A Photograph and a Journal Entry Blend for a Message to Humanity. In 1934 the statue Serenity is worthy of a snapshot to preserve a memory. The photographer is Grace, a mother who will die and leave behind five young children fourteen years later. The man in the photo is Henry posing with Serenity, the father of the five children that will become motherless.
Serenity's destruction through the decades parallels the tribulations of Grace's five motherless children. The Clayland family carries the burden of the message. Destruction in the family comes just as it does to many families trying everything right in a world full of mistrust, selfishness, and defiance. The Clayland family attempts to adhere to the principles of their faith as they challenge parenthood and poverty. Though Serenity’s view is limited to a vision of buildings, sidewalks, and traffic, the metaphor of her message extends beyond the boundaries of the nation’s capital. She projects an allegorical message of humanity's past, present, and future.
Derek, the main character, is introduced at the beginning of the story and becomes the focus of the family drama. As an adult, he defies social norms and embraces an unconventional lifestyle. He is at peace with himself and his world, and he is still loved by many. The meaning of life is subtly woven into the narrative of events that takes place over several decades. A broken person has the potential to become unbroken. Sometimes, he or she must find their own comfort zone. Serenity suffers and becomes symbolic of Hope for Restoration of Family everywhere. Photographs taken through the years attest to her current state and her hope for renewal and redemption. Online Bookclub 4/4 stars.
At the Feet of Serenity Amazon Books
At the Feet of Serenity
by Eve Gwartney
thru first seven chapters
The one-car garage at the home where I grew up was a mysterious kind of place. My siblings and I were banished from explorations into our father’s possessions that were in storage there. Garden tools were of no interest to some of us; however, his collections from a strange and foreign land where he had once lived held much curiosity for our childish natures. We were allowed into the garage only with him present. There was a small plywood structure squeezed into the far corner of the garage that was filled with magic. Daddy allowed me in with strict instructions when he worked his magic. The fumes of the chemicals within burned my eyes, filled my sinuses, and punched at my brain. He worked his magic methodically, careful to not miss a step in the timing and procedure of the assignment. From his magic, he created an artistic blend of history and truth tangible to the touch. I asked questions. There was much to learn.
“Who is that man standing in front of that statue, Daddy?” The photo lay fresh and wet from the chemical. My amazing father had produced an image of a tall, thin man in a suit and fedora standing in front of a handsome statue. He told me the man was him, but twenty years had elapsed since the time the camera played its role in the magic. I would have never guessed it was my father. Later, he picked up a pen and wrote his name on the photo, the date, and the place. The statue’s name, he did not write. From that time on, I never thought of the photo again until the day my curiosity was riled. Some photographs had a way of wandering away from memory, waiting for an awakening.
In 1934 an evil man was rising to power in Germany with an ambition to rule the world; The Great Depression was taking a toll in America; mourning continued from disease and war that raged two decades earlier. My mother, Grace, was offered a job as assistant to Congresswoman Isabella Greenwall, the first woman elected to represent the state of Arizona. Grace left her Arizona friends and family to begin a new adventure in a city far from home.
My father’s pain was plastered upon that stiff piece of paper, wet from the freshness of its development. What thoughts must have rambled through my father’s head just then? Should he tuck the photo into a secret place? Should he frame it and hang it on a wall for the memories that would haunt him? Should he destroy it for the memories to die with it?
December 1947 - Henry and Grace Clayland owned and operated the Ray Hotel on Main Street in Barstow. The city, proudly nested upon historic Route 66, invited entry into deserts, cities, valleys, and expectations beyond them. The weary travelers emerging from the cities eastward and westward kept the bookkeeper busy throughout the seasons. A few of the hotel patrons were permanent residents who paid their rent on a week-to-week arrangement.
The Clayland family lived in an apartment that was converted from four hotel rooms at the end of the complex. Though it was small, the home fulfilled its purpose. Like most people, Grace and Henry worked hard and liked to think of better times ahead. The dry air of the daytime was therapeutic, and there was no war in the land or abroad. The vast array of stars at night furnished a sense of comfort in the isolated desert town.
A few nights after Thanksgiving, the dippers were in their December positions. The baying coyotes below them would not relent. Their howls were louder than usual, the evening was chillier than usual, and the night was darker than usual. Grace and Henry’s four children waited anxiously for the return of their mother who was lying on a hospital bed. She was far from home, but only because she had to be.
While in the hospital, Grace managed to pick up a pencil and a piece of paper to write a letter to her family. She asked someone to mail it to her home. As Henry read the letter to his children, they no longer feared the coyotes. Their mother was there for a few minutes in the room that once languished. After the close of the letter: with all my love, Mother, she vanished again.
My Dearest Henry and Children:
You can’t imagine how anxious I am to see you and have us all together again. I’m sure this will be our happiest Christmas because we’ll all be together again. We can make all kinds of candy and pretty butterflies and popcorn balls. And I’ll make a real English plum pudding for Christmas dinner.
Tom, I love you, and Derek, and Annabelle, and Carl even more (if that’s possible) since we got our new little girl. She surely is sweet, and I know you’ll love her very much. Henry, all the nurses felt so badly when they learned it was you who asked to see the baby Saturday. They said to tell you it was just a misunderstanding, and they would have brought her out to you special.
I worry about you all taking colds up there in that cold weather. Do be careful. Be careful of Carl getting out the back doors and I hope you won’t build fires in the fireplace until I get there. I’m so afraid Carl will get into the hot ashes after the fire has gone out.
This pencil point is about worn flat. Just remember, I love you terribly much and I dream and think of you all the time.
It’s four o’clock. I have supper at five, and I get the baby at six, which is one of the highlights of my day. The other highlights are the other two times that I get her.
With all my love, Mother
The children knew that she would come back, and she did. She was still not well, but she found the strength to write a letter to her parents. The written word, entrusted to the mail system, kept the communication flowing. Her parents read the letter, responded to it, then folded the letter Grace had written. They put it in a box of letters that were noteworthy to save. After their daughter’s death, they gave it to Henry so that their grandchildren could learn about their mother. The written word is truth, knowledge, and fortune, especially for those who are left behind.
As Henry prepared the evening meal for the family, he listened for the bell that would signal a new customer for their hotel business. He was prepared to drop everything and drag a child or two to the front desk, take care of guest registration, and revert to the necessary domestic work. He put forth his best effort at meeting the demands of his stewardships in the home and the business. Henry’s domestic efforts extended into the nighttime, the daytime, the afternoon, and the times he used to think existed. Time was of the essence, and he knew it could beat him down.
In amounts proportional to the size and eating habits of each child, the father spooned food onto four plates. “It’s time to say grace and give thanks for our food that will help us get healthy and strong.”
The kids knew what was expected when a prayer was being offered. “Be quiet, fold your arms in reverence, don’t kick your brother, and listen to what is being said. When you say ‘amen’ it means you are agreeable.” The father proceeded. “Dear Heavenly Father, bless this food and bless Mommy that she will get better. Amen.” It was a short prayer, but Dad had a lot to do that evening.
“Amen,” repeated Derek confidently. He was a lively little boy of six years.
“Amen,” repeated Annabelle, with less boldness than her brother. Annabelle was four years old, so it was natural for her to want her mommy near her at all times. She felt a little puzzled, but she trusted those who loved her. She had the faith of a little child that all would become well again.
Tom stretched his leg under the table and kicked the chair across from him. He was irritated because Mother wasn’t with them. Sometimes, it was difficult to say anything to the Lord above, not even an “Amen.”
Little Carl was just learning to talk, so his “amen” came out missing the first syllable. No one expected more than that from a seventeen-month-old. I was the newborn Grace wrote home about.
Night fell and the kids were in bed at last. It was time for him to look in on Grace and bring her something to eat. He entered the makeshift kitchen, quickly washed the dinner dishes, and prepared her a meal. With a tray in hand, he stumbled down the hall toward the bedroom. He felt something was wrong when Grace did not respond to the creaking of the door or the sudden illumination of the ceiling light that quickly erased the darkness of nightfall.
He slowly approached their bed to avoid startling her. A closed Venetian blind on the window, a hard tiled floor, and the absence of unnecessary furniture allowed her raspy breath to resonate. Perspiration dribbled down her pallid face mocking the cool temperature of the room. Henry’s responsibility would need to be brief. He sat on the edge of the bed and nudged her out of haziness. “Dear, I brought you something to eat.”
Between the strains of her harsh inhalations, Grace sorrowed and despaired. In silence, she nodded her head to display objection. The incapacitated state she was in and the sinking state of her health and well-being was on her mind. The thoughts of candy, popcorn balls, and pretty butterflies became guilty tokens of neglect and a broken promise she had made in a letter. She noticed when Henry turned on the light, but she had no strength to acknowledge it.
He placed her meal at her side. “I will be back.”
By the time the children awoke in the morning, their friend was already in the home scurrying around helping with the preparations of Grace’s trip to the hospital. It was a trip Henry insisted upon, the hospital where I was born four weeks earlier. Carl toddled into his mother’s bedroom. The little toddler’s angelic face peered over the mattress to greet his mother. His little hands reached out to the bedsheets. He bent his knees to maneuver himself onto the bed. It was a natural thing for any little boy that was especially fond of his mother. Grace found enough strength in her arms to position them for a lingering hug. She kissed him sweetly on his plump little cheeks that invited the tenderness that comes with kisses. Annabelle came into the room. When she saw her mother she ran to her, climbed onto the bed with more skill than her little brother, and cuddled up beside her. Grace ran her fingers through her daughter’s hair. She had splendid thoughts of raising her to maturity and being there for her through most of the stages of her life. Grace had thoughts of being a grandmother, a great grandmother, and beyond it. She and Henry grew old together in the foremost shadow of her hopes.
Henry approached Grace to carry her outside. He lifted her from their bed without effort, for his arms were as strong as his love for her. He walked toward the door with her securely in his arms. Annabelle and Carl followed them as any two little children would whose mother was leaving them. I was somewhere in a room oblivious to the event. I’m sure I was eager to make demands at my convenience, but I believe I had a wish for her to hold me one more time, and tell me that, for the rest of my life, I must conquer life’s challenges with faith, hope, and courage. She would have explained that she won’t be there to guide me through the storms of life. She would tell me to love and accept the person that would take her place. My mother would tell me things that I must know to become a good person like Jesus would want. I believe that was my desire: hold me just one more time.
Tom and Derek stood together in the narrow hallway as their father and mother swept by them. Despite the five-year age difference, the two boys were as fond of each other as brothers can be. Tom was tolerant of his younger brother who followed him around and often got in his way. Grace glanced over Henry’s shoulder at her children. She looked into the eyes of Tom who stood confidently. Being a young man, Tom was caught in the transition between irresponsibility and responsibility, between childhood and adulthood. He fought the fear that began to grip him but remembered all the times she had been carried away. He was confident she would return to them as she always had.
“Take care of your brothers and sisters.” Grace’s words floated into Tom’s ears and alarmed the child within him. Though Grace did not know it at the time, they were her deathbed words. Her bed was the arm of her husband; her audience her children, one of which was Derek. Derek was the other child who remembered her last words to them, and he took them into his innocent heart. To any little boy in a household where death was not imminent, it was a harmless phrase: “take care of your brothers and sisters.” But because death was imminent in the Clayland household, the words intended for Tom burned an ominous mark upon Derek.
With his soulmate, wife, and mother to his five children in his arms, Henry stepped into the desert’s wintery wind. He placed Grace in the back seat of the car so she could rest. I was left at home with the other children. My father got behind the wheel and began the 107-mile journey back to the same hospital. It was the forties when the highways were not expressways, and Route 66 was the superhighway. Any motorist passing them on the two-lane route would not have recognized the couple who were traveling in a borrowed commercial vehicle. No one would have known that the woman in the back seat would turn from mortal to immortal in less than one day. She was not long for the world. Did she know that?
Her life with Henry flashed before her. They say that is what happens before you die, perhaps the time to reflect upon life challenges that you have conquered, ones that resulted in joy and peace, or possibly actions resulting in regret. She was a young woman. Something was not right inside her. A tormenting kind of mystery had fallen on her. She wasn’t like most girls. Her doctor told her it was necessary to adjust her goal of having children: the kind that could fall out of her. If she wanted them, she would have to adopt them, take them from someone else’s body and spirit.
She told Henry before she married him, that she was as barren as they come. She told him on a Sunday on their walk home from Church in the persuasion of the park where they often walked. They went down the western slope where they could be alone. She told him at the feet of Serenity. In their love and common interests, they declared Serenity to be their favorite statue. They held Serenity’s creator in high esteem. They appreciated his artistic gift and his willingness to share it. They went to Serenity often to talk and to be alone with their affection. Henry and Grace expected their insignia of love, devotion, commitment, and sacrifice, carved with a chisel, and placed in a national park, would endure without malice or contempt.
Henry took his handkerchief from his pocket and spread it on the ground for her. They fell into each other’s arms. The occasionally neglected murmurs of automobiles on Sixteenth Street drowned into a crevice of silence. They could hear only the words they spoke to each other. Henry professed his tender love to her, and he explained that her limitations did not sway his love. He told her he was willing to adopt children. At Serenity’s feet, love is unconditional. She had dreamed of having children. The desire to have children was natural and right. Nothing should stop it. She felt strongly that she would have biological children. The message was revealed through a dream. They were there, a child, and more children. They were hers and Henry’s. For her, the message was not any clearer than that.
They married in the summer across the road from Serenity where the Church’s steeple cast its proud shadow near her. Stalwart, unbending, unwavering through strife, patient for the time when “wonderful” would happen.
Patience is a virtue. Good can be born from the bad if mankind strives hard enough for it. Medical science blessed Grace with a solution to her barrenness. A hormone therapy granted her the potential for motherhood. She begged to be treated, and she thanked God for those who made it possible.
I was conceived. Cells split the way the codes dictated. I hoarded the nourishment my mother allowed. And then I was born. The doctor placed me in my father’s arms after my cleaning allowing his trembling hands to finally relax. A difficult C-section was behind her, and she knew there would be no more. She sighed as if to say, “It is enough.” At the time, I was there to take and to demand a sacrifice of someone.
They were almost in Los Angeles. Henry offered her a drink of water, and she drank it heartedly not knowing it would be her death.
The evening before the trip, Henry made a phone call to his brother-in-law, Edwin, Grace’s brother. Uncle Edwin was married to Henry’s sister, Charlotte. A brother and a sister were married to a sister and a brother. We had the same blood flowing through our veins. Our ancestors were the same; the only difference was that we were flipped on the genealogy charts. Edwin was a physician that worked at the same hospital where Grace was to be admitted. He instructed Henry to meet him there. He would be working a shift as the resident physician.
Edwin didn’t realize the seriousness of the new turn in his sister’s illness: a waste of a chance to make her like she was in the springtime. The doctors decided Grace needed special treatment immediately. They arranged to have her go on intravenous fluids. Proper nutrition and plenty of fluids were necessary. But the team wasn’t going to take chances. Grace got admitted into Intensive Care where the nurses could monitor her closely, and they all felt certain that the small and frail sister of Edwin would have a full recovery.
The halls were empty and silent when the alarm from Intensive Care went off. Edwin’s confidence turned to stone when he remembered that Grace was the only patient in IC. He ran, stumbled, and tripped over his thoughts until he reached the unit. The Intensive Care nurses were in a state of panic.
Grace should not have had water in her stomach, an indulgence that seemed quite normal. For someone ill like Grace, it might come up at a most inappropriate time. That is exactly what happened! If it happened to a healthy person, it would have fallen into a pan or upon a pillow to be scooped up and washed, then forgotten about. The drink of water Henry gave her slid into her lungs, aspirating her life away. If they had known of the dangers, she would not have consumed it. Her lungs experienced a violent abscessing, destruction of delicate tissues that were meant for only the exchanges of the molecules of air and not to be shared with anything else.
Edwin fought to restore his melting composure. He lost the attempt when he saw his sister struggle to breathe and fight for air, air that was there but no longer promised for her. Edwin turned around and darted into the hallway. He needed and demanded immediate assistance. Down the hallway, he saw his colleagues come quickly towards him, tapping sounds on the hard floor. Though he knew they could not hear him, he begged them to make the sounds come faster. Before they were in earshot, he began his plea for help. He screamed as if death was at the door to whisk away his sister. “She’ll die, I can’t save her by myself. I need help.” He made his co-workers realize the urgency of doing something for his sister. He stammered. “She can’t die. She has children. She’s my sister. She has to live.”
At the side of Grace’s deathbed, their learning was stilled and their anguish was stirred. A touch on her hand and a look of remorse were all they could offer. They knew that her pain soon would be finished and that her spirit would leave her ravished body. Edwin’s sense of professionalism vanished. He was no longer a physician. He became a little child begging for something he could never have. Hope was not possible. Begging did no good. Not even prayers could restore the battered proteins of her lungs.
“Edwin, we’re so sorry. There is nothing we can do. You know that her lungs have been destroyed.”
Death came for Grace in less than five minutes. Edwin’s coworkers pined at the bedside after the transition of spirit was made. They reverently bowed their heads as a token of respect for the dead. And then they left to attend their duties. It was a bad day for everyone.
It was the second day of the New Year. Henry waited in the hospital lounge to hear the prognosis. He was worried. Putting Grace into Intensive Care sent the message that her illness was serious, but the thought of losing her did not cross his mind. She was there to get fixed. Dealing with the burden of Grace’s illness tasked his thoughts for the past several days. Death was too unreal, too mean, and too contradictory of an act of nature to happen to anyone so young, so needed, so beautiful, and so important.
A waiting room full of hard shiny clean walls and uncompromising benches was not a pleasant place to be when worried. Henry planned on staying until Grace was released from Intensive Care. The day began to close, and a new one approached. The tedium of the waiting peaked. The odors of the hospital began to dissipate. The harshness of the wall tiles diminished, and their cold facade turned moderate. The hard chair he was sitting upon began to feel kind. His mind escaped into an eclipse of memories of how and why their lives had come together. His memory floated back twenty years:
He is twenty years old. Responsibilities do not weigh on him as they do now. It is a time of his youth when goals are only an illusion and potential conquests are unlimited. To make his goals a reality is up to him. He has time. He is doing what is expected of him. He is giving two years of his life to his religion: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Serving a proselyting mission is expected of him; it’s not required, only expected. He is fortunate to be called to South Africa. In his opinion, it’s the most interesting place in the world. South Africa is saturated with excitement and adventures. Wild beasts might appear at his very doorstep! South Africa abounds with tales of conquests and defeats in the history of its colonization.
He gazes upon a photograph of a beautiful girl. Her image speaks in tacit looks that are subtle to the heart. Her eyes look at him as if to say, “It’s okay to be my sweetheart.” Her lips invite affection, and the softness of her oval face implies the softness of her soul. The framed photograph sits on the desk of his companion, his assigned roommate, Elder Clemmenson. The elder has a collection of photographs that almost any missionary would admire. One cherished picture is of his girlfriend who he is planning to marry when he gets back. The remaining are photographs of his family members.
Grace, the girl in the photograph, is one of Elder Clemmenson’s sisters. The frame of the photo teases the edge of the desk encouraging a tumble onto the floor. His roommate made it a habit of throwing his socks over her picture, a convenient location before retiring. The habit must end. “You should be ashamed of treating your sister so disrespectfully. She’s too pretty for your smelly old socks.”
He steps from the ship anchored in the harbor. His family is there to embrace him, then on to his native land of Arizona where he meets his friend and former companion, Elder Clemmenson. An invitation for a visit begins his relationship with Grace.
His reverie traveled swiftly to the District of Columbia. The year was 1934.
Grace is employed as a secretary in the Capital city of the nation. At her insistence, he follows her to the grand city far away from home. The White House, the Capitol, the monuments, and the art are worthy to write home about. Mom and Dad want him on the farm for a few more years. They will have to learn to thrive without him, for his life is now with Grace. He will be far from friends and family, but he knows where he should be.
He searches for employment while he picks up part-time work assignments. The country is struggling to overcome a world depression. Adolf Hitler is planting his seeds of destruction. He finds steady employment. They are ready to be married.
He meets her at her doorstep to begin their walk to Church. She reaches for his hand and steps into the Sunday sunlight. They enter the northeast entrance to their neighborhood park: a clean and tidy city block reserved for lush lawns, flower gardens, water fountains, and monuments. They pay little attention to the visitors who are there to stroll the pleasant paths. Their attentions are for each other. They leave the northwest corner and head north to where Sixteenth Street meets Columbia Road and Harvard. At the intersection, they look upward at the Church’s steeple. Upon its top, a statue of the Angel Moroni is trumpeting his message to the world. It is the only statue of him that is positioned upon a Mormon church meetinghouse. The Angel Moroni, the Church’s icon, is normally reserved for placement upon temples only.
The Sunday Service is complete. They walk through the park, taking their time. Serenity is resting on the western slope of the park. A walking path welcomes patrons to come and partake of the sense of peace she has to offer. Henry and Grace sit on the ground and lean against Serenity’s foundation. They talk of their plans for the future. They will be married in August.
The statue Serenity is their meeting place of preference. He poses in front of the statue as Grace captures on film the aristocratic beauty and gracefulness of Serenity. She hands his camera back to him. He photographs Grace as she poses against the gatepost at the northeast entrance to the park. Her age and her countenance are preserved for their history.
They exit the park at the south entrance. Wide sweeping stairways, located at opposite sides of the cascaded water fountain, end at the level of the reflecting pool. East of the reflecting pool is the Buchanan memorial and the Dante statue. Joan of Arc, the symbol of bravery, appears at the center of the park overlooking the flowing water fountains.
The sound of swift footsteps coming from a restricted hallway suddenly jolted Henry back into reality. The harsh surroundings of the hospital dimmed the vista of history in which he was savoring. His chair became harsh and institutionalized, just as it was before. The sounds of the footsteps bounced their echoes violently against the walls around him. The sound became swifter. He heard shouting. He thought the shouting came from Edwin. “What’s happening?”
Grace wished she was not in the hospital, but she was willing to go to any lengths and make sacrifices to have her health restored. She was thankful for all those who were important to her in her life: her family, her doctors, and her friends. Her brother, Edwin, once told her that she was the one that inspired him to become a physician.
Grace’s thoughts wandered into her home filled with happy children. They were pleasant thoughts of being in her home with her children. An old year ended and invited a new one to begin, and the process would continue for many years to come. Henry journeyed the years with her, the ones behind and the ones ahead. They all sang the usual songs; they laughed together and gathered ingredients together for popcorn balls. The children liked popcorn balls more than the candy, and then the butterflies of course…
Burning in her breath seized the moment with her children. Her thoughts began to get dizzy. Fire burning and hurting. The children faded. She needed air, but it would not come. She fought to inhale. The intense pressure became fierce. Pain in flames. Someone touched her hand. Crushing darkness from her brain; then the pain was gone.
“Edwin, I’m sorry.”
Edwin forced his strained voice into a scream. “She isn’t supposed to die. She has babies. She has children. She is my sister. She can’t die.” He was bewildered. “When will I wake up from this terrible nightmare?” His mind trembled. He kept waiting for the hallucination to end. “Wake up, Edwin. Wake up, Grace, please wake up.”
The nightmare was real. Shock twisted his thoughts as he attempted to grasp the last few minutes. He began to indulge himself in “ifs”: “If only she had arrived earlier; if only I had been with her before it happened...” He could have gone on forever with “ifs.”
The tears came for a sister he loved.
A few minutes passed. He was not able to face Henry who was still waiting in the lounge. He tried to calm down. What was going to happen to her children? How could Henry manage without Grace? She was the stabilizing force in Henry’s life. She was the one responsible for the success they were experiencing. She was his inspiration. Henry needed to be told, but how?
Edwin’s knees weakened as he walked down the hall to tell Henry. He was almost at the door to the lounge. He turned around and went back into his office. He needed to be alone in his grief. He sent someone else to tell Henry.
O MY FATHER
Carl and I were not taken to the funeral. Annabelle, Derek, and Tom attended. The funeral centered on theological concepts meaningful to any Mormon who had a desire to return from whence he came. They were the same doctrines that stemmed from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. They were concepts that many people were comfortable with regardless of their religious convictions.
The stained glass window of the Good Shepherd brought a temporary feeling of peace into the lives of those deeply affected by a woman’s untimely death. The vocalization of the soloist softened the anguish of the mourners who grieved over a life cut short. The hymn, saturated with doctrines expounding the plan of happiness and the eternal nature of life, reminded the mourners of their glorious purposes:
“Oh, my father, thou that dwellest
in the high and glorious place.
When shall I regain thy presence,
and again behold thy face?
In thy holy habitation
did my spirit once reside?
In my first primeval childhood
was I nurtured near thy side?
For a wise and glorious purpose
thou hast placed me here on earth
and withheld the recollection
of my former friends and birth.
Yet, oft-times, a secret something
whispered, ‘You’re a stranger here.’
And I felt that I had wandered
from a more exalted sphere.
I had learned to call thee father
through thy spirit from on high.
But, until the key of knowledge
was restored I knew not why.
In the heavens are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare.
Truth is reason, truth eternal
tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
when I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
in your royal courts on high?
Then, at length when I’ve completed
all you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation,
let me come and dwell with you.”
In the premortal existence, the time before birth when our spirits lived with God, spirits were taught that sojourn on earth was necessary for their eternal progression and the fulfillment of their destinies. They rejoiced at the thought of gaining a tabernacle of flesh and blood at their assigned times on earth. At the time of birth, the veil, a kind of spiritual membrane, was created to blind their memories of their pre-mortal existence. Before mortal birth happened, the spirits were taught the purpose of life. The spirits learned that they would be faced with adversities in their mortal journeys. Adversities were to help the “blind” to gain sight and increase in wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom acquired on earth were to be carried into the next life.
Although the veil was drawn at birth, a light that everyone was born with whispered of a higher existence. This light was also called the conscience. Every person was blessed with this light when they gained their bodies of flesh and blood. Many people would shun it during their lifetimes, a choice bequeathed to them from on high. Agency, the ability and freedom to choose good or evil, and that everyone is accountable for his or her choices, was an important feature of Mormon doctrine.
Henry knew that his life must keep pace with the pressing responsibilities of parenthood. He was no longer in a partnership of raising five children to their fullest potentials. He struggled alone with the challenges of his life. He tended to the physical and emotional needs of his sons and daughters as well as he could. He arose with the dawning of each new day and at night laid down in its vacuum of loneliness.
He fragmented himself five ways. Everything he did, he did for his children. Every decision he made, he made on their behalf. Decisions regarding the business, the care of the children, and the best course to take for the future were his alone. He was afraid of the mistakes he would make. He had a lifetime to be afraid.
Laundry demanded immediate attention, the business had to be run, meals had to be cooked, the children needed attention, maintenance had to be done to the building, diapers needed changing, and bills had to be paid. Life had to go on without ceasing. Henry hired babysitters and cleaning ladies for the times he needed them. Cousins who lived nearby came to his home on Sunday mornings to help get the children ready for Church. The support he had from everyone was unwavering. His friendships knew no bounds. He often received assistance from the ladies of the Relief Society, the women’s auxiliary of the Church. One of his cousins offered to take me from his arms and adopt me. He kindly said no. She wasn’t happy when he said it.
The rotation of the seasons closed its winter chapter on the desert town. The blooms of the cactus lilies on the distant horizon reminded Henry that changes must come about. Changes invited opportunities for experiences and adversity. Henry wondered if each new seasonal bloom of the cactus lilies would weaken the intensity of his despair. If they did, would there be any measure of guilt to replace the easement of his grief?
Occasionally, Henry found himself smiling. At first, when he felt the joy of it, he quickly and consciously replaced it with sorrow. He reminded himself that smiling was not within the boundaries of his sadness. He struggled with the conflicts of emotions that came from losing his wife, soul-mate, and the mother of his five children. He made necessary adjustments to his role in life. Through their actions, his children continually reminded him that he was left alone to nurture them. He did whatever was necessary for success. He was satisfied with the progress of his stewardship, but he was still concerned for the future.
The passing of time began to force the vision of Grace to slip further from him. In defense of his well-being, he began to accept the fact that his beloved was gone from his life until the time they would meet in the next phase of eternal progression. He knew he would always cherish the memories they had together, and he knew he would forever feel the pain of his loss.
Springtime continued. The cactus lilies lost the blooms. The dry heat of the desert made the older children irritable. The boys were out of school for the summer.
The sound of a knock at the front door sent Henry cautiously and hesitantly toward it. It was not a familiar knock. He had learned to recognize the different densities of knocking sounds made by those who came to visit. He opened the door to see a man and a woman from a social service agency. Henry invited his visitors to come into his home. He tried to make them feel at ease. Likewise, they tried to make him feel at ease. It was not easy because of what they were about to say.
“Mr. Clayland, you are in a situation that isn’t typical for healthy family living. You, alone, are trying to be responsible for a large family of young children, four are very young. This is not beneficial to your children.”
Henry was stunned at what was being said to him. The accusations in their voices! He wanted to tell them to leave him and his family alone. Someone just told him he had no right to nurture his children without interference from an outside source. He knew that harsh rhetoric and actions would be counterproductive to the argument, so he composed himself well just then.
The social workers looked around the room as though it were contaminated. “You are neither capable nor qualified for raising such young children. This is not natural, nor is it normal. Your children need to have better living conditions than this.”
Henry would not let them get the best of him. Just because the laundry was piling up on the sofa, it did not mean that their home was dysfunctional. “My family is well and thriving. I take care of my children. I give them what they need. Right now they need each other. Their mother isn’t with us, but I manage well on my own. You are not taking my children from me.”
The man and woman replied with a strong rebuttal. “Your children need the nurturing influence of a woman in their home. Our job is to see that neglected children are taken out of their current situation and placed in a home where they can thrive. It will be necessary for us to put your children in foster care until you resolve this issue. It is the best thing to do for you and your children. You will be receiving a court order to have the children taken from you if you don’t do something soon, very soon.”
Later in life, Dad told me of a time when I had the diaper rash of all diaper rashes and had to go to the doctor to get treatment. Was the incident reported? Was it my baby butt that started this?
Henry felt devastated and verbally assaulted. He would not allow his children to be put into foster care. The enormous task of raising children was difficult. Never in his life was he more challenged, more humbled, and so tired. Two strangers stood before him telling him what they thought he was not capable of. They knew nothing about him and what he was going through. He felt alarmed at the thought of his children being separated from him and each other, but he maintained his composure. He needed to keep his children together. They needed each other. Separating his family would be an act of betrayal. He was no psychologist, but he did not need to be a psychologist to understand his children and what their needs were.
He had to come up with a quick defense, one that was buried deep inside of him, reluctant to surface. “I have relatives that are willing to take them.”
After Grace died, when his grief was so intense that he didn’t function well, he thought of turning to his extended family. His and Grace’s parents, his brothers and sisters, Grace’s brothers and sisters, and a cousin or two offered to take the children into their homes. He appreciated their concerns and their offers but declined them. The children that God gave him were his responsibility. Most of all, they needed to be together as an immediate family.
He was intimidated into going against this judgment that had formed from everything about him: his life with Grace, his family, his religion, and his subculture intermingled with his life’s experiences. Why he allowed the intimidation to get the best of him, he did not know. Perhaps it was because they were minutely right. He began to make accusations against himself: perhaps he wasn’t such a good single parent.
A motorist driving by the hotel saw a man sitting on the porch stairs appearing to be deep in thought. Swiftly, the man on the porch was gone from his sight; the image of the man was no more for his viewing. The motorist would never know of the hell the man on the porch was going through. The sun struck warmth and light on the man on the porch, and offered him courage and hope towards a new beginning.
When Henry shut the door behind him, he was determined that the separation from his children would only be for a short while. He made that promise to them. Grace’s parents relocated to their home in Lynwood after spending a year in Oklahoma City where they had been doing service for the Church. The purpose was to be there for Henry if he needed them. The displacements in the family began with Derek and Tom going to live in a small cabin with our father in a logging town where he obtained work. That didn’t work out well for the boys, so Tom went to live with an uncle, and Derek went to live with an aunt. Carl, Annabelle, and I stayed with our father’s parents who lived on their cotton farm in Safford, Arizona.
Annabelle and Carl enjoyed playing in the wide and open spaces of the fresh Arizona terrain. Grandma and Grandpa affectionately doted upon all three of us. Seventy-year-old Grandmother had the responsibility of caring for three young children while taking care of her ailing husband. Because he was terminally ill with melanoma cancer, Grandfather was confined to a wheelchair. Grandfather had the responsibility of bottle-feeding me. When I learned to crawl, I would pull myself onto Grandfather’s lap, lay my ear against his chest and listen to the rhythm of his beating heart while he fed me from my baby bottles. My heart was turned to his heart, and his to mine.
Grandfather watched me crawl around on the screened porch at their home while he sat in his wheelchair. Once, he saw me pick up a stinkbug and treat it as though it were a gourmet delicacy. He didn’t have a chance to retrieve the insect in time. After the incident, he was relieved of some of his duties.
Henry was out in the world somewhere searching for a wife and a job when he got the chance. He had been feeling pressure from those who felt they knew what was best for him and his children. He was no longer running a home-based business. Social Security benefits were not there to cover a homemaker and nanny for the household. He admitted that finding a woman interested in marrying a widowed man with five young children would not be an easy task.
Jensine was a young woman of thirty years when she became acquainted with Grace’s parents while in the mission field. She was an attractive woman ten years younger than Henry. Her long, soft, copper red hair and hazel eyes were distinctly different from Grace’s dark brown curly hair and dark blue eyes. Jensine’s father was an immigrant from Denmark who had come to America with his parents when he was but a child. Her mother was born and raised in the Utah settlement of Brigham City. I had been told it was a settlement of Danish saints, but I could never verify the claim. Through the acquaintance with Grace’s mother and father, she met Henry. They began their relationship by communicating through the mail. Henry told her right away that he had five motherless children, he informed her of their ages, and he sent her a photograph of them. When she saw the photograph of the five little orphans, Jensine found a spot for them inside her tender heart. She and Henry talked of a future together.
Jensine’s parents were concerned when they learned that their daughter would be instantly endowed with a family of five children of a deceased mother, but they were grateful their daughter was able to fulfill a goal in her life. Though they questioned the motives of their future son-in-law, they gave the couple their blessing.
Close to one year after Grace’s death, Jensine became Henry’s new wife and stepmother to his five children. They married in the Mormon Temple where “until death do you part” is not included in the marriage vows. Marriage in the “House of the Lord” extended into the afterlife. They were joined in the bonds of eternal marriage just as Grace and Henry had been.
One week after the wedding, Grandfather was relieved of his pain and suffering. Although my temporal bond with him became broken, my eternal bond with him remained intact.
Henry gathered his five children together hoping to settle into a stable life raising them with the assistance of Jensine. The family settled in Van Nuys, California. The hotel in Barstow was sold. The sale provided some of the down payment for the house. Henry became the family’s sole supporter from the income he received from his welding job at Douglas Aircraft, an aircraft manufacturing plant.
The home they bought was a stucco and clapboard bungalow situated on a corner lot. The front door opened into a plank-floored living room. An adjacent dining room was wallpapered with robins perched on tree branches blossoming with pink flowers. It was the only room in the house that felt mellow. A kitchen of speckled counter-tops led to a laundry room that offered the use of a door leading to the backyard. A large flagstone patio began at the laundry room door and ended at the detached garage. The living room had a fireplace that was never used because of Jensine’s fear of fire. A decorative carving of a genie lantern was plastered in the middle of the mantle. The children imagined that the genie lantern was a candy dish that offered us many delightful candies at our every whim: peppermint, butterscotch, and chocolate drops were the favorites. The rest of the house consisted of two bedrooms and one bathroom. A den was converted to a bedroom where all the brothers slept.
The one-car garage held artifacts that Henry had acquired in South Africa. His interest in photography and its subjects was the reason for the darkroom in the far corner of the garage. Amongst the assortment of developed photos was an image of his five children who were labeled motherless, and he made several prints from it.
Jensine assumed the role of housekeeper and mother to Henry and Grace’s children. She hoped and prayed that she would successfully bond with them. She understood that breaking ties to their biological mother would be difficult. She was determined to become as patient and affectionate with the children as they allowed her to be.
Henry’s love for Jensine was out of respect and admiration. He was grateful to her for her willingness to be a helpmate to him under such difficult circumstances. But the love from his past haunted him, and grief still weighed heavily on him. Whenever he looked at his growing children, he was reminded of Grace’s contribution to his fatherhood. He was not able to forget Grace. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to forget her.
In providing for his family, Henry was fraudulent in the affairs of the heart. He married Jensine in his state of desperation. In the unselfish act of sacrifice that was required to keep his family together, he brought a new trial into his already turbulent life. For his children and his extended family members, the action was admirable. For his new bride, the action was insufferable. He judged himself harshly for what he had done. He struggled with the conflicts within him and justified his guilt by asking himself if he had any other choice. What he did was wrong, but it was also right. He hoped that as time advanced away from the memories of Grace, the terrible injustice he had inflicted upon Jensine would correct.
When Jensine first met Henry, she could sense his desperation. When she saw the pictures of his children, she wanted to be part of their lives. Henry seemed to be a responsible person, and his strength impressed her. She accepted his proposal of marriage and hoped that their union would be a union of maturing love and companionship. She was determined to be an ideal stepmother. But within her marriage, she felt as though she was living in the shadows of love never to be forgotten. It wasn’t long before Jensine was able to sense Henry’s underlying motive for marriage. She began to feel used, unloved, and unappreciated.
Aside from the issues of the heart, Jensine’s belly began to swell. The family grew, and the children grew.
Plants and flowers surrounded the house and brought a variety of interesting colors to the intersection. A rose bed landscaped into the corner of the front yard was filled with a variety of colorful strains. Henry planted trees far enough away from the bed to allow enough sunshine for the roses. He planted trees, one representing each of his children, and he taught each child how to take care of it. The yard filled quickly with trees.
They planted a little vegetable garden in the back yard near the brick wall that separated their yard from the neighbor’s. The little vegetable garden was situated against the fence to allow room for plants and flowers. Marigolds grew adjacent to the garden, snapdragons grew near the marigolds, zinnias grew near the snapdragons, pansies grew near the zinnias, and they planted a patch of dichondra nearby just to see if it would grow as well. Bees favored our yard above any other yard in the neighborhood.
In the evenings, Jensine watered all of it except for the evidence of Bermuda grass, a wild and obnoxious variety that was most unwelcome because of its strangling attributes. She would cling to her garden hose possessively, as though it were a privilege and an honor to water the grass. The life-giving water flowing from the garden hose mesmerized her into reflecting moments. It was total peace and a distraction from the usual sorrow that beset her. She liked the fresh air and the chance to get out of the house for a while.
During the day, when she was inside taking care of the cleaning and the nurturing, she sent the older children outside to play. It made the house much less crowded. It was a good yard to play in. The climate was typically good because it was Southern California. It was a decade when the sky was almost always blue, and the clouds could get wonderfully imaginative.
Henry went daily to his blue-collar job by catching a carpool at a busy intersection a half-mile from home. He walked to his carpool although he could have driven the family automobile. Within the ten-year span of Van Nuys residency, Henry owned a Ford pickup, a Hudson, a Chevy Bel-Air, and a Studebaker. Each vehicle was almost new when he bought it. Jensine refused to drive. Learning to drive was another one of her fears. The family vehicle stayed parked in the driveway until Henry got behind the wheel to drive it to the essential places: church and the marketplaces. If the kids wanted to go anywhere else, they had to walk to get there.
Jensine learned to tolerate her demented marriage with its five appendages. She learned early on that some of Henry’s children were not as sweet as they appeared in the photograph that Henry had mailed to her. She feared her commitments under the circumstances but felt that love, patience, and understanding would overcome the obstacles. No one forced her to accept Henry’s proposal. She thought that romantic love had begun and that love would continue to grow. She thought she did the right thing by marrying Henry. She thought the Lord would have been pleased with her act of unselfishness.
She became determined to exist within her deprivations, and she took her commitments seriously. She sought to achieve her goals. She brought into the world her own children who would love her, and she would return their love. Having these children gave comfort to her anguish. The more children she had, the more love she felt. She announced to the family that it was time to cease bringing little spirits into the world when a delivery-room nurse informed her that Henry had fallen asleep in the father’s waiting room as she labored to give birth to her fourth child, his ninth.
Jensine directed her life within the boundaries of her religion. She was determined to keep her actions within the doctrines of the Church. The times when she packed her bags and gathered her children to return to her Utah homeland were the few times she almost failed. Her parents had died since the time of the wedding, and her siblings had lives of their own. It wasn’t sensible to permanently stay with her siblings. Just as there was no option for Henry, there was no option for Jensine. To stay joined was their destiny and duty. Their obligation of parenthood was the driving force in their lives. Each had to live within their dominions of despair and deal with it.
Throughout our lives, Carl, Annabelle, Derek, Tom, and I never called Jensine by any name other than “Mamma.” We thought that to call Jensine “Mother” was to betray the mother we were born to because the name was too linked with lineage. “Mom” seemed to be reserved for her own children that she gave birth to. To call her “Jensine” wasn’t appropriate for a matriarch in a family who assisted in the nurturing of her husband’s children.
Shortly after the wedding, my stepmother and I began a warm relationship with each other. In the early years of being part of Jensine’s life, Carl and I often climbed upon her lap and listened to stories she read from a storybook. There was softness, warmth, and tenderness, but slowly someone else began to demand our loyalty. Our loyalty was for a mother we could never see, never talk to, never feel, and never touch: a mother we could only imagine.
Derek enjoyed making kites and flying them. He became the neighborhood adviser for how to build them and make them soar high in the sky. He made the kite tails out of anything he could get his hands on. My old and faded dress, much too worn out to pass on to anyone else, made an impressively long kite tail when shredded and tied exactly right. Derek commanded the kite into the air by running down the middle of the street, carefully avoiding the telephone wires. He deviated from his course only at the approach of automobiles. The kite caught a shaft of wind, and the wind took over the lift as he released the string. The street-sponsored baseball game that operated almost daily in the television-deprived neighborhood came to a halt. The curious participants drew their attention to the kite high in the air. My big brother could do anything!
My faded flowered dress floated, a long tail flapping in the wind. I was glad the old worn dress could be converted to such an important product. It was the dress that I got wet one day in an attempt to help Mamma. I wanted to wash the dress so that Mamma wouldn’t have to. It seemed that Mamma was always bending over the tub of the wringer washer and running wet clothing through the rollers of the wringer. My soiled dress was one less thing for Mamma to wash. In a state of enthusiasm, I entered the bathroom. I examined my face in the mirror, and I liked what I saw. I was about to initiate a new way in which Americans could wash their laundry. I took a washcloth and soaked it in water and then proceeded to wash my dress while I was still wearing it. Why take off my dress? I asked myself. I rubbed the water from the washcloth deep into the fabric to get out anything that was deviant. I covered the front of the dress with wetness. The wetness darkened the faded splotches of fabric.
“Mamma will be so proud of me, and she’ll be happy that I am so clever.” I felt very innovative, creative, and I was helping Mamma as well. There were a lot of children in the family. Mamma had plenty to do. I finished my self-inflicted assignment. Because the day was warm, I knew I needed to find Mamma quickly before the air changed my dress back into its faded flowers. I opened the bathroom door and followed the sounds coming from the laundry room. The sounds from the washer always brought Mamma into focus: a stepmother bent over the wringer washing tub shoving drenched clothes through the rolling wringers. Sometimes, Mamma would let me run the clothes through the wringer, but she seemed worried that I would catch my fingers in the cylinder rollers.
I felt happy to be approaching Mamma. It wasn’t very often that I had an opportunity to make Mamma happy. “Mamma, look! I washed my dress all by myself.” I couldn’t wait to feel Mamma’s approval. I was wrong about Mamma being happy. Mamma always had to do things the standard way. Also, it seemed impossible for Mamma to be happy about anything.
Derek often reminded me that Mamma wasn’t my real mother. He told me about my real mother and explained to me that she was an angel in heaven. He told me that she would be seeing me from time to time, but I wouldn’t be able to see her, and that our real mother had her own special way of taking care of us. Derek was six years older than me. He knew everything. My mother was my guardian angel! The beautiful angel roamed around in a state of obscurity, wanting to take care of things that should be taken care of but not being able to, only able to watch and wish that she could. She wanted to embrace her children and bequeath them with her love. My angel mother knew things about me that my stepmother didn’t. The angel was half of me, she looked more like me than the Mamma that was inside the house doing the daily things of mammas that had skin you could touch.
Derek took his dreams to heart. The stories you didn’t put in your head had to come from somewhere. What better place than from up there? At least grasp on to the good ones, the ones worthwhile, and ones you can allow for determination of destiny. It was okay to discard the bad ones, the ones that were no good for you. Derek’s definition of dreams was established at a young and tender age. He heard a family story told of his mother dreaming of many children, a message to her from above. She knew those babies, and they must come. His mother’s death, then her status as an angel, influenced his thoughts and his attitudes.
Derek became concerned with the affairs of immortality. He often pondered the mysteries of God’s kingdom. Derek often looked at the sky. In the dark of the night, he looked towards Kolob, the place where God dwelled. He used to lie on the grass under the massive assortment of stars and planets and wonder which shiny planet in the universe was Kolob. He would imagine angels amid the Lord.
The stepmother in Derek’s life was the obstacle in his path of progression. He determined that it was she who was to be his life’s greatest nemesis; after all, she took his mother’s place in the home they were supposed to call functional. She was always in the kitchen cooking her Danish recipes, she washed clothes his mother was supposed to wash, she swept the floor with a broom that belonged to his mother, and she slept in the bed his mother was supposed to sleep in. Worst of all, she took the liberty of telling his siblings what they should do, and what they shouldn’t do. That was his league, his territory, and his duty. Mother said it to him in her bedroom at the hotel in Barstow. Her voice faded as Dad was carrying her away, but it was clear and concise. Dad took her away from them. It wasn’t fair. She was supposed to come back to them. “Take care of your brothers and sisters.” He never forgot it, and he never would. He was determined to do what she had asked.
“Jensine, you will never be my mother.” He mostly said it to himself, but he said it to Jensine on the occasions when the statement was called for. No woman could ever love him as his mother did. Derek felt he had failed in the duty that his mother had last requested. He didn’t understand himself. And he didn’t understand why things couldn’t be the way they were supposed to be.
Tom was a young teenager when his father married again. He thought of his mother often, and he missed the long talks they had. The year after her death, he often thought about the time he last saw her, and he remembered the words she said to him. He did take care of his brothers and sisters, but he wasn’t going to make a career out of it. He was there for them. They had a special bond. When he saw his mother for the last time, he expected her to return to them. She went to the hospital to get better, not to die. Then he decided to let go of her. It was hard to hold on to her when he had so much to live for.
Annabelle was insecure, confused, and unsure of herself. She missed her mother though the memories of her were very dim. The most vivid memories were of the funeral. Her father lifted her to the casket so she could see her mother one last time. Her mother was lying motionless upon a shiny sheet unable to embrace her. Annabelle remembered a lid coming down, shutting her mother inside an abyss of terrifying blackness. She wasn’t able to comprehend it. No one could explain it coherently. Her mother went to live with Heavenly Father! Why would her mother leave when she needed her? She remembered wailing for her mother at the gravesite. She remembered the hole in the ground and the casket positioned above it. The hole was dark and ready to steal. She could hear and feel her heart pulsate aggressively inside her chest. No one had to tell her that her mother was going to be lowered into the earth. She reasoned it on her own. Someone picked her up and held her. She couldn’t remember who it was. She did not feel comforted.
Carl was always tenderhearted and dear. He got confusing messages all through his early years. He took the tensions that lingered at home in stride. I was told at a young age that my mother died when I was a baby. My father talked about her one day on the way to Church when Jensine wasn’t with us. At the time, I thought that I wasn’t any different than anyone else. I thought that everyone had a different mother than the one they were born to. I thought that everyone had a dead mother. It was probably at a time when I was confused about many things.
My father rarely spoke of Grace. As a small child, it didn’t cross my mind that my father and my real mother had domestic experiences with each other. As I grew, the concept of “mother” reassembled. I made up stories about a real mother and father, and I allowed my imagination to soar. There were stories about the seven of us being together as a family doing the things that real families do. We laughed together, had dinner together, and got tucked into bed at night by a father and a mother who were real. I was supposed to be able to call someone “Mother” but I never had the honor of it. I knew for certain that Jensine would never hear the word “Mother” from me. My father had betrayed me by giving me a stepmother, a false mother.
It was sad to hear stories about my mother. At the same time, it was sad not to hear them. Would my whole life be enveloped in sadness? Perhaps it was why my father relied heavily on other people to tell Annabelle, my brothers, and me about our mother. He approached Grace’s cousins she grew up with, her brothers and sisters, and anyone he knew who had memorable experiences with her. He requested that stories be written about her, documented upon paper to be preserved for his posterity, so they could become superficially acquainted with the matriarch of his eternal family. He wrote a diary of major events in their lives together. The statue Serenity was mentioned. The courtship at her feet was recorded in his journal and his diary. He saved letters that Grace had written. He gave the stories, letters, and accounts to his and Grace’s children.
I was told the stories, as though stories were all that I deserved. But for them to remain unrecorded was cruel and unfair to my heritage. The words were like the fantasies I kept inside my mind, fantasies that any motherless child would harbor. I had a fantasy of being inside a womb that once existed. I envied other children from the moment I learned that babies grew inside mothers. They glanced at their bellies and they’d think to themselves: “I used to be in there.” To them, it wasn’t a fantasy. My mother became my secret. The stories remained silent, held inside, unqualified to be revealed. My mother lived inside a journal too painful to open.
Inside my brothers’ bedroom, I stared at the framed portrait of the lady who was supposed to be taking care of me, feeding me, teaching me, and wiping away my tears. She was pretty. Her hair was straight and laid flat on top. Sparkling hair clips that pressed on her temples allowed swirls of wavy curls to accent the oval shape of her face. I wondered if my mother’s hair had been permed or if it was natural. My mother always looked the same in the photograph, her chin was always tilted the same, and her face was always tinted in a soft tone of brown, and I could imagine the dark blue eyes that were envied by all her cousins.
In art class at school, I made a Mother’s Day card. I pretended I was going to give it to my real mother. I decorated my card with red paper hearts that I cut from construction paper. I wrote a poem on the card copied from the blackboard. With the card in my hand, I began my walk home from school. As I got closer to home, my mother’s blue eyes mutated back to brown, to become the color that the photo dictated. Just a framed photograph would be there as it always was. Jensine was the flesh and the blood. Then I ripped the card into small pieces and fed it into the storm drain. I sat on the curb, laid my face in my hands, and pouted. When I got home, I didn’t go into my brothers’ room. I was angry at my real mother for dying. I wondered if she knew it.
At the acquisition of television, the children became patrons of “The Mickey Mouse Club” and daily followed the “Adventures of Spin and Marty.” The only exception was each Tuesday, the day the kids in the family walked the two-mile round trip to attend Primary, the Church’s auxiliary for children. The Clayland family attended Church regularly and devoutly.
Throughout my childhood, I listened intently as the doctrines of the Church were being expounded. I caught on quickly to the ones that applied to my life. The doctrine of the sealing powers, or the eternal bonding of families, became the most significant to me. It was taught that, in the perspective of eternity, mortality was only a minute part of one’s span of existence. The time would come when my spirit would leave my body and press on to the next stage of progression, and I would come face to face with my mother. I wondered what kind of a rapport my mother and I would have.
My mother didn’t have the opportunity of raising her children to maturity, and her children didn’t have the opportunity of being raised to maturity by their mother. I wondered if we would have a mother-and-child relationship. Would Tom, Derek, Annabelle, and Carl pick up from where they left off? Would our mother insist on fulfilling the promise she had made to them in that December of long ago? She promised her children that they would make candy, popcorn balls, and pretty butterflies together. Would there be a way to do it in heaven? And would we celebrate Christmas together? Or would everyone become adult friends together in the spiritual heaven above and talk about only adult things, and things that don’t apply to issues of mortality?
For the many years in Van Nuys, Henry buried his turmoil in what the Church terms the “Spirit of Elijah.” Genealogical and family research became a comfort and joy to him. He mailed requests for vital records to submit his ancestors’ names to the temples. In the temples, religious ordinance work would be done vicariously for them.
Grace and Henry were descendants of the early Mormon settlers of the west. Their people were among the refugees of religious persecution who escaped their enemies by fleeing to the virgin western territories of the continent. Their people were among those who saw a barren desert and a chance to turn it into a fertile and fruitful valley. They were among those who made the desert “blossom as a rose.” The desert that blossomed as a rose became the Great Salt Lake Valley and the settlements along the Wasatch range of mountains.
The first Mormon missionaries assigned to Denmark converted Grace’s maternal ancestors to the religion. Putting aside their fears for the unknown, her grandparents joined the main body of Mormons in America in 1855 and became pioneers to Zion where the “pure in heart” dwelled. They relied upon God and each other. There never was a better opportunity to display their courage and faith.
The pioneers accepted whatever fates befell them. They were already well acquainted with suffering and death. They expected it to happen to them. And should we die before our journey’s through, happy day, all is well: the psalm of faith and courage became their music. They sought a permanent home, far from the government that refused to protect them from malicious and murderous mobs, far from the governor of Missouri who had ordered their executions and expulsions, far from the beautiful homes and business they had built in Nauvoo, Illinois but had to leave behind because of the mobs. During the arduous journey, three of Grace’s ancestors and two of Henry’s died on the prairie pushing handcarts. Either starvation or disease took them.
Brigham Young was the chosen spiritual and political leader of the settlers. They looked to him for strength amid uncertainty. The adversities they suffered in the east were still fresh in their memories. Brigham was a god-fearing man who strongly warned the saints to shun pride and remain humble. He promised blessings to those who did. Brigham Young assigned families to colonize the territories throughout the west: Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico. The settlers willingly looked to new horizons and new opportunities. He went down in American history as one of the great colonizers of America. Families mingled and married. They felt fortunate to be a contributor to the building of Zion and her stakes.
Grace’s pioneer family was assigned to St Johns, Arizona. The town was notorious for outlaw gangs plowing through for opportunities of harassment. Henry’s pioneer families originated in Pond Town, Utah, later renamed Salem, Utah, after the land of Lyman’s heritage. They uprooted and relocated from Salem into New Mexico to help colonize the town of Luna, New Mexico, another opportunity for outlaw gangs to terrorize.
Lyman was with the company of pioneers who first entered Salt Lake Valley. He accompanied Brigham Young, leader of the exodus, as they entered the valley at Immigration Canyon. With the Wasatch behind them, they faced a challenging panorama before them. The vision was with Profit Brigham Young. He swept his hand across the salty flat of the valley and proclaimed, “It is enough; this is the right place; drive on.” Lyman watched a handful of men prepare the soil on the valley floor for harvest before winter. Shadrack Roundy, one of those plowing the desert soil, became a great-great-grandfather to Grace.
Through family research and the oral traditions of their families, Henry and Grace learned that they were descendants of the early Mormon polygamists. Until the year 1880 polygamy, the marriage of a man to more than one wife, was practiced among select Mormon men. Many single pioneer women needed to attach to a man for financial, social, emotional support, and the continuance of the human race. According to the Mormon faith, plural marriage was sanctioned by the doctrines of the Church under divine inspiration. It was newly manifested in a religious context. The Church complied with a federal law that was eventually initiated against it. Wilford Woodruff, the prophet and president of the Church at the time, and successor of Brigham Young received a revelation to abolish polygamy. The Lord desired that the doctrines of the Church be compatible with the laws of the land.
Henry hoped that his deceased ancestors in the generations beyond the pioneers accepted the ordinances from the knowledge that they might acquire in their post-mortal life. Baptisms, endowments, and sealings of families to each other, ordinances performed only for mortal beings, were done by proxy for his kindred dead to allow them into his religion. The free will of man and woman continued to be respected even beyond the veil. It was the choice of the deceased to accept or reject the ordinances. Henry was the family research representative for the Clayland extended family.
In the ten years of living in Van Nuys, the Clayland family progressed within their sphere of functionality. Discord continued and intensified with each passing year. Jensine’s unhappiness intensified as well. She continued to feel used and unloved. Her own children softened her sorrow and made her unhappiness tolerable. She bonded with them as a natural mother would. “Wicked Stepmother Syndrome” plagued the family like a cancer. Throughout the years, Derek continued to vocalize his feelings regarding Stepmother Jensine. He always made her understand that he wouldn’t, under any circumstances, ever accept her. He defied her authority, and he was continuously belligerent towards her. His opinions and his actions didn’t set a good example for his brothers and sisters. He continued to take his brotherly duties seriously, and he felt as though he must protect and defend his siblings. He would never forget the last words of his dying mother: “Take care of your brothers and sisters.”
A division was felt between the two sets of Henry’s children. There were the little kids (Jensine’s), and there were the big kids (Henry’s). It became a standard in the Clayland household. A father was the only thing the two groups had in common.
Two weeks short of Henry’s tenth anniversary of working for the aircraft company, and two weeks before he was eligible to draw full pension benefits, the company laid him off.
Dad grew a mustache and called it his escrow mustache. None of the kids knew what the word escrow meant. He told them he would leave the mustache on his upper lip until the time the house sold. After it sold, Henry and Jensine made a down payment on a forty-acre raisin farm in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, “Raisin Capital of the World.”
The San Joaquin Valley, the stretch of fertile land that reached from Sacramento to Bakersfield, was the chance for Henry to continue with the stewardship to feed, shelter, and clothe the eight children who were still under his wing. Tom was an adult and off on his own. Fresno, located in the middle of the valley, had scorching temperatures in the summers and freezing temperatures in the winters. Snowfall was unheard of, and the chance of rainfall in the summers was not typical. The snowfall from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, east of the valley, provided irrigation water to the farms of the valley. Alfalfa, olives, grapes, tomatoes, and fruits of all kinds grew abundantly in the sandy and fertile soil. The vast, flat terrain in the summer was ideal for the production of raisins. There never was a more labor-intensive crop.
Henry got a good deal on a farm of Thompson seedless grapes, the preferred stain for raisin production. If raisin production didn’t earn a good profit, there wouldn’t have been so many raisin farms in the valley, he reasoned. He didn’t think he would be involved in any more labor than any other raisin farmer. Henry liked the idea of being a farmer. He understood farming, he was raised on a cotton farm. He was no longer a young man. He was close to turning fifty. He weighed the advantages of farming. He would be able to work at his own pace and his own place, and he had sons and daughters who could help with the crops. Twelve miles southwest of the city of Fresno, the family began the transition from one style of living to another.
The farm was bleak, a drastic change from the urban neighborhood of Van Nuys that spilled noisy and lively children onto the streets. A chain of life challenges was in the forecast for the Clayland family. The year was 1958. Tom was on his mission for the Church in Uruguay, South America. Derek was in the middle of his high school years, and Annabelle was beginning hers. David, Annette, Diana, and I rode the school bus together to the closest elementary school. Spencer wasn’t in school yet. We all loved to go to school. Conversations occurring on the school bus furnished kinds of information they would never teach in a school at that era of time.
The three-acre family site had the farmhouse and a small one-room building possibly intended to house migrant workers. An outhouse was located at the fringe of the site, also for migrant workers. A gas pump fed the car and tractor. A round cement cow trough with a water spigot was located near the large unpainted barn. There was a propane tank to heat the main house and the little migrant house. A line of large apricot trees offered a challenging climb to the top.
The house was incredibly old and was obviously built without the restraints of building codes. The plumbing lines were of unusual design and dimension. We always had to flush the toilet with a bucket of water, because it was impossible any other way. Whenever we flushed, we could watch the sewage make its way to the septic tank by peering into the drain hole of the bathtub. We knew how to do it slowly and skillfully enough so that the toilet water wouldn’t come up into the bathtub. Everyone got quite skilled with the flushing technique. However, the bathroom had a lingering bad odor that no amount of cleaning was able to dispel.
Uncle Samuel, Grace’s youngest brother, was a doctor like Edwin. He and his wife, Mari, lived in the foothills with his large family of immaculate children. Uncle Samuel occasionally came out to the farm and checked on the family whenever we got sick. He prescribed medicine when necessary. No one in the family got sick very often. We were attacked by boils more often than any other ailment. Uncle Samuel taught the family how to avoid them. After doing family practice for several years, Uncle Samuel decided to specialize in ophthalmology. He went through the necessary training and became a prominent eye surgeon for Central California taking patients in from the northern and southern parts of the state.
Aunt Hannah, one of Grace’s sisters, lived in Clovis, a town near Fresno. She and her family lived in a two-bathroom house with toilets that had incredible flushing capabilities. The big kids from our family loved to go to her house and play with the cousins. A railroad track beyond their back fence was close enough for the kids to wave at all the passing trains. One day, Aunt Hannah and her husband, Uncle Joe, went on a business trip to Southern California. The trip became the final chapter of her life on earth when an intoxicated truck driver instantly killed her in a traffic accident. Aunt Hannah was the same age as Grace when she died. She also left behind five young children, only slightly older than Grace’s children when she died.
Aunt Ellen was another one of Grace’s sisters who also lived near Fresno. She and her family lived on an affluent side of town. While there, she became the author of a national bestseller on how to become a fascinating woman.
The Clayland house had a large kitchen in relation to the rest of the house. It enabled the shabby Formica dinette set to be placed there shoved close to a wall. When having meals together, the skinniest kids in the family were assigned to the chairs against the wall. Jensine was delighted with the kitchen range which looked very new and modern. It had a grill built right in the middle of it. The big kids determined that the modern kitchen range was the only reason Mamma and Daddy must have bought the house, the property, and everything that it entailed. The modern kitchen range was the cause of our despair. If the farmhouse at the orange orchard had a modern kitchen range, one of the farms that Mamma and Daddy looked at when they went shopping for farms, then we would all be picking oranges instead of picking grapes that we had to turn into raisins.
It was tricky trying to figure out where to put eight dependents. The house had one bedroom and a small closed-in front porch that was converted into a bedroom for a boy or two. Annabelle and I slept in a little room without a closet, possibly meant to be a sunroom. Too many drafty windows made the room very cold in the winters. A couple of other girls slept on beds in an alcove near the bathroom that smelled bad. The boys used the little migrant house for their bedroom, so we called it the “boy’s room.”
The little migrant shed had a shoddy closet that mice attacked, and two windows that brought in dusty sunlight. A tall wooden dresser had Carl’s name scratched across the front of it. Jensine always assumed that he was the one that did the autographing, but it was I who did the defacing. I thought it was more fun and much easier to write Carl’s name than it was my own. Sweet and dear Carl never bothered to correct the misunderstanding and took the blame without complaint. On the east side of the room, Henry kept his desk and his file cabinets to maintain his genealogical research although it had waned. Tracked-in sand lingered everywhere, etching swirly patterns into the cheap linoleum floor and stripping color off in significant areas. At the outside corner of the shed, a patch of Bermuda grass bullied its way through a crack in the floor and acted as if no one had any say in the matter.
The barn located beyond the boys’ room was large and unpainted. I didn’t like to go inside because it was dark, even with the rays of light squeezing through the cracks between the slats. The walls of the barn looked frightening with the strange-looking tools hanging on them. The only time I went inside the barn was to marvel at the puppies that Lucky, the family dog, gave birth to. A stranger came by the house one day and made an offer to purchase boards from the barn. He wanted them to make a plank floor for his home. Dad sold enough from the back of the barn to satisfy them both. The transaction made the barn become a subtle eyesore to any motorist traveling the road behind the barn. Because the missing planks brought in plenty of natural sunlight, I was able to go into the stripped middle section of the barn without being afraid.
A cow on the property provided creamy milk daily. The boys milked her and put her out to pasture. The little kids had fun watching a small goldfish grow to a large size in the cow’s drinking trough. No one bothered to feed the goldfish. We figured that it ate the stuff that fell off the cow. The cow trough was near the gas pump. The gas tank was kept filled for the operation of the tractor, and the family car was fed.
Jensine’s green thumb made the outside of the house look nice. She planted some of her favorite plants and flowers. Flowers would not grow at the back of the boy’s room, because that’s where the boys peed. The flowers reminded the kids of their former neighborhood in Van Nuys. Jensine watered the plants with the same mannerisms and devoutness that she had in Van Nuys. She hung onto her garden hose possessively and devoutly, tenderly directing the water stream onto the base of the plants. Watering her plants continued to be a spiritual experience for her, just as it was in Van Nuys. Daddy planted fruit trees on the half-acre frontage between the highway and the house. In the summer, the mature apricot trees became abundant with fruit that birds went crazy over. The trees shielded the view of the home-site from the section of the vineyard that pointed towards town.
Junk cars accumulated throughout the years. They were shoved in the back and abandoned behind the barn. Henry hoped that one day, someone could fix them, and they would run again. He wasn’t the best at maintaining cars. He took care of only what was broken. When the brakes went out on the Studebaker station wagon, he resorted to the hand brake whenever he needed to stop the car as it moved down the long stretches of country roads. A charity repair job, a new junk car, or getting by with worn-out vehicles became the solution for transportation. Money was always tight because something usually went wrong with the crops.
Raisins were made in the sun, as they historically had been. If disease or insect infestation didn’t ruin them, then rain at the wrong time of the year did. Even more so than the nemeses of nature, surplus crops from the previous year brought on financial ruin for many of the small farmers. Before taking on more raisins, the buyers preferred that the previous year’s raisins were sold. It eventually became necessary for acre upon acre of grape vineyards to convert to wine grapes. The wineries often had more offers than they could handle. Fruit flies went crazy over the unpicked grapes that fervently fermented upon the vines.
During pruning time, the family pruned and wrapped the selected branches around the heavy gauge wires that stretched down the rows. Wrapping the new vines on the wires to give support to the fruit was necessary to the procedure. If not handled skillfully, a branch would often hurl at the pruner and then slap him or her in the face. I knew that the mean old branches laughed at me every time they slapped me.
Migrant farmworkers were usually hired to assist the family. The migrants were more available during the pruning season than during the harvest. The family did the weeding, irrigation, and preparation for the harvest. We never used chemicals to kill weeds; we used hoes and our strength to tackle the weeds, invariably Bermuda grass. The water that filled ditches and reservoirs was crucial to every farm family in the valley. To deny water to farmers was to ruin them, make them go bankrupt, and ultimately drive them from the valley and their way of life. During the years there, the government did not deny farmers water as far as I know.
When it came time for the harvest, the farmers depended on the migrant Mexican farmworkers. They would pitch their tents and trailers at the dirt road near the reservoir that was located yonder from the house. The migrants appeared to be destitute, but they seemed to be locked into happy families. The children, who the adults brought with them to labor, worked responsibly, and cooperatively alongside their family members. The members of the families seemed devoted to each other, and the children seemed to be well adjusted within their itinerant lifestyle. If migrant workers were in short supply, the situation was serious. Too often this was the case. Grapes unable to be made into raisins due to labor shortage, or due to Cesar Chavez migrant worker strikes were converted to wine grapes, or they rotted on the vines. If the winery manufacturers were interested in buying the grapes, they offered to buy the crop for almost nothing, as though they were doing the farmers a favor to get the grapes off their hands.
The Thompson Seedless was intended for raisin production. If the crop didn’t end up in the winepresses, the family and the hired workers worked together to pick the grapes for raisin production. After the grapes were picked, they were spread upon heavy paper trays that were laid upon level ground. The ground leveling was a crucial step necessary to avoid mold from accumulating on the shrinking grapes if rain replaced the sun. The teams picked the grapes and laid them on the trays allowing the sun’s rays to begin the conversion process.
After the picking was completed, the farmers typically paid the laborers in cash. Sometimes, if the previous year was fruitful, Dad would pay his kids for their work. With the fruit upon the ground, the family members humbled themselves to pray for the compassion of the weather. The intensity of the sun furnished the time frame of production. The day came when the shrinking grapes had to be turned so that the sun could dry the other side of them. The fruit-filled paper trays were flipped onto clean ones to expose the plump side of the grapes once again. While the sun still lingered above, hopes were high that clouds wouldn’t hinder its rays, and rain would align with its scheduled season. There was no machinery for the processing of the commodity, there was no relief for the spine. The teamwork of two laborers created a steady and synchronized horsepower. Knees in contact with the sandy earth, facing each other, the team turned the trays upside down onto a new sheet of paper: prevent spillage, be careful, keep your pace, and be responsible even if you’re only eleven years old. If it weren’t for the overalls and Cooley hats, a motorist driving by would think the grape turners were living in the same century as Jesus Christ.
The farmers were able to breathe more easily after the sun made its contribution. The paper trays of raisins still had to be folded, rolled, and strategically positioned on the ground to be picked up and loaded in the wagon pulled by the tractor. After the harvest was gathered in, Henry made the kids put the raisins through the sifter to sift out sand and rocks that blew onto the trays while the grapes dried. Payment from the raisin buyers was made depending on weight. The other farmers didn’t sift. Henry wanted to teach the kids to be honest. After the sifting was done, the raisins were packed in wooden crates that were stacked on top of each other near the pulley. A truck came and picked up the raisins to begin the processing for the markets.
The property included five acres of clear land that was adjacent to a section of the vineyard. For his fiftieth birthday, he bought a truckload of sapling almond trees. We planted them on the vacant acreage. The almond trees quickly flourished and produced an abundant supply of almonds. I don’t remember any getting sold, but perhaps some did.
As the years went on, poverty continued at the Clayland homestead. Television, radio, and telephone service became nonexistent at times. We had a party phone line that we shared with a couple of neighbors. If anything broke, it stayed broken. There was no money to fix it or replace it. The little kids resorted to creating their entertainment. They had to sit at the kitchen table, read library books, and draw and paint pictures in tablets of newsprint.
The day came when Henry had to let the vineyard succumb to the Bermuda grass and the weeds. His tidy vineyard collapsed. The upkeep of the enterprise was too intense, and the business wasn’t profitable enough to hire help. It became necessary for him to take a job with the post office working the rural routes near the farm. The thick Tulle fog that often rolled into the valley blinded the reason of the roads and sent motorists into frenzies. Henry decided it was just one more trial in his life he had to cope with. He also got a part-time job working with Del Monte as a raisin inspector, checking raisins to see if they were up to par before they went into the packages.
The chasm that had been generated in Van Nuys continued to persist between the two sets of Henry’s offspring. Carl remained cordial enough to be considered everyone’s brother and friend. The big kids and the little kids continued to share a father but didn’t share a mother. There were Henry’s kids, and there were Jensine’s kids. No one fought and quarreled with each other.
For Christmas one year, Tom bought me and Annabelle a pink plastic electric radio from Cosner’s drug store where Tom had a part-time job. We were thrilled and excited to once again come into contact with civilization. We listened to the heartthrobs of the decade: Elvis, Buddy Holly, Bobby Vinton, Ricky Nelson, and others. We were swept up in the love ballads of Andy Williams and Nat King Cole. We gasped at the lyrics of the song, “Teen Angel.” We wept together when Buddy Holly and his friends died in the plane crash.
The septic tank below the kitchen window that took in the kitchen’s wastewater collapsed and became an open sewer. There was no money to replace it or fix it. Jensine planted bushes and flowers around it to hide the evidence. The pump to the well broke, and the family had to go without water. The reservoir was the only solution for getting household water.
Henry developed deadly eating habits during their years at the farm. He acquired a taste for bread thoroughly soaked in bacon or beef grease. The viscous grease burgers became incorporated into his diet.
The marriage of Jensine and Henry was as it always was. Financial trials made Jensine feel stressed. She continued to feel unloved, unappreciated, and she suffered from depression, but she was determined to not abandon her marriage. Except for Van, her stepchildren remained unconnected. As she relegated herself to a state of hopelessness, she lashed out in her bitterness. At night she wept for the outcome of the choice she had made. Her own children were her strength and her motivation to not fall into hopeless despondency.
I became a recluse in my years at the farm. My unacceptable grades in school reflected the state of my emotions rather than my capabilities. I became withdrawn, secluded, and somewhat neurotic. I walked past the girls’ restroom each day on the way to the school cafeteria to work the serving line so that I could earn my lunch. These were the days before entitlements. No one else was around, for everyone else was in the classrooms learning. It was a convenient time to go inside the restroom and raid the Kotex machine. I knew how to hit it just right so the contents would tumble out without putting nickels in it. There wasn’t any other way to get them, and I didn’t dare tell Mamma that I needed them. I was sure my actions would land me in hell. Bothering Mamma would be another reason for her to get stressed. I justified my thievery by claiming the time and labor I spent sweating over the serving line in the school cafeteria was much more than what my lunch was worth. I could go on with more poverty and hardship stories.
Why couldn’t Daddy have stayed at his hotel and raised us without the interference of the social system and the agencies that think they know everything? How different things might have been for us! The hotel apartment was small, but at least it had a flushing toilet. We had the support of our friends and our Church. Daddy had earned a reasonable income, and he owned property. I thought a lot about “what ifs.” And so I asked the question: How can a social agency know what the long-term effects will be for a forced directive that they make? Perhaps I wouldn’t have had such a miserable childhood if the social system had not perceived that a man isn’t qualified to nurture his children. Perhaps things would have been different for my father if there wasn’t so much pressure from friends and family.
The day came when Henry had to come to a resolution for correcting some of the conflicts in his home. He was no longer able to deal with me. He approached Edwin and Charlotte about taking me into their home for my high school years. The plan was approved. Annabelle was to go with me. She was finished with high school.
We were comfortable with Uncle Edwin and Aunt Charlotte. As children, the big kids spent whole summers staying with them in the family’s one bathroom, three-bedroom house in Alhambra, California. Uncle Edwin had a prosperous medical practice although it wasn’t evident from the house they lived in. Our four double cousins were delightful and fun. On some of the summer days of our childhood, Aunt Charlotte took us to the swimming pool at the local park. On other days, she dropped us off at the local movie theater so we could watch double-feature cowboy and Indian movies plus ten cartoons. We had plenty to eat, and we had games to play.
We appreciated Edwin and Charlotte’s graciousness and their generosity. This time, it was not summer vacation. They became my legal guardians for the next four years. Before we left home to live with Uncle Edwin and Aunt Charlotte, our father told Annabelle and me that he was glad we came to live with him. It was something he told us often: “I’m glad you came to live with me.” The trip became a turning point in our lives.
During a year when the big kids remained at the Fresno farm, Uncle Edwin and Aunt Charlotte moved to a large, picturesque house on Granada Avenue. Everyone referred to the house as Snow White’s cottage. The large, sugar-brown, two-story stucco house accented with contrasting trim had looming chimneys on opposite sides of the house that enticed ivy vines to climb their way to the top. A heavy, arched front door complimented the latticed windowpanes. Aunt Charlotte hated to drape them, for draping would hide the beauty of the panes.
Unlike all the neighbors’ houses, this house was set far back from the avenue. The interior of the house was as charming as the exterior. Ceramic tiled floors on the first level and pure wool carpets in the living room and den could have qualified the house for a feature in a magazine of home design and decorating. A secret door in the walnut-paneled den contained Edwin’s photography equipment. An annexed apartment that had a bedroom suspended in the air directly above the driveway became the living space for my sister and me. An unlit secondary stairway, adjacent to the garage, reached up to the main part of the apartment that was located above the garage.
Uncle Edwin and Aunt Charlotte took the family to the family reunions held every other year at the White Mountains in Arizona. The forestland that Grace’s grandparents homesteaded in the 1880s remained in the possession of the family. A cookhouse, a recreation hall, cabins, and outhouses were built from the lumber of the old sawmill they had owned and operated. The reunions at the homestead were a haven from the harsh realities of loss that Grace’s children had suffered. The relatives that surrounded us on the two scheduled days in early July happened to be the same relatives who wrote down their memories of Grace: the aunts and uncles, and the brothers and sisters who loved her. We felt the connection with our heritage that our mother lovingly bestowed upon us. Our mother was the missing link in our immediate eternal family. We felt the reality of the connection. We relished the spirit of the bond.
Annabelle began attending the local city college and then a university for a year before she got married. My cousins and I went to the local high school. I went from being a poor farmer’s daughter to suddenly being thrust into an affluent lifestyle where gardeners attended the landscaping, and maids did the domestic chores. Uncle Edwin and Aunt Charlotte made it a project to assist Henry’s children in any way they could. After all, Edwin was Grace’s brother, and Charlotte was Henry’s sister. They shared their love and resources with their nieces and nephews. They helped through emotionally and financially challenging times. Edwin and Charlotte were more generous than they should have been. Edwin would sometimes think of his sister, her begging to get home so she could make popcorn balls, candy, and some kind of butterflies. She had to be there for Christmas, she had insisted on it. Often, I would think, “Daddy, can’t you just figure out how to solve the problems in your home;” then again, maybe there wasn’t a way.
I went to school dutifully but without vision. My grades were acceptable but I was socially incompetent. There was a good supply of good-looking boys, but they seemed to be so unreachable. The kind of girls boys liked were ones with flashing smiles and sparkling eyes, like Cheryl and her friend Kathy. They were both very pretty and popular with the boys. They experienced it all: the drill team, the cheerleading squad, and homecoming courts. One year, the two of them ran for homecoming queen. Kathy was crowned. A few years later, I wondered if the guys would have favored Cheryl if they had known that, in the future, she would become a world-famous model. I didn’t know how to make my eyes sparkle like their eyes.
In the four years at the same high school, teachers and peers weaved their influence into my character. They all had their own twist on life, it seemed. The Spanish teacher would sit at his desk directly facing his classroom of students. He had a habit of shifting his eyes down towards the girls’ skirts, as though he were trying to get a glimpse of something forbidden. There was the English teacher who read my creative story to the whole class to show an example of terrible creative writing. I had written something about a blue sky using the words, ‘baby blue;’ I can’t remember the story. There was Miss Solomon’s Modern Dance course for the girls who wanted an easy way of avoiding gym class where you were forced to do exercises and play the sports you were no good at. There was Study Hall supervised by Ellie Priest, the wife of one of my cousins. She had a split personality. It seemed that her personality in the classroom wasn’t anything like her personality at the family gatherings where we would occasionally meet. There was Miss Beacon’s biology class. One day, Miss Beacon was passing bones around for the students to examine when she got a rare phone call. I watched her turn pale when she was told that President Kennedy was assassinated. There was the Driver’s Ed class whose instructor was confident that I could parallel park because I had done it before. “You don’t have a problem with parallel parking,” he insisted. “If you were able to do it before, you can do it again.” They were words that boosted my confidence whenever my confidence needed boosting.
There was Mormon Table in the cafeteria. It became so because the Mormon kids were the early arrivals who came directly from Early Morning Seminary. We sat together and chatted with each other, soaking up the time between Seminary and First Period. They were the days before girls wore jeans or pants to school. Dresses, skirts, and blouses were the norm. There were the skirt-length checks at the gym. The girls were required to kneel on the floor if their skirts appeared to be too short. If the hems didn’t touch the floor, they were sent home to change. Moms were usually at home to pick up their daughters from school and take them home if the office call was made. There was the measles outbreak of which I was a participant.
All during high school, I missed my father. I often thought of him standing way out in the grape vineyard with his knit cap clutched over his ears, his face leathery from all the sun and sandy wind. He held the pruning shears skillfully, ready for the attack. He held them under his arm while he used both hands to wrap the vines around the wires, fighting against their strength. Once in a while, he would lose control. I could see a grapevine hurl its fury at him and smack him in the face on a cold day making him sob. The colder the day, the more it would hurt. As long as he had a reason to sob, he would go right on and sob, and never stop. He had no reason to stop.
I hoped Mamma was happier now that I was out of her life. It was a good thing anyway. How long could I keep raiding the Kotex machines in restrooms before I got caught?
I felt guilty that I had it so good. Carl was the only one of the big kids left at the farm. He was a diligent student and worked hard on the farm. On the weekends, he sometimes went out with his friends. At the soda shop where he and his friends hung out, his buddies drank milkshakes. Carl drank ice water because he didn’t have money. He missed out on some fun. He was still pleasant to Jensine and everyone else. He never let the family problems defeat him. He was full of goals that he planned to achieve on the highways ahead of him. He decided that the hardships he went through would someday be a thing of the past.
Annabelle and I occasionally boarded the Greyhound Bus and traveled to Fresno to visit the family. As time wore on, the trips got less frequent. Being with the family wasn’t the same. Our father wasn’t the same. We didn’t have to do chores. Washing and drying dishes was no longer a requirement as it had been throughout my childhood. Things were as if we were no longer a part of the family at the Clayland raisin farm.
The little kids continued to sit around the table, drawing pictures on tablets of paper, and reading library books. There was David. In the future, he will become the supervisory landscaper of the gardens at the Provo Temple in Utah, and he will become employed as the head landscaper of the grounds at the city courthouse. There was Annette. She will become an elementary schoolteacher and acquire many interests and talents, including art. She will live with her mother for many years after Daddy died, and she will be there for her mother’s needs. There was Diana. One Christmas, this little sister tearfully demanded that the fire department be called to help them out in their state of emergency: the family didn’t have a Christmas tree. She will become a professional artist and illustrator. There was Spencer. He will become an undercover cop for the city of Phoenix. After a few years of working the streets, he will move on to new career heights. I felt sorry for the little kids. They looked so destitute in their state of poverty. I wondered if their futures were hopeless.
Derek returned home from his mission to South America and dropped by Uncle Edwin’s and Aunt Charlotte’s before seeing the Fresno family. He stayed a day or two before going on to higher education. Derek was interested in politics and was planning on some kind of career in it. He and our dad didn’t see eye to eye on some things. Derek was obstinate with his political views. He was vocal and he didn’t mind stirring up controversy once in a while. His opinions could get boring to listen to. Sometimes, his voice had an irritating tone, especially when talking about controversial topics. He was a handsome fellow but nothing that would drive the girls wild. His eyes were the same hue of blue as his father’s. When he smiled, his face immediately lost credibility, for his teeth went every-which-way. If he wore a business suit, his smile made it look contradictory. He could have been one with the grapevines if he ever had the passion for them.
He was the kind of person that would leave a trail of possessions behind everywhere he went. He’d leave some of his things in Fresno, some in at Uncle Edwin’s and Aunt Charlotte’s, some at the grandparents’ house, and some in places he had forgotten about. When he was a boy, Uncle Edwin paid for orthodontic treatment for him. He had little tolerance for the obnoxious wires on his teeth, but he endured them. After the braces came off and the retainer took over, he accidentally dropped it on the ground and stepped on it smashing it to pieces. Uncle Edwin didn’t know about his losing the retainer, and it never got replaced. His teeth eventually reverted to their natural state.
Derek clung to his religion and valued his faith emphatically. His religion was his armor; he was determined to not falter. He liked to read faith-promoting stories. He was always interested in things that were not of mortality. He became the author of an article about the pre-existence that got published in the Church’s official monthly magazine for adult members.
There was a kind of sadness about Derek, almost an air of defeat about him that begged to become his nature. But he could still laugh and play. He teased little kids, let them take rides on his back. He was good at making Donald Duck sounds. He had a hearty laugh. Derek had a sense of humor and was a willing volunteer for participation in any prank. Tom was back from his mission at the time I turned twelve years old. I was living at the raisin farm. Unknown to me, he had in his possession an enormous blown Ostrich egg that he brought back from South America. It was to become a prop in a prank. It was my chore to gather the chicken eggs out of the chicken coup, no arduous task because it was only enough to feed the family and give away the excess to friends and family. Derek and Tom placed the shocking egg on a chicken’s nest one morning before I went to gather the eggs. The two brothers positioned themselves near the coup and acted like they were clearing weeds from the vegetable garden. They didn’t want to miss the opportunity of seeing the expression on my face when I came running out of the coup in a frenzy of excitement and wild wonder. They were able to view just what they were after. After they had their big laugh, I wondered what the chickens thought of the mutant egg.
Derek dressed up in a Santa Claus suit to pose for a group picture for his school yearbook. He had a lot to look forward to in life and sometimes enjoyed tinting it with humor. He got irate and emotional when he thought about the trials of the family. There were some young ladies interested in him, but he felt insecure about having any kind of a long-term relationship that might lead to marriage. Derek understood the expansiveness of eternity and the commitments that went with it.
He enjoyed becoming educated. He was interested in learning a variety of subjects. He liked astronomy, history, physics, anthropology, and zoology. He was the kind of a person that couldn’t resist a shelf of books. If a book didn’t look interesting to him, he picked it up and scanned it anyway. He liked to share the things he learned with his friends and family. National Geographic was his favorite magazine. He enjoyed watching documentaries on television.
Derek’s grades were okay. He took a campus job to help defray the costs of obtaining a degree in Political Science, a degree he would eventually come to regret because it turned out to be useless for obtaining a career. He still attended the University when Carl and I arrived to begin our education. Occasionally, while walking between classes, the siblings crossed each other’s paths and exchanged glances that no one else could ever comprehend.
9. A STRETCH IN TIME
10. SETTLED TO THE END
11. SUZANNA AND MARLENE
12. THE PSYCHOLOGIST
15. WANDERING HOPE
17. BLAME GAME
19. CHANGE OF HEART
22. DEREK'S NEW COMMUNITY
PHOTOS OF SERENITY 1934 - 2019 Serenity Through the Decades
for the rest of the story.