Saturday, April 15, 2006

Sister Golden Hair

Lucyrain has me thinking about the people I've lost. I say "the people I've lost," because my understanding of myself hinges on thinking of them that way, but maybe it's time to grow up and acknowledge my own role in losing them. Many people have come and gone in my life, but only a few resurface consistently, persistently, in my dreams, year after year. Why have I lost these ones, more than the other ones?

The person who comes to me the most in my dreams is my best friend from high school. She didn't actually go to my high school--she went to the rival one, across town--but she was a member of my church, and we went to Seminary together. She was my size, had the same hair color, same cut, mostly. In a lot of ways we were similar, but she was shy, and she was rich. Maybe she wasn't shy so much as sheltered. But she didn't really have any friends from her school. I had nothing to lose; I was damn poor and from a trashy family and way out of my league as soon as my '76 wagon started up the long, gradual ascent up the way-too-symbolic hill to her subdivision. But we looked alike and dressed alike, and our names rhymed, and her family let me come on weekend vacations to their home in Palm Springs, driving through the brown, brown desert in their light blue Mercedes, drinking warm Diet Cokes and big slices of red cabbage (takes so long to chew! makes you feel full!) surrounded by the smell and softness of leather, listening to the newest musicals from London, Cats, and Starlight Express. They bought me my own copy of Miss Manners, and introduced me to the world of fine china (English or Western European ONLY! Never Asian; Never American; never off-white or beige; only, ever, purest white!)and gave me the opportunity to pretend that I had transcended my class. My mother resented the time I spent at her house, jealous, I guess, of my fascination with a world so far from my own, powerless to compete with what they had to offer.

What I had to offer, I think, was guilessness, passion. They liked that I was a reader, that I loved Bette Davis and Myrna Loy--they especially responded to my fluency in "The Thin Man" ouevre--and that I had what Mormons would call a "strong testimony"--that I believed in the church in a super-present, super-overwhelming way. If I could have spoken in tongues and channeled my ancestors, I would have. And I loved performing for her parents, working to convince them that I was of worth, even if my parents were divorced and my family was poor.

But her, I loved, in a pure, pure way. I thought she was the prettiest, sweetest, softest, quietest person I had ever met. I wanted to protect her. I wanted to be her. I wanted her, but I didn't know what that meant. I still don't know what that would have meant. I just know that being with her made me happier and sadder than I ever knew I could be. She got a boyfriend her senior year in high school, a younger boy, and we didn't see each other as much. We were roommates in college, and married our college boyfriends the same summer; we even shared a bridal shower. One of the last times I talked to her was when I called to congratulate her on the birth of her first child, and told her that I was getting a divorce. We talked briefly, a year later, when she asked me if what she had heard was true, if I had left my husband because I'm a lesbian. We exchanged a few cards after that, but have never talked again.

But she comes to me in dreams a couple of times a year. Usually we greet each other with joy in the dreams--it's been so long, we have so much to catch up on, so much we want to say. But we also want to look at each other, to soak up the other's presence after so much time apart. I always tell her that I've dreamed of this moment, that time after time I've dreamt I saw her again and that each time I've told her about dreaming about seeing her again and marvel, each time, as though it was really happening this time, that she's really there, that we're really seeing each other again. And each time I wake up disappointed, realizing that I haven't seen her, that this was just another layer in an agonizingly long string of dreams.

But last night when she came to me in my dream, she avoided me. I heard that she was back in town, and that she was walking through the same store as me, at that very moment. I ran up the stairs to see her, but she smiled stiffly when she saw me, and turned back to whatever she was looking at before I came up the stairs. I started in on my usual speech, about how amazing it was to see her after so many years, about how I had often dreamed of this moment, only to realize that it was yet another dream. She looked at me and said "this has to end. We both liked David Bowie, and we both went to the same church, but that doesn't necessarily make us friends." I stepped back, stung. And then I looked at how boring her hair was--thinner than mine, and a dingy brownish color. Her eyes were a pale blue, and kind of big, but her face was unremarkable. I remembered that I had pretended not to notice how bad her acne was in high school, or not to gloat when I made cheerleader at my school and she didn't make the squad at hers. She was nobody. She was my love.

I remember visiting her at home during a break from college, playing bridge in the kitchen with her mother, feeling like now that I was almost grown up, with a degree almost in hand and plans to go to grad school, I wouldn't feel so small in their house. Her mother, trying to talk me into dating the man I would end up marrying, leaned in and smiled her wide, wide, smile. I don't even remember what she was talking about, but I remember her words: "Oh there's never been anyone quite like you, Margo, darling." I remember getting what she was offering, hearing, for the first time, the condescension in her voice, understanding, finally, how much of a service she thought she had been doing, teaching me how to be "appropriate," exposing me to a world of manners and taste and elegance, and I recoiled--obviously not enough, since I married the boy, and kept trying to gain her approval for a few more years. That was the day, after a lifetime of trying to get them to like me, that I started to hate rich people.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Quick, dumb thought

So I'm about three and a half hours into a seder dinner and we're deep into a feminist retelling of Exodus, wherein Miriam figures way more prominently than Moses, and I'm hungry--all I've eaten is some something green and grassy, representing bitter herbs, dipped in salt water, and my mind wanders and it hits me, re: Gwyneth and Chris's offspring:
next baby's name will have to come from Leviticus. Any guesses? Aaron? Eleazar? Ithamar?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Big Love, or Not in My Family

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It took me almost a week to get through the pilot episode of Big Love. I was excited when I heard the premise--how could you go wrong with a show about polygamy? and nervous and excited about seeing mormonism dealt with in popular culture. But I couldn't get past the wives' sad eyes, their sinking realization that they would never be "the one." And I really couldn't stomach stupid Bill Paxton's reluctant, put-upon patriarch. How sad to have total dominion over other people's mortal and eternal lives. What a heavy responsibility. Get over it, you stupid baby.

But when I finally sat down and made myself watch the episode from start to finish, I thought it was pretty cool and that they are dealing with the complexity of negotiating a relationship amongst several grown-ups in smart and thoughtful ways. Sure, I wanted to officiously shout out corrections at the tv--mostly about their totally unrealistically immodest clothing, a real easy detail to get right, and totally non-negotiable rule in Mormonism, and yes, even, I would imagine, in polygamist, SLC-based "non"-Mormon Mormonism: Dress Modestly. Meaning, NO SHORT ROBES. NO TANK TOPS (not even in bed). NO TIGHTY-WHITIES. NO SKIN, EVER. But there were also many things that they did get right, and what seemed like lots of teasers to let the Mormons (are they watching the show? When I say Mormons, I mostly mean people who still identify ethnically, if not religiously, as Mormon) out there know that they get it, that they are being selective in what they feature. The Mormon girl chatting about Laurels, Mia Maids, and the Relief Society in the fast-food restraunt kitchen was a nice, easy nod to us. So are the opening credits, when the main characters, dressed all in white skate through filmy veils. That was a pretty obvious shout-out. But what about the last shot in the last minute of the credits, when the patriarch and his wives are holding hands around a table and they are on, and surrounded by, planets? Nice touch.

Watching Big Love and feeling a funny stomach-pitching mixture of pride and shame and embarassment and loss comes right at the time that my department is getting ready to celebrate the 20th anniversary of women's studies at my school, and as part of the festivities, we've been filming various faculty members talking about watershed years in their developing feminism. So far I've avoided giving my three minute narrative, because I have no idea how to describe my coming to feminism without also describing my leaving Mormonism, and my growing realization that you can never leave Mormonism. Or at least, that I don't want to. I don't believe the teachings, I don't attend meetings, but I will shout down anyone, member or non-member who tries to tell me it isn't who I am, an ethnicity as real and thick and heavy as any I can imagine.

Anyway, getting to the title of this post, and why I started blogging this in the first place, as many of the other inactive Mormons in the blogsphere have been reporting, I've been asked how I feel about this show quite a bit, and I often end up describing my family's primary polygamous tale, The Curse of Ann Bond. (Imagine a scary mwhahahaha voice intoning this) I wrote this a while back, when I had a livejournal account, with apologies to all my readers (both of them--Hi Mer! Hi Ronit!) who read this a few years ago.

**The Curse of Ann Bond**
The great, great-grandmother I never had left Provo early on an October morning in 1869. She roused her sons from where they slept next to their brothers and bundled them out into the morning with hushes and kisses. By the time the sun rose she was far up Provo canyon, on her way to Heber City, where she still had family. She kept the boys going by tossing a ball up the road and exciting them to get it; over and over she tossed the ball and over and over they retrieved it. She's left her husband and her sister-wives because her husband and the first wife recently returned from General Conference with a fourth wife. She's not upset that there's a fourth wife; she's upset that she, the second wife, and the woman she shares a home with, the third wife, weren't consulted first. She's devastated, and she's not going back.

That's the opening of the novel I want to write. That's what I know.

What comes next depends on who's telling the story. Sometimes her husband comes to get her in Heber, tries to apologize, tries to coax her home. As they talk David, the older son, hides in his father's wagon and returns to Provo and to his Aunt Jane, who's raised him, along with his mother, in a smaller home, at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, away from the first wife's home, in the center of the city. He coaxes his brother to join him, and by the time he's discovered, his mother has given up, tired of fighting. In another version the children don't have to sneak home; once their mother realizes how much they miss their other mother, and their other siblings, she allows them to return with their father. She stays in Heber for the rest of her life. Or she returns to Massachussets and has five more children, all of whom live, as opposed to the five of her seven children from her previous marriage, who hadn't lived past their early childhoods. In one version, her sons are ripped from her in a violent, tear-drenched scene and she stays in the West, slowly, carefully, plotting her revenge. This, apparently the most popular version in my family, has her befriending an Apache shaman and convincing him to curse our family forever, to condemn us to lives of poverty, alcoholism, divorce, incest, drug abuse, prison time, shot-gun weddings, bankruptcys, birth defects--including the completely unforgettable cousin born with a gill--suicides, murders.

This is how I heard the story, about a year ago. After a lifetime of silence, all these different versions came tumbling out of my mother within the space of one phone call. She was actually telling me about a phone conversation she had just had with a cousin who had just finished a sentence for shooting someone in a mall parking lot. His excuse? Ann Bond. I interrupted my mom to say, "Ann who?" because I had never heard of her. Me, the one completely obsessed with her ancestors, the one who didn't leave Aunt Zova's living room to play cops and robbers with her cousins in the deadly Arizona heat, the one who sat at dying aunts' feet and listened to their stories, told in fragile, lilting voices, of life during the time of Geronimo, of fires that lost all but one precious rocking chair, of monstrous births, and Job-like plagues--the time Aunt Naomi had that cauliflower-like growth all over the back of her hand, or the time she gave birth to a fourteen pound child who split her nearly in two--a child who would never hear. Me, the one who cares so much about this family, much of whose identity still rests on having been loved--really loved--by my grandmother, who grew up surrounded by the remnants of this polygamous family, a woman whose vivacious feminine energy and comportment I try so hard to emulate. Me.

I didn't know this story. I didn't even know, really know, that our family was polygamous. We weren't a fancy family. We weren't the upper-class of Mormons, not aristocracy like the Romneys or the Huntsmen, and usually polygamy was a privilege of the most properous. But here it was: the great great grandfather I had spent my life hearing about (he married a woman he met on his mission in England; he returned to the states a few months earlier than she did; she set out in a hand-cart company eager to get to Utah. Having used green wood to build their hand-carts, they got stranded somewhere in the middle of Nebraska and had to be rescued. He rescued her.) had four other wives. My great great-grandmother was the first. That makes me a descendent of a first wife. That's a good thing in Mormonism.

The second wife, the one who left, was named Ann Bond. What do you think of that name? Isn't it great? Isn't it clean and tight and reddish orangish? If I was going to write a book, I'd use that name. Or maybe I'd try to give her a Dickensian name like Jerusha Mudgett, something deeply symbolic for me (Julie Andrews=Mary Poppins=hot=also plays Jerusha in 1970s adaptation of James Michner's novel Hawaii) and charmingly eccentric to the New York Times Book Review reviewer, who is stunned by the novel's beauty, its passion, the naturalness of its prose.

Big Love seems intent on exploring the nuances of an impossibly difficult situation. It's not a pro-polygamy show. As it so powerfully demonstrates, this isn't an institution that makes sense in the 21st century. There isn't enough work to do to justify this arrangement--hence Nicki's frantic consumption followed by boredom and tears. But I still go back and forth in my mind over whether or not this arrangement made sense in the 19th century. During my undergrad at BYU, my first feminist friends and I used to talk about polygamy a lot. We wanted to believe that somehow our female ancestors had been freed by polygamy, raising their children with other women, caring for each other, blessing each other, free to be both wives and not-wives, mothers and not-mothers. As young women trying to reconcile the only way of life we had ever known, and a church we loved, with the dawning realization that there was no place for us in this world, knowing that even though we were being educated, our church didn't really want us to use those educations except as they helped us in our lonely roles as wives and mothers, sister-wifehood sometimes seemed like a utopian option. But, we always ended up conceeding, since sister-wives answer to one patriarch, absolute and infallible in his power, it also sounded terrifying and humiliating. Better to just leave.