraway look in her eyes, completely devoted to the beauty of the sound. My mother always sat in church looking anything but rapt—glad, probably, just for an opportunity to sit unoccupied for a while. My mother—though a good, gentle soul—seemed very ordinary to me. I loved Sister Berry. I followed her around like a puppy. I hung on her every word. And I suspect now that I caused my mother some heartache with my hero worship. My mother had to work in the agronomy labs to help my father through school—because the promised fellowship that had lured my family from Idaho to Oklahoma had been inexplicably suspended after one year of graduate school. Sister Berry’s husband was a millionaire. Our ward went to pick pecans on the Berry estate. The Berrys helped out when the ward needed money. Our old church building had “The Glory of God is Intelligence” carved into stone over the lintel of the front door—because the Berrys had paid to have it placed there.
There was a new girl in school. She was from the wrong side of the tracks. I was from the right side, though my family lived on the countryside of campus in World War II army barracks made over into student housing. Though my parents slept in our living room, and our bathroom had no tub and only a rusting shower. Though when you turned the lights on at night in the kitchen you could see the roaches scurrying back to their homes, away from the light. Though my brothers and I cleaned the church every Saturday; I had the basement—full of dying crickets—I hated the crickets and the way they had of leaping up into your face as you swept them up terrified me—to myself to clean, while my brothers took the more prestigious main floor with the chapel and the cultural hall. The money we earned went to help our parents buy food.
I was in the top classes. Even in my inexpensive dresses, I was proud. Proud to have a father getting a Ph.D. Proud to be a Mormon. Proud to be smart. Proud to have an accent no one could identify. “You’re from Iowa, you say?” No one knew where Idaho was, and that made me feel proud as well. I took a Velveeta cheese and white bread sandwich to school every day and ate by myself in the lunchroom. The other students in my class, the top class academically, all paid for lunches—hamburgers and fries. I ate my one lone sandwich there apart from all the others, because those who brought lunches were not allowed to go into the other part of the cafeteria. In the same room with me—but on the other end were two other groups of students, sitting as far away from each other as possible. The black students, a large group, sat on one end of the lunchroom. The white students who could not afford the school lunches—“poor white trash” the black kids called them—sat on the other. I had a table to myself.
I saw a new girl in the “poor white trash” section one day—probably because she had gotten to know some of the neighborhood youth—and probably because she was in one of the lower classes, and when she showed up at church I was not pleased. She was gentle in spirit, shabby in clothing and willing to be my friend. But I didn’t like it. How could I possibly associate with a girl who sat with the “poor white trash”? I was poor enough and friendless enough as it was.
Worst of all, she was a new member—from another part of Oklahoma; her grandma was a long-time member.
I went to school. I saw her there, and I avoided her. At church I gave her an obligatory greeting, and after a while she never came again.
I went to MIA (that’s what we called it in the 60s) one night soon after that eager to see my beloved Sister Berry. I was usually the only one in her class; several times the strange, new young woman had come and competed with me for Sister Berry’s attentions, but tonight I had Sister Berry to myself.
And that was always a pleasure. But this night she looked pointedly at me and spoke slowly. “Celia, we must always be kind to those who have less than we do. Always. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks of you for doing it; do you understand me?” I did understand her, and the pain I felt choked me. Sister Berry, my dearest Sister Berry, had suspected my snubbing of the new girl. I didn’t realize until years later how suitable it was that she, of all people, should teach me that lesson. I think of Sister Berry whenever I meet someone different, or dirty, or shabbily dressed--
DATING AND THE BACKSEAT
I had wanted to have a date. I had gone so far as to call Bruce Holcomb the beginning of my junior year and invite him to the Sadie Hawkins’ dance. He wasn’t a member, of course, but the whole school knew that he didn’t drink; he had been laughed at for not drinking. No one knew for sure why Bruce didn’t drink, but school gossip said that his father was a hopeless alcoholic. I liked Bruce. He was clean-cut-looking with a scholarly appearance, slightly pale, freckled; there was a sweetness about him none of the other boys had. He was intelligent; he wanted to do something with his life. Bruce turned me down, and I was secretly relieved; I had made a pledge never to date a nonmember. But he said he would have gone with me if a sophomore had not first asked him; he told me her name. He sounded disappointed; I felt almost guilty. So I didn’t date at 16. And by the end of the year Bruce was married to the little sophomore, and there was a baby coming.
I didn’t stay in high school.
A year later in college there were still no members around to date. Not to say that the year had no fun in it, but I knew that I was breaking a rule of some kind. If I didn’t date in my teenage years I would certainly have no hope of ever marrying, and I wanted to get married. It was what every Mormon girl wanted.
At the end of my first year of college, not quite 18 and planning to spend the summer in Provo with the Hemenways my mother told me about Susan’s little brother. Susan was our branch’s pianist; her brother, from Berkeley, had attended BYU that year and was coming out to Nebraska with his parents to visit her little family. He was just a year older than I. And would I go out with him? A date. I panicked. What would I do on a date? Susan smiled and said that Stephen would call me when he got there. He did. It was strange to talk with a Mormon boy on the phone. I decided after the first few moments that it wasn’t as wonderful as I had been told. This was just a boy—
He wanted to go swimming. Go swimming? On a date? With me? Me in a swimming suit with a strange Mormon boy from California who had already been to BYU for a year? I hesitated--noticeably. Who goes swimming on a first date? Who did this guy think I was? He was also silent for a long time. I was beginning to hope he would give it all up—; I didn’t need the date. Maybe I didn’t even need to get married someday. He said, “Just a minute” and put his hand over the phone; there was muffled conversation in the background. He came back on again, “My parents want to see Mt. Rushmore; would you like to go up with us?” My heart sank again. First he was going to expect me to show up—on a first date—in a swimming suit. I had barely escaped that. That failing, I was expected to drive 120 miles in the same car with this male youth I did NOT know—though there was some comfort in knowing his parents would be there. I didn’t want to be in a car with this guy and his parents, but I knew I had to save face. I had murmured about dating for two years. I had to show some backbone.
“O.K”. I agreed. Mt. Rushmore. Two hours of driving with total strangers. I found it difficult to eat breakfast that morning. But I acted brave in front of my parents and little sister. Stephen and his parents came to pick me up, and they were nice, very prudent sorts of people. She wore sensible shoes. He drove carefully. Stephen had a nice smile; he must have had braces. He was what any other girl would have considered dangerously good-looking. He was perfect. In fact, there were no flaws in him at all—
I had to sit in the backseat with Stephen. But it was a large backseat, so I sat tight up against my corner—and he was decent about staying in his own corner. It was a long drive. His parents looked oddly comfortable in the front seat, as though it were every day they went driving 120 miles one way in a region unfamiliar to them with a strange girl in the backseat. I had wet palms. I had a permanent lump in my throat. But Mt. Rushmore showed up right on schedule and we got out. I felt relieved out in the open air. Mt. Rushmore was a safe place--familiar. It was raining, and Stephen wanted to hike around. His mother wanted to stay in the car.
“Don’t get your feet wet,” she called to him as he walked swiftly away—with me trying to stay about three feet off to the side of him and walking even more swiftly. Don’t get your feet wet! He was almost 19 years old. In just a few months he would be in Europe serving an LDS mission, and his mother was worried that he would get wet feet. I was amazed that he didn’t snarl at her or something, but he behaved very respectfully about it. We looked at the four presidents—; I had seen them many times. We jumped from bench to bench in the amphitheater. He was singing “Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head—“ And then, in a very short time, we were back in the car, driving home.
Back with my family, I felt like a veteran. I had been on a date. I deserved a metal. There had been no romance. There could be no romance in wet feet or in going with the parents of my date. And I had found it difficult to look at him—in all his perfection. But I had survived. And I felt the triumph of it. And when I went to sleep that night I was happy; I would be able to eat breakfast in the morning.
AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS—AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PLAYGROUND
I had seen my best friend standing behind the school—crying. I had gone up to him and asked him why he wasn’t playing. He was seven years old. I was seven years old.
“Because I’m adopted,” he answered.
“That shouldn’t keep you from playing,” I said matter-of-factly.
“A kid told me that my parents aren’t my real parents,” he continued stubbornly.
I knew Lynn’s parents. They were very real. His mother was a good friend of my mother; she was a smart lady with a nose who had a keen sense of humor and a fascinating voice. His father worked with my dad at the high school; they taught high school biology together. His father had a gold tooth that glinted, and he was always smiling. I knew his mother was real, because I had heard her tell Lynn that he needed to wash his mouth out with soap after we had been found playing in the irrigation ditch in our underpants, packing wet mud down inside of them. We had been only five years old then. I knew his father was real, because I had heard him laugh. And I knew Lynn was adopted. But I knew he was real. I had touched him; he was definitely real. But he was crying, and he wouldn’t play with me.
I saw the Japanese boy hiding behind the same corner of the same building. I had seen him at the drinking fountain; someone had pushed him. I loved the shape of his eyes; I loved the way his hair stood up in bristles on his head. I loved the creamy brown of his skin. I wanted to get to know him, but when I walked towards him, he turned away.
I had seen Aurora, not behind the building, but standing apart, watching the other children play at recess. I had gone towards her, and she hadn’t turned away. She came from a large family, originally from Mexico. I like the clipped way she spoke English—softening consonants I didn’t soften. I liked the way her lips curled a little upward. I liked her huge, brown, round eyes. I wanted to hear her speak. My mother had taught me some Spanish; I was proud that my mother had been born and raised in the border country between Texas and New Mexico—right next to Mexico. I liked to hear my mother speak Spanish. I loved my mother’s tamales, her enchiladas, loved nothing more than the rich smell of beans on the stove at the end of a winter afternoon.
I loved the long, hot drive to Texas to see my grandparents who lived there. I was fascinated by the adobe houses, by the little brown children playing in bare dirt yards. The air was hotter there. The sun was brighter there.
I loved Aurora. Aurora had an older sister who was married. Aurora had a niece or a nephew or both. Aurora had a tiny house full of brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. Aurora’s parents were migrant workers.
Aurora told me that her name meant “the dawn”.
The dawn. I would say it over to myself. The dawn.
First Melinda said she couldn’t play with me anymore. Her mom and dad told her so. I asked her why—and she said, “Because of Aurora”.
It didn’t make sense. I walked home from school that night, scuffing my shoes with stones. What did Aurora have to do with Melinda’s parents?
It wasn’t too long after that I had a misunderstanding with the other new girl in my class. She had the prettiest clothes. She had the readiest answers. She was quickly the teacher’s favorite. She had favored me—little, freckled me with the crooked teeth and the messy hair--for a while. Then one night when my father came home from trying to home teach her family I heard him say to my mother, “Brother Peterman turned the lights off and closed the curtains when we went to the door.” And the next day I asked Denise why her dad wouldn’t let my dad into their house. Denise turned pale. The next day she came to me and said, “My parents were NOT home; your dad just thought they were home. He just said they turned the lights out and shut the curtains!” It was a terrible dilemma. I knew my father wouldn’t lie.
At recess one of the larger girls who wanted to be friends with Denise came up and asked me if I wanted to fight. I asked her why, and she said, “Because you lied, and your father lied”. After a while all the other girls came up, every girl in the class, everyone but Aurora—who was not at school that day and would never be there again. And Denise had stood off by herself, a curious light in her eyes, while the other girl, so much bigger than I, grabbed me and threw me down on the pavement of the schoolyard.
She pushed my head against the cement with a jolt that made me see stars. The girls cried, “Liar! Liar! Liar!”
My eyes blurred. My father wouldn’t lie. My head hurt; I closed my eyes waiting for the next jolt.
I heard a voice from across the schoolyard; it was the teacher, breaking up the fight—
“Girls! Girls! What is going on here?” Her voice sounded urgent. The girls scattered. She scolded, “What are you doing?”
I saw one or two of their faces from my place on the ground. They looked ashamed and frightened.
“Back into the school room—now!” the teacher sounded angry.
She came over to me and helped me up, her brow furrowed.
“What is happening here?” she asked.
I shook my head.
All I could think of was that they hated me. And I didn’t want to be there anymore. I hated school. I hated Idaho. Soon after that my parents told me we were moving to Oklahoma. I was ready to go.
BARNS DON’T TRAVEL, AND MILKING STOOLS DON’T COUNT AS BACKSEATS
My grandparents in Idaho were the beginning of my family, as I know it, parents to my father. I have a lot of anecdotal stories about my grandparents, thing my parents told me my grandparents said or did; the things I remember are more profound. The incident of a summer sometime in the late 50s—is only one example, and it was a pivotal event in my life.
I had been left alone of all my immediate family to spend time with grandpa and grandma. It was a privilege to stay alone with grandpa and grandma. I had the whole farm to myself; I had my grandparents’ complete attention. I was the grown-up child this time, since usually only the older grandchildren got to stay alone with grandpa and grandma. So when an aunt and uncle—with their spouses—and a few younger cousins came to stay for a day or so I felt my age and maturity in a new, exciting way. Always before I had been one of the younger children, following my older brothers around. But this time I could be a leader in play.
In the late afternoon of one day we went for a walk, sponsored by the grown-ups. I went along naturally, because there were children in tow—, here was a chance for me to display my superior wisdom, and understanding about walks and everything walks entailed. My grandparents were busy back at the farm, grandpa in the barn, grandma in the kitchen. We were heading out into the sagebrush back of grandpa’s farm, along “the bench” as my grandpa called it. There was a cart track there—faint marks in the sandy desert where wagons had once gone. It was this, I supposed, we were walking to see. Or maybe my uncles and aunts just felt cooped up in the house and wanted some fresh air. The little children, me in the middle of them, feeling queenly, romped out in front, running back and forth, here and there, getting, with every few minutes, a little farther ahead of the adults. After a time, I heard clapping and shouting behind me. I turned, laughing; they were clapping for us—
Shouting, they were wondering which of us could run fastest; I ran; I could run fast; I would show them.
And then suddenly one of the grown-ups came running up and, grabbing some of the laughing children up, began spanking them, each in turn. My laughter turned to confusion, then to consternation. Where had the cheering gone? What had gone awry? I didn’t have the best hearing, I knew—having lost some of it with measles; it was a problem for me, but I had thought the shouting was all of a happy sort—
The same grown-up turned fiercely to me; “Didn’t you hear us shouting and calling?”
I must have been dumb, for I just stood there. How could I tell this angry adult that I thought they had been cheering us on? I felt stupid and lost.
“There are snakes here; you in your mad running about could have gotten my children killed!”
The other adults came running up, scolding their children. What had begun as a pleasant walk had turned into a nightmare—for me. The children, crying around me, walked back with their parents. I followed numbly.
Just behind the corner of the house, I, walking after a dazed fashion, the words of rebuke still ringing in my ears, saw the same person speaking to two of the oldest children; they were the girl cousins closest to me in age.
Pointing at me the words were clear, “Don’t ever play with her again; she is a bad influence”.
I turned and ran—wanting to go back into the house, wanting the comfort of that place which had always been a haven for me. But I knew the rest of the parents would be in there, reporting my misdeeds, if such they had been, for I was still in such a state of confusion, to my grandmother—the grandmother who had always believed me, always loved me, always been there for me.
It was too much for me. Away from the yard and across the barnyard path to the barn I fled. There was grandpa, milking the cows. The barn was a simple log building, rather tumbling down in appearance, which my grandpa kept scrupulously clean. His cows were healthy, always clean—, and content. He kept one milking machine, an ancient one, and a three-legged stool for hand milking. He was busy at the milking, but he took time to nod at me as I came through the door. I sat at my usual place over on a ledge off to the side of where the cows were milked. There, not far from me, were the mangers where the cats romped, and the cows chewed the cud with sweet hay.
Grandpa was always there with a shovel to clean up any mess made by one of his cows—and a pitchfork nearby was used to spread fresh straw beneath their hooves.
The barn smelled sweet—with hay, with new milk, and even with the fresh manure grandpa kept so carefully cleaned up.
I couldn’t show grandpa that I was upset. I had to be brave—and I knew that if I tried to speak I would begin to cry. So I just sat there, and after a while grandpa started to talk to me about the cows. He was telling me which cow had which problem, talking to me about each one’s individual personality. One could only be hand-milked; she was too sensitive for the mechanical milking machine. Another had to be hobbled. Each cow had a name; they were big, beautiful Holsteins. Sometimes grandpa let me help him milk, but today he just talked to me. And after a while I began to talk, careful at first. Grandpa found out that I had been with my uncles, aunts, and cousins; I dared tell him no more. He finished up the milking, pouring the milk into the cans and walking across the barnyard with a can in each hand with me beside him, we returned to the house. He came to the door, and where he usually entered he called out to my grandmother.
She came to the back porch.
Grandpa explained, “Grandma, this girl needs to spend some time with you—just with you”. He emphasized the “just”.
My grandma looked intently at my grandfather. Only a look, no words, was exchanged between them. He left the milk on the back porch and turned, going back to work somewhere.
Grandma studied me, wiping her hands on her apron.
Working alone with grandma was a privilege, something a person had to earn. Picking strawberries was a privilege.
“Would you like to help me pick strawberries for supper, Celia?” she asked me at last.
I never told my grandparents anything of what happened on that walk. I never told them of the terrible talking-to one of the adults had given me—through my two cousins. But I noticed that until my uncles and aunts and cousins left my grandparents kept me close by them, watching over me. The mystery to me then was how they ever understood enough of what had happened to guard me so closely. How had they communicated—without words—so much to each other?
I was not a perfect child. I was impulsive. I made many mistakes. But I always meant to be good—.
If I was ever misunderstood by any of the adults in my life, which I am sure happened a lot—even by those who were incapable of being intentionally unkind to me—my own parents, it was never by my grandparents. They are gone now—long gone. The home, which was dearer to me than any home could ever be, has been long boarded up. The little log barn which held such sweet smells of hay and the mewing of new kittens and the pain of a little girl and the wise understanding of a sympathetic grandfather—is gone.
I miss them. The mystery to me now is how—in a world so filled with imperfect people--I ever could have had such perfect grandparents.
NEBRASKA CZECHS AND MARRIAGE—BEHIND THE WHEEL AT LAST
I loved my branch president. He was a quiet man. He spoke softly and had a funny chuckle. He was tall, slender, and graying. He was Czech. One of the Nebraska Czechs. To me a girl in Nebraska, Nebraska Czechs were exotic—like a pheasant mixed in with the chickens.
Being of mostly British ancestry myself, to think that there was an entire group of people from an area in Central Europe who had immigrated long ago to my state—and who still, some of the old ones, spoke the Czech language, was something romantic.
I attended a funeral held at our church for a cousin of President Masek. The people looked Slavic to me. They were different. I loved different people, just as I had loved the black girl in my PE class. Just as I had loved Aurora. I knew a little about the Czech Brethren, an ancient Czech Christian church, the members of which had been persecuted and killed, and how some of the Czech immigrants, those who were dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, became members of other churches out of reverence for the past.
It was one Sunday when President Masek was speaking that I decided I wanted to marry a Czech from Nebraska. I told my mother that. She was amused. There were no Mormon boys in Nebraska—much less Czechs. Rare was the non-Catholic Czech. Even the branch president’s sons were not quite all Czech, since Sister Masek was French. The branch president’s sons were much older than I was and were both married anyway, living happily away from Nebraska.
But I dreamed of my faraway Czech lover—the Mormon boy from Nebraska.
When I met a young man with a Czech surname in San Antonio who had joined the Church after studying to be a Catholic Priest, I quickly learned that he was not “the one”. He had proposed to me after our first date—which I felt was quite rash, and had frightened me with his intensity. Besides, he was not from Nebraska; he was from a Czech community in South Texas.
There was a young man returning from a mission in Europe whose surname was also Czech. He was nice-looking; he was aloof; he had a girlfriend at BYU and was married while I was in Japan on my own mission. But he hadn’t been from Nebraska either.
In Provo after my mission, I felt jaded. I was almost 25 years old. I had had a few, very few, completely unsatisfactory dates. This was a situation even worse than what I feared would happen to me in Nebraska—that I would not have a date before I was 18.
Perhaps I had been right back then. Perhaps the cure was worse than the ailment.
One Friday night I told a girlfriend, “I won’t marry someone who isn’t from Nebraska, and he has to be at least part Czech”.
Silly of me. I knew in my heart that it didn’t matter where a person came from; that it mattered even less what ethnic group he or she was a part of. And here I was, stranded in Provo, Utah--of all places--announcing that I would only marry a Czech from Nebraska.
A few weeks later I took a plate of cookies to a young man next door who had done something kind for me. As I was talking to him I heard a pick-up pull up outside, and in walked a tall, blonde young man—wearing a white shirt and tie. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He smiled. He had crooked teeth. He even had a crooked smile. His horse might have been old and had splayed hooves and a swayback, but this one had to have a horse--somewhere. He told me his name—he said it was Czech. He said he was from Nebraska.
I married him.
DANGER IN THE BACKSEAT
We were spending New Years’ Eve with some good friends, Edie and John Fox—whose father was a professor at the college.
We were sitting at the Fox’s kitchen table listening to KOMA—the pop music station out of Oklahoma City—, which we received up in Nebraska, to our delight.
Mrs. Fox had made all sorts of treats—and there were soft drinks.
A few minutes after we came, Edie got up and left; a young man had come by for her.
“I’ll be back,” she said, “I won’t be gone long”.
She was gone about an hour, during which time we listened to the countdown for the top songs of 1966.
My brothers were there; John—Edie’s brother, who was a blonde Finnish god, was there.
I loved John. John had once told my brother that he would be a Mormon if his parents would let him.
John and Edie took us tobogganing out by King’s Canyon. They had a cabin there—
We had a lot of fun driving around in the Fox’s old International Scout.
When Edie came back, her eyes were very bright.
She pulled at me; “You have to see something. You have to!”
She was talking loudly; her cheeks were flushed.
We all got in the scout—I in my usual place in the back, and Edie sped—I was feeling uncomfortable about how fast she was driving--to the edge of town and beyond.
She drove up on a lonely country road next to a car—
Inside I could see people; I saw a beer can.
“There!” she said.
It was the branch president’s younger daughter.
I felt sick, very sick.
“There is your good Mormon girl!” she screeched.
By the time we got back to Foxes I knew that Edie had also been drinking. I didn’t stop loving Edie; she came to my one and only track meet when no one else bothered. She was always kind to me.
When my husband and I drove through my old town twenty years later with our son we stopped and went to church and stayed with the Maseks.
Annette had moved away years earlier. She was married, Sister Masek said. She was active in the church; she and her husband had gone to the temple.
And what had happened to Edie? I don’t know.
I know that John became a lawyer; he got married and had two children; he died very young of a drug overdose.
Who was right?
I was mad at Annette at the time. I felt that she let me down. But twenty years later I thought of the woman, taken in sin—and how Jesus said, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone”.
She was in my PE class. She was small and black. I was small and white. We were both wimps. She was the last one to be chosen by her side. I was the last one to be chosen by mine.
We started standing together in the line from which we would not be chosen. We started smiling at each other.
One day I spoke to her. She spoke back.
One day she said, “I can’t be your friend”.
I said, “Why?”
She motioned with her eyes to a group of large, black girls—the stars of our PE class, standing on the other side of the gym.
“They”, she looked frightened, “won’t let me”.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I don’t either,” she said.
So we weren’t friends. But we always smiled at each other when we passed. Sometime when the large, black girls were near, she would put her head down, but I knew she was smiling.
I wonder what became of her.
IN SOMEONE ELSE’S BACKSEAT
The black youth in our junior high put on assemblies where they sang gospel songs and danced.
“You been dancin’ on the ballroom floor, sinna’—you’d better get right . . .”
My brother and I would dance at home—he was good. He could dance like a black kid, twisting himself around; he could sing like them too. My brother had the oriental eyes in our family . . .
I would sing too. I wanted to know more gospel songs—wanted to sing them out loud and clear, wanted to be up on the stage with the black kids.
“I went to my job with my mind, yes, I did, standing on Jesus, whooaaaa, I went to the job with my mind, yes, I did, standing on Jesus—
Hallelu, hallelu-u-u-u-u lu—uuu-yah!”
I tried to dance, but I couldn’t.
When I sang it sounded like a Grand Ole Oprey singer with a cold.
Only my little sister could sing like Mahalya Jackson or Lena Horn or Ella Fitzgerald—
“Ain’t misbehavin’—I’m savin’ my love for you, believe me!”
Then, one day, years later, after I was grown up and married, I stood at the sink with grandma—the grandma, the one who had loved me, supported me, always been there for me. The one everyone in my family respected—in spite of themselves.
Grandma said, quietly and simple, “Our ancestors are black-Irish.”
I didn’t say anything back; grandma was hard to say things back to.
Then she said it again, “Black Irish”.
I looked at grandma. The chicken soup with homemade noodles grandma. The perfect Thanksgiving dinners grandma. The grandma of the strawberry jam. She was getting old, but she was still very tall. Her skin was very olive. Her hair was curly—had been black when she was young; it was white now. She had a large nose with a hook in it. Could she be?
She only said it once. A few years later she was in a nursing home—hopelessly victim to Alzheimer’s disease; a light had gone out of my life.
At grandma’s funeral one of my cousins flew out from the East Coast.
He was showing us a picture of his newest baby. He, his wife, and his two older children are all blondes.
“Look at my black baby”, he said, laughing, showing us a picture of his dark-complexioned, black-haired newborn. We all laughed; it had been a laughing funeral; we were all so glad grandma had been set free.
I didn’t say anything.
First I tried to tell my dad, “I’m sure that’s not what grandma meant,” he said.
I told my brother who had jive in his soul—“I don’t believe it,” he said.
I told my blonde stake president brother in California who had black people in his stake.
“It would be funny,” he said; “I’d be glad if it were true”.
I told my sister who does Mahalya Jackson impersonations, “I think black-Irish means something else,” she said.
I had read—somewhere, but, of course, I could never find the article again, that the Irish government had imported mercenaries from many exotic areas to help them fight against the English in the late 1600s. Along with ronin—unemployed samurai from Japan’s terrible civil wars, there had been some black slaves—from warrior tribes in Africa—imported from the Caribbean.
So what do I think? I think it would be Someone’s idea of a good joke. And if I found out it were true, I would laugh!
WARNINGS ABOUT BACKSEATS
I was walking down the corridor of the hospital beside my friend JoAnn—who was in labor and moving heavily alongside me.
I was sorry for her.
JoAnn, who usually always smiled, was not smiling. And except for me, she was alone, waiting for her husband to come.
I couldn’t understand out why he wouldn’t come to the hospital to be with his wife, but I suspected it was a troubled marriage.
I was there for hours before JoAnn’s mother-in-law came to be with her.
It was hard. I was only 17. There were things happening here that went over my head.
I was a little amazed that my mother had let me go to be with JoAnn. My mother didn’t quite approve of my friendship with JoAnn, but, after all, JoAnn was LDS, and she needed friends.
I had first met her at church. Then when she didn’t show up one Sunday, my father and mother, who had been assigned to be her home teachers, stopped by with me to visit her at her apartment. She had a young man there with her. It didn’t look good.
It wasn’t long after that she married him, and it was obvious soon after—why. He was Catholic, from Nebraska, JoAnn was Mormon, from Utah.
I used to go visit her after my classes. She was lonely. Her husband was never home. They lived in a tiny apartment in a basement near campus.
She liked to talk about BYU. I loved to hear about this exotic place in Utah around which so many of my hoped-for future dreams centered.
“Don’t date just anyone,” she would tell me.
Then she would show me how to put on make-up. JoAnn was a beautiful woman; I was not. But she showed me how to do everything—the right way.
“I fell in love with a guy at BYU. I thought he was going to ask me to marry him. Then I found out he was already married. His wife was pregnant; I was humiliated. Be careful, Celia,” JoAnn said.
That happened at BYU—the magical place where Mormons went to school. I was shocked, but I trusted JoAnn to tell the truth.
“Be selective about the people you hang out with,” she warned another time. “I cared too much about having friends; I went skiing with some good-time kids. We started playing with a ouija board—a guy I really cared about, who was a really mature and spiritual guy, found out about it—I knew he was the one I supposed to marry, but I wasn’t ready for him. He married someone else. Satan is real; he wants to destroy us.”
She taught me to make Spanish rice with meatballs—
I set the table for her little supper with her husband and then waited until well after he was supposed to come home, but he usually didn’t come.
“Don’t marry a nonmember,” JoAnn said another time as I sat in her little apartment with her. Her baby was soon to be born.
JoAnn had a beautiful baby girl—
Several years later when I was in Provo, I met someone from JoAnn’s hometown. She told me JoAnn was divorced; she had come home to be with her parents, bringing her baby with her.
By then I had realized the gift JoAnn had given me. She could have made her mistakes sound glamorous; she could have excused herself and not warned me, but she didn’t.
Thank you, JoAnn.
A SEAT BY THE WINDOW IN THE AIR
LeGrand Richards came to visit our district in the Black Hills. He was there for a conference on the Saturday before the Sunday I left to fly out to Utah—to leave Nebraska for what I did not yet know was forever.
On Saturday we drove up and sat in the amphitheater at Mt. Rushmore, where I had walked the previous week with Susan’s brother—my first date.
Elder Richards told us to keep ourselves morally clean. He said he was glad there was not some little old lady who was sitting in the back of a church somewhere smirking and thinking, as he spoke, “Ah ha, but you should have known him when he was a youth!” He told us not to “lick the butter off the bread” in our dating. We drove home—our usual two-hour drive—after the meeting that night—my last night at home.
The next morning we got up early to hear him speak for the Sunday conference and drove back up to the Black Hills. Susan’s brother and his parents were there; he was leaving to fly back to Provo for summer school. We just happened to have the same flight; I think it was Susan’s idea that somehow I needed someone along to protect me.
My parents took Stephen and me to the airport. There I said good-bye to my father, my mother, and my little sister in front of Stephen Ricks. I felt excited about my summer with friends in Provo, but I was also worried about leaving home.
Just as we prepared to board the plane I saw our mission president, his daughter and Elder Richards coming towards us. Elder Richards was also flying back to Salt Lake! He would be on our flight! The mission president had asked his daughter to help Elder Richards, who was very old and had a hard time walking get on and off the plane where his daughter in Salt Lake would meet him.
I could think of nothing but that I wanted to be near Elder Richards. I held my breath as I found my seat—Stephen and I were right across the aisle from Elder Richards and Olivia, the mission president’s daughter—who was a friend of my brother.
I asked Stephen if I might trade places with him so that I could hear Elder Richards speak. And he was kind enough to let me. But Elder Richards had little to say before he fell into a peaceful slumber. Still, I hung on his every word. I had felt trepidation about my first flight, but seeing an apostle sleeping there on the plane beside me took away my fear; God would let nothing happen to this airplane! Once more the ever patient Stephen traded places back with me so that I could look out the window.
The enormous, cottony clouds through which we flew took my breath away.
“Oh! It’s so fantastic up here!” I whispered.
Stephen smiled, “You are so childlike”.
“No one could ever get over the wonder of this!” I said, meaning it.
“Well, I have”, he answered. He was as sophisticated and bored as someone from California would be during a visit to Nebraska. But he seemed to be amused by my excitement.
I turned back to the window and was lost in the beauty of it, exclaiming now and again about some new visual wonder.
My flying companion merely laughed—he was older, wiser. He was preparing to become a BYU professor—which, of course, he did become years later.
Just as we started to land, Elder Richards woke gently, with a bemused smile. We walked with him into the airport, where his daughter was waiting. What really impressed me about him was not his intelligence, which was great enough—or his wisdom, which was even greater. I wasn’t even that impressed with the fact that this tired, lame, elderly man traveled all over the place without any remuneration to speak to people just because he loved God. What really impressed me was the peaceful grace with which he did everything. No hurry. No worry. No anger. Just peaceful acceptance; he knew God would take care of him wherever he was, because he was God’s own child. I loved him then. I loved him in all the years since. Whenever I would hear his voice I would feel a thrill. And when he died I felt his absence keenly.
I flew again. And again. And again. I never got used to it. It was always an amazing, thrilling, wonderful thing.
IN THE BACK OF A PICKUP IN THE BLACK HILLS
My mother wanted me to have all the opportunities any Mormon girl in the Intermountain west might have. I had been a single Beehive—except for the one sad incident I didn’t want to remember—in Oklahoma. In Nebraska I was the one girl who came to MIA until my mother and I grew weary of it and studied the lessons together at home.
But, my mother decided I would go to camp. Alone. So she drove me up to the District headquarters and dropped me off—with all my camping gear. I don’t remember the names or faces of the leaders in Rapid City. I know that they were true women and kind. But no one knew where to put me.
Once at camp a small tent was finally found for me, and I stayed there—until a day or two later in the camp when a flurry of excitement went through the group of camp leaders. Two girls, sisters, from another district in Southern Nebraska were going to be attending the last day or so of our district’s camp. My heart lifted. Girls from Nebraska—Mormon girls, and they would share my lonely tent.
The girls in our district were divided into separate groups. There were the girls from the tiny branches in northeastern Wyoming who didn’t often attend district activities; they were as far away from Rapid City as we in Nebraska—and obviously did not have as determined a mother. There were the Rapid City town girls—rather normal Mormon girls who were mostly nice. There were the girls from the mining towns—who didn’t usually attend district activities. One girl I had gotten to know at home seminary meetings, Laurel Iverson, was an exception. Strong. She was a large girl and not overly pretty, but she had beautiful eyes, a sense of humor and above-average intelligence. I liked her. She had a reserved dignity; she had a testimony. And the girls from the Air Force base, the other group, there is no other word that says it better, snubbed her. Laurel obviously came from an impoverished place. Her father was a plumber in the gold mines. Once after a district activity she had been without a ride home, and we had driven probably an hour out of our way before heading home to Nebraska to take her home. Driving through the residential area of Lead, built up high over the river, tall, ancient mining company houses, Laurel had asked that we drop her off at the end of her street. I didn’t understand why at the time; nor did my mother who insisted we see her all the way home. And then I saw Laurel’s house and I understood. And I admired Laurel even more fiercely after that.
But the girls from the Air Force base were in force at camp that year. They seemed to look alike, small, thin, well-dressed, always laughing at their own private jokes, always laughing at others. Ellsworth Air Force base was known to have top-flight aviators; the LDS daughters of top-flight aviators knew it well. I avoided them. I knew that I would not be able to come away completely without being the brunt of one or the other of their jokes. And I didn’t.
The leaders were young women, mostly newly married, some of them had attended BYU, and all were married in the temple. A few of them were there with husbands, strong, clean-cut young men who treated all the women and girls with great respect. I adored these young women. And they were liberal with their friendship towards me. They spoke of being married in the temple. They talked about how they met their husbands, what was most important to them. I ate it up. One young woman, a little more sonsy than the others, warned me to be careful even in Utah; things had been stolen in the Salt Lake Temple. She knew; she had been married there! I laughed. This was all so new to me and so wonderful. I was enjoying myself thoroughly.
And then the girls from Nebraska came. I met Linda first. She was about my age, cute without being too well aware of it, bright of spirit, excited to be with other LDS girls. Then I saw her older sister—Dee Dee. Dee Dee was blind. She did not want to be at camp. I reached my hand out to her and she frowned, turning away. These would be my tent mates.
That night Linda explained her situation to me. Her parents had told her she could come to camp only if Dee Dee came also. But Dee Dee didn’t like strangers; she hadn’t been happy about leaving home. Then why? Linda must have wanted to come to camp very badly. Linda was devoted to Dee Dee. She brought Dee Dee her food. She brushed her hair. She helped her dress. Whatever Dee Dee wanted Linda ran to get it for her. I was amazed. At night Dee Dee cried. Her sleeping bag was uncomfortable; she was cold. She didn’t like it here. She wanted to go home. She insisted that Linda take her home. Linda soothed her, comforted her, and talked consolingly to her. All my attempts to befriend Dee Dee had failed much earlier, so I simply tried to sleep.
We were awakened in the night by a storm. It rained; the wind blew. Our tent was knocked over. Water rushed between our sleeping bags. Dee Dee cried. Linda could do nothing for her. I got out of my soaked sleeping bag and went to awaken our leaders. Seeing that we could no longer sleep safely in the tent, one of the leaders helped us to put our sleeping bags into the back of a pick-up. Though it was open it was above ground and out of standing water. We sat there, huddled in our sleeping bags, Dee Dee crying, until early morning when we were driven into town to a member’s house. There Linda called her parents—who came to get the girls from Nebraska. Since it was the last day of camp I was taken to the meetinghouse a few hours later where I waited until my mother came.
Linda and I exchanged addresses and wrote to each other a few times. She sent me a picture of herself, signed, Love, Linda. I sent her one of me. We never saw each other again; our homes were hundreds of miles apart. But it was nice to remember her kindness to her sister.
IN THE BACKSEAT—IN A BAG
I was still looking for a knight in shining armor—or blue jeans. And I thought I had found one. He was tall and pale looking with longish hair. Since I spent most of my time working on campus and studying hard to keep my scholarship I didn’t really have time for anything but dreaming—and I did dream. This one had served a mission in French Quebec and spoke French. And he had a French surname. He was tall and thin—thin enough to look romantic. And, oh joy! He was majoring in art. I saw him walking by my apartment, so I knew he lived nearby. Then I saw him at church, so I knew he was in my branch. I was content simply to watch him and dream. But my roommates, a group of girls from Arizona, who thought their new roommate from Nebraska was a bit too dreamy, got bored one Friday night.
After I had slipped into bed they attacked, giggling. First I was gagged, my hands tied together, then blindfolded. Then they slipped a large garbage bag over my head. I felt myself being carried—and I was placed in the backseat of one roommate’s car. And driven to the apartment of the knight. There I was dumped, unceremoniously, on the front porch and left. Having a peephole for air, I knew where I was and I settled back into the bag and cried.
No one came to the door. And after a while my roommates returned, no longer laughing and apparently subdued, and opened the bag. Standing there in my nightshirt I submitted in indignant silence to a return trip back to my apartment. I had awakened from my dream.
SILVIA IN THE BACKSEAT TOO
I had heard about Silvia, the girl from Cuba. But what was she doing in Nebraska—of all places. Little bits and pieces came out now and again. Her father had been a powerful man in the Cuban government before the Cuban Revolution, and they needed to be as far away from Cuba as possible—but Nebraska?
Then I saw Silvia arrive at school one day—in the backseat of her mother’s huge Chevrolet. She wore a uniform every day to school, and she rode in the backseat.
Silvia and I became friends—especially after Bobbi, true to her word, decided I was no longer worth her time. We took Spanish together, and we formed a Spanish Club. Silvia had a few friends—NOT the popular girls—who walked to school with me after that fateful night. They were sweet girls; they accepted me on Silvia’s word. They made sure I never rolled up my skirts during the mini-skirt years. They always used clean language; they were the best kind of friends. And I walked to school with them for several years. But Silvia never walked to school; her mother always drove her up, and she always sat in the backseat.
Silvia took me home one day to meet her mother. And her mother offered me a hot drink. I told her I didn’t drink tea or coffee, and I can’t remember what I ended up being given, but it wasn’t tea or coffee. I remember vividly the tiny, delicate teacups. And I remember how formally everyone behaved. Silvia’s father taught at the college—Spanish, of course. He was a dignified-looking man; I never heard him say anything. He was dark and swarthy and looked as I supposed all Cuban men should look; Silvia told me that her parents knew their ancestors back to the Crusades; they were from noble Spanish stock.
Silvia was an enduring friend. She agreed to take the missionary discussions and sat through them patiently and silently—completely uninterested, but loyal enough to me to agree to it; I never could get her to talk with me about religion. And it wasn’t until almost 30 years later, when we were corresponding again—after about ten years of not even knowing the other’s whereabouts—that I found out she was Catholic. Why hadn’t she attended Assumption Academy? I don’t know. But I’m glad she attended the public high school so that she could be my one friend. She ended up with a nice husband, a brainy son, and a law practice in Florida. And several months after I had been called to teach our ward’s gospel essentials class—where new members and investigators learn more about the Church—I received a Christmas letter from Silvia—
“My husband and I are responsible for the class in our parish for those who are interested in converting to Catholicism.”
We had both been tall and thin. We each had had freckles. One of us had black hair and brown eyes; the other had light reddish brown hair and blue eyes. Silvia confessed to me in one of her letters that she had written a book about a Catholic girl. I smiled. I hadn’t told her about my book—written, of course, about a Mormon girl. And now we had the same Church calling . . .
IN THE BACK OF THE SCHOOL BUS
It was a privilege to stay over night with a friend, but I was unhappy. Everything had gone well until I had no longer been able to see the school bus. I had watched it until it was a tiny speck, and then it was gone. But it wasn’t any ordinary school bus; it was my father’s school bus.
My father was a Biology teacher at the county high school, and he drove a school bus out in the county every morning and every night. He had the rural route that went far, far out into the country—into the Homestead area. And when one of my friends at school had invited me to stay over night with her I had thought it more than appropriate that my own father drive me out to her house.
It had been exciting on the bus, watching the back of my father’s head and feeling very, very grown up. I hadn’t been on my father’s bus since before I went to school—when he used to take me along on his bus routes. That had been one of the privileges of preschoolers in our family.
And then the bus had left, and I was standing there by the side of a gravel road with my friend and wanting with all my soul to run after the bus.
With my heart in my throat I met the family collie. With a big lump over which I could barely talk I walked out to my friend’s barn and saw the animals they kept there. My heart wasn’t in any of it.
At suppertime with this strange family I thought of what my family would be eating for supper, and I could barely swallow the food. I saw each family member in his or her own special place, and the one place I always occupied would be empty.
With relief bedtime came; I was that much closer to going home—so I didn’t mind it at all.
I lay awake a long time; how could I possibly sleep in this strange home? But I did sleep, and it was with great enthusiasm that I bounded out of bed. I could go home today!
I ate my breakfast quickly, not tasting anything, watching for the bus.
My friend’s mother laughed, “Don’t worry; Melinda never misses the bus”. I was embarrassed that she had found me out.
Melinda’s little brother said that my nose wiggled when I ate. Even my own brothers and sister never said anything that mean about me.
I was out waiting by the side of the road before Melinda; I didn’t care anymore if her family laughed at me. My father was coming. I was going home.
I waited. I thought the bus would never come. What if dad had had trouble with the bus? What if there had been an accident? My father was careful, but there could always be a first time.
Finally, there it was, the yellow speck against the horizon. Melinda kept trying to talk to me; I felt impatient with her. When would I first see my father, I wondered.
The bus came closer. I could see my father looking at me. He was smiling; was it with relief? Tears sprang into my eyes and I bounded out to be in just exactly the right position to board the bus.
My father was not a demonstrative man; he would smile, but when he spoke he would be dignified-- “Good morning, Celia; did you have a nice time?”
There was a part of me that wanted to throw my arms around my dad and weep—but the stronger part of me could not have embarrassed either of us that way!
I answered back calmly, “Good morning, dad—yes, I did” then I took my place way in the back next to my friend. Life was back on track again. I was going home.
We had missionaries in every size, shape, almost every color, and innumerable variety. We had good missionaries. We had bad missionaries. There was the elder who didn’t bathe and gave his companion much to regret. There was Elder Epperson from Salt Lake who had perfect teeth, a straight, tall build, and impeccable manners and was a little aloof, but always helped with the dishes. He taught me to the play the guitar, and I secretly wished he were my brother. My own brothers were both gone, and I missed them sorely. There was tall, ungainly, loveable Elder Taylor with his joke: “Knock knock—who’s there?—matter—what’s a matter?” We had missionaries from two separate missions working in our area. And our home was an approved stopping place. We fed missionaries. We slept in makeshift quarters so the missionaries could stay in our vacated beds. Once, when we had more than one pair of missionaries, I slept in the bathtub. We had many, many missionaries.
But one missionary caused more trouble than any of the others. Not because he was not clean or didn’t have good manners or a good sense of humor. Or even that he didn’t work hard. He caused trouble because he was charming.
It was hard not to be affected by his charm, but I was determined to resist him. Yet the longer he stayed in our area the more trouble we had. First one of the younger married sisters in our ward fell, then another. They began to compete with each other over whose place this elder would come for dinner appointments. They bickered and made such fools of themselves that I was embarrassed for them. The husbands were unhappy—and complained. But no one seemed to be able to do anything about it. Only my mother and the branch president’s wife—who were older and less susceptible—and one young married sister—Susan, the pianist, who had a better defined sense of propriety—remained untouched. But the other three married sisters competed constantly for the presence of Elder Hancock in their homes. And then, finally, the only other young woman in the branch fell. Pam, two and a half years my senior and the other female college student. I wouldn’t have believed it of her, but she did. Elder Hancock was blonde and had been a rodeo cowboy, but I didn’t think he was that handsome. It was the way he had of looking at you when he shook your hand that probably bowled them all over.
Anyway, it got to the point where our branch was an unhappy place. My mother spoke to my father about it. My father, who had been asked to keep an eye on the elders by both mission presidents, shook his head. What could he do with this cheerful, charming young man?
Time passed, and the three sisters who were most smitten grew worse. I was afraid our branch would be torn apart.
I was reading in the New Testament one night and found my weapon: 2 Timothy 3:6: “For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women . . .”
No one else had taken the bull by the horns. So I would. Elder Hancock and his companion were just leaving our home one night after supper when I asked if I could speak with him a minute—with his companion present—he pretended not to hear me, so I followed them out to their car—and leaned through the window of the backseat—so as not to get too close.
“Elder Hancock, you are creeping into houses and leading away captive silly women . . .”
Then, taking courage, I continued, “This whole branch is upset over you. You should hear how the sisters fight over you! Really, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
There! I had done it. And he was looking intently at me, a slow smile beginning on his face. His eyes were shining, sparkling, dancing with delight—
He was enjoying this!
I turned around and ran back into the house, humiliated. He had been anything but penitent; he had enjoyed my rebuke.
At Church on Sunday none of the three women would speak to me. Each gave me a glare and turned her head away from me.
And at home my father sighed heavily and said, “Celia, it looks as though we have a problem”.
“It was not your place, honey,” he continued.
“But dad, no one else would speak”, I protested.
He shook his head again. Secretly I think he was proud of me.
The next time Elder Hancock came to our home he gave me a huge grin and in an aside to my father praised me, “Your daughter knows her scriptures well,” his eyes gleamed at me.
From then on I avoided him.
A month later Elder Hancock’s mission was up, and he returned home.
A week after that he was back in our branch, flattering the married sisters and stealing Pam away.
He took her out on a date. He kissed her. She was beside herself with joy.
He returned to Utah—and three weeks later he returned again, this time with a wife. A wife!
Pam and I took a walk after church.
“He kissed me!” she said—full of feminine indignation. I shook my head in the satisfied sympathy of superiority.
Pam and I went to visit his wife in the tiny apartment they shared down town. At 10:00 in the morning she had curlers in her hair. She was petite, pretty, and very much out of place away from Utah. Pam and I were cordial. Our conversation was sparse. We left, knowing that Elder Hancock wouldn’t be remaining in Nebraska, though he had sworn to live there.
Each of the three married sisters invited Elder Hancock and his wife to her home for a meal.
Less than a month later they were gone.
Everyone was speaking to each other again. The three sisters smiled at me again.
Though Pam’s lips had been touched, her heart remained her own.
TRAVELLING THROUGH LIFE IN THE BACKSEAT WITH MOM
It was the worst dream I had ever had, and I was still terrified. I was 16 years old, but I lay there in my bed, in the dark, shaking all over. I was so scared I dared not even get out of bed.
And then a shadowy figure stood in my doorway. And I heard a soft voice.
“Celia, are you all right?”
I let out a sigh of relief. Mama.
“Yes, I’m all right.”
“I thought something was wrong.”
“I had a bad dream—a very bad dream.”
By this time she was standing beside my bed, so I pulled the bed-clothing aside to make room for her, and she got in beside me. Mine was a twin bed, so it was tight, but neither of us minded.
I told her all about it.
She was silent for a while.
“Have you ever been this scared, mom?”
I can’t remember everything we talked about. I don’t even know how she knew to come to me; perhaps I had cried out. But she lay there beside me until I wasn’t afraid anymore. She prayed with me; she prayed for me. Then she got up and went back to her own bed.
That wasn’t the only time she was a good mother.
When I faced down a group of boys the end of my junior year of high school—shaken and feeling that I had had a close scrape--and walked out of school, I made a decision that would affect the rest of my life. I wasn’t going to go back. I had a handful of friends—Silvia’s friends, but, for reasons I couldn’t understand, I couldn’t get into classes with them, and I was being threatened too much—and the frightening thing was that they were boys, not nice boys. It was a class full of the bad boys of the school and three girls—a girl from another community who was married to a soldier in Viet Nam, the girl in the school who had the worst reputation, and me. Even though the girl with the reputation had pled, in tears, with them to leave me alone, I was still the brunt of their ugly jokes and threats. And every day, at the same time, the teacher—a teacher who had expressed her distaste for our religion to my older brother--left the classroom, leaving me to their play. It wasn’t worth the fight anymore. I might lose sometime. My mother was at home that day when I walked in the door and said, “I’m not going back”. She just looked at me. But, quiet and gentle though she was, she was on the phone with the principal before the day was over—and the principal had complained that “you Mormons think you’re too good for the rest of us.”
So that was it?
Even though I was only two classes short of graduation at the end of my junior year, he would not let me graduate, even if I completed the work.
My mother didn’t take no for an answer. She called the superintendent.
She explained what had happened to me—
The superintendent was shocked.
He decided to make me his personal project and went up to the college to request that I be allowed admission on probationary status in the Fall—If I completed my coursework over the summer.
My mother ordered the courses for me from the University of Nebraska and I went to work.
Eight hours of writing at my desk each day during the loveliest days of summer. I was tired. Sometimes I didn’t want to do it anymore. And when I got discouraged my mother was there at my bedroom door—
“Remember what you said about not going back—“
Looking back at what happened that day—sometimes I shudder to think what might have happened to me if my mother had said, “But you must go back”.
She died too young. The family she left have often been lost without her, though we’ve stumbled on—trying to find our way in what sometimes seems to be a dark world.
Even now, years later, when I can’t sleep at night for some fear, I think of how my mother came and prayed with me.
I received a high school diploma. There is a blank place where the principal refused to sign it. And, thanks to a caring superintendent, I went on to get my education. My mother didn’t think much of her own abilities. But she fought for what she thought was right. And won.
DAD TAKES OVER THE WHEEL AND RESCUES ME
When my father’s postdoctoral fellowship at Utah State University ended and he found himself between jobs I couldn’t stay at Utah State. My father took temporary work in construction while waiting for a hoped for position in Texas—which he eventually received. It wasn’t easy for my dad, always the teacher and no longer a young man, to find himself wielding a hammer and shovel, but he wanted to provide for his family, which—since my older brother’s marriage--included my mother, my sister, a brother still on a mission, and me. So I decided it was time for me to try it on my own. My job at the Del Monte cannery didn’t bring enough money for me to pay the tuition for anything. I applied for an impossible scholarship to BYU. I had never even dreamed of attending BYU, and I knew my chances as a transfer student were not good. But a miracle happened anyway, and I received a full tuition scholarship. All I needed now was the money for a year’s rent in some sort of apartment and a job to feed myself while I went to school. The cannery job paid for the apartment, and I found myself with a job—an early morning one, but a job nonetheless, within my first week on campus.
I didn’t know anyone in Provo. My friend Pam from Nebraska would be coming later to finish her last year at BYU, but she wasn’t there yet, and she had made a commitment for an apartment from the previous year. I felt very, very alone. And to make matters worse, within a very short time, I was ill—extremely ill. Some kind of flu. I couldn’t get out of bed. Everything spun around me. My roommates, complete strangers, stayed away from me as though I had some sort of plague. Everyone went to her classes. I had not shown up for work; I was missing classes. All I had hoped for seemed to be coming untrue very quickly. How could I hope to keep my job? How could I hope to keep my scholarship? I lay in that strange bed, in that strange apartment, in that strange town and cried—even though it hurt to cry.
My father was not a telephone person. He had poor hearing. He hated to pay long distance phone bills. It was something our family joked about—that none of us could ever expect a long distance phone call from dad—
But as I lay there in pain the phone rang. I had to struggle to get to it, but I was the only one there and felt I should make the attempt.
I answered it feebly and heard one of the most wonderful sounds I could have imagined—my father’s voice.
“Celia, are you all right?”
Over my tears I managed to answer, “Yes, dad; I’m all right.”
“Why are you home?”
I laughed, “Why are you calling?”
“I was working, and thoughts of you kept coming to my mind. I figured you were in some kind of trouble.”
“You could say that, dad,” I sobbed.
I told him about the flu. I told him about the job. I told him about the scholarship I would lose. I told him about how strange the apartment was, how strange the roommates were, how alone I felt.
“You’re not alone, honey”, he answered.
The conversation didn’t last for a long time. He had to go. And the room was still spinning around me. But somehow I knew I would make it. I would keep my job. I would keep my scholarship. But most important of all, I would keep my dad.