2. Sparkling Difference
Growing up in Southern California—outside the Utah precincts of our Zion, our lovely Deseret—I was almost always the only Mormon girl in the room. I knew this because everywhere I went, I looked for other Mormons. The first day of third grade, I sat at my desk and counted head by head, red, blond, and brown: how many of my deskmates did I go to church with? Whose parents did I call “Brother” and “Sister” and whose “Mr.” and “Mrs.”? Which ones knew all the Book of Mormon stories, or spent their summer vacations with Utah cousins, or piled their old clothes into bundles for the Deseret Industries, our special chain of Mormon thrift stores across the American West? In my third-grade classroom, I was the only one.
And when I went to birthday parties, I made sure to check if I was the only Mormon girl. For then I would have to ask if I could please have a root beer instead of a Coca-Cola like all the other children were having. Because it was our rule that we did not drink Coca-Cola, or Dr Pepper, or Mountain Dew, or Sunkist (the only orange soda with caffeine), or even Aspen soda, the new apple-flavored soda they advertised on television with the pretty blond skier going down the powdery slope to communicate its deep refreshment. That Aspen soda sure looked beyond delicious, but it was not to be.
For these were our rules: No tea. No coffee. No cigarettes. No alcohol of any kind. No caffeine. Which is how I became an expert in the world of American sodas, knowing that those cardboard flats of grocery-store-brand orange, grape, and strawberry sodas, the root beers, ginger ales, and 7UPs were all beloved of God and the Mormons, while all others containing caffeine were strictly off limits. This is how I learned to discipline my appetites around the words of the prophets.
When I went to the large birthday parties at the local ice cream parlor with the faux stained-glass windows, red vinyl booths, and marble tabletops, it was up to me to whisper to one of the parents: “No Coke, please; only root beer, thank you.” There was no need to explain such things when I went to the birthdays of Juli, or Shayne, or the other Mormon girls at my school. There was no need to explain at all, no waiting in nervous anticipation for the big tray of sodas to arrive, fifteen identical glasses of bubbly soda and who would stop to help me find out which one—not the waitress, and not the parents busy with so many children. It was up to me alone to figure out how to locate the no-caffeine soda without risking so much as a taste of a Coke, maybe just smell the drinks, or rather go totally without—yes, no problem. The challenge of it all raised a simple birthday party refreshment into something of a sacred offering.
Yes, to tell the truth, I loved being a Mormon girl, a root beer among the Cokes. I relished my sparkling internal difference, all but invisible to the untrained eye.
Invisible as our differences might have been to the non- Mormons we lived among, we Mormons were never invisible to one another, especially in the Book of Mormon belt, the sacred geographical domain that ran south from Canada down through Idaho, Utah, and Nevada to Arizona, then west into Southern California and my home at the edge of the orange groves. Even in airports, gas stations, and department stores, we Mormons could spot other Mormons: married people with several children in tow; always modestly dressed, our dresses and shorts to the knees, our shoulders covered, the shadow of the neckline or hemline of our sacred undergarments barely visible through the clothes; our faces soft and pale from the church commitments that kept us indoors most of the weekend; our men clean-shaven and sort of girlish because they were free of vices, and still wearing haircuts short as missionaries’; never a curse word uttered, never a Coke or a coffee or cigarette in hand. Maybe driving a two-toned blue passenger van with bench seats, and always carrying an extra book of scripture: never just the Bible but our Book of Mormon too.
We could identify other Mormons just by the sound of their names: older men named Rulon, Larue, or Lavell; older women named LaVera. Some of us named Brigham or Spencer for modern prophets, and some of us named Moroni, Mahonri, Nephi, or Jared for Book of Mormon ones. Some even had well-known Mormon last names like Allred, Hatch, Rigby, Ricks, Tanner, Cannon, and Young.
We knew we all followed the same code of rules. Not only the easy and obvious ones, such as no murder, no lying, no stealing, no taking the name of the Lord in vain, of course, but subtler ones handed down by our prophets in Salt Lake City. No playing with face cards. No masks, even on Halloween. No two-piece bathing suits. No dating a non- Mormon; no dating before age sixteen. No R-rated movies. For Mormon women: no working outside the home. No work, sports, shopping, swimming, or television on Sunday. Keep a personal journal. Grow a vegetable garden. Keep a year’s supply of food in your garage. Hold special family worship meetings every Monday night. Read the scriptures every day. Pray morning and night. Pray always.
How we loved to see one another, we Mormons, out and about in the confusion of the greater world we traversed each day, undetectable, to be able to grip one another’s’ unstained hands with firm missionary handshakes and speak the familiar language of our people, a language of modern prophets and apostles, small Utah towns, church auxiliaries, missions and missionaries, words that smelled like laundry detergent, hymnals, and cottonwood trees, words as comforting as bread made from home-ground wheat and smothered with home-canned peach preserves. How we loved to see the family vans out on the highways of the Mormon corridor, steaming along the I-15, up past the old Mormon outpost at San Bernardino, through the old Mormon settlement of Las Vegas, through the red bluffs of St. George, Utah, up through the Great Basin to our family reunions and missionary farewells. A man in our ward named LaRue had a personalized California license plate that read “LDSRU12,” LDS being the acronym for “Latter-day Saints,” another name we Mormons called ourselves. How it felt to be LaRue, fielding friendly noncaffeinated honks and waves all day long from other Mormons, so happy to be Mormons, so happy to know and be known.
To the untrained eye, I knew I looked like any other third grader: with my dark brown hair in a Dorothy Hamill cut, brown freckles on the bridge of my nose, and wearing my favorite birthday pair of vinyl zip-up boots.
But every Sunday at church I learned that there was something powerful in my careful steps and clean language and shiny caffeine-free skin and hair, something that might catch the corner of someone’s eye, leading them first to inquire about and then to discover for themselves the joy of Mormon living. “Dare to Be Different,” was the motto the older kids recited in their Sunday meetings. “CTR” read the letters on the little green-enameled ring I got in the mail after sending my nickels and dimes to Salt Lake City, its letters reminding me to “Choose the Right” at all times, as I went about my daily life with the eyes of the world upon me.
Such was the power of our sparkling difference, I learned, that Brigham Young University had deputized a special precision Mormon youth song-and-dance team called the Young Ambassadors to spend all year circling the globe, enticing audiences to righteousness with their trademark wholesome show tunes and modest yet professional theatrical costumes.
Perhaps I was no Young Amabassador, at least not yet, but I often rehearsed scenarios, just for the sake of readiness:
I might be sitting at a marble-topped ice-cream-parlor table, patiently, beatifically waiting for my glass of root beer, while the children all around me—even the birthday girl herself—unthinkingly splashed their Coca-Colas.
I might be the only third grader who stayed behind to help the homely boy with leg braces ready himself for the playground.
“What makes you so different?” the yard duty in her orange safety pinafore, or the auburn-haired mother of the birthday girl might ask.
Or it might be many, many years later, and two young missionaries in white shirts might knock on the yard duty’s door, or the door of the birthday girl, or the door of her now gray-haired mother, and recalling my shining goodness, they might keep the door open a little longer and agree to hear the story of Joseph Smith or even read the Book of Mormon. For all around us, as they taught us at Church, people were hungry for answers, hungry for the gospel to give order and purpose to their lives.
I saw it for myself, that hunger, in the filmstrips and movies my Sunday School teachers projected against the church’s cool white cinder-block walls.
The favorite among us—me, Juli, Shayne, and the other boys and girls in Sunday School—was the movie called Man’s Search for Happiness.
If we begged hard enough, we could convince our teachers to put down their Salt Lake City–printed lesson manuals and show it again and again: every time the same sequence of images, every time the same spiral of feelings winding up in my chest.
It opened with a blond man crossing a bridge over a leafy stream. The voice-over wonders, as he gazes at the wavering reflection of his impossibly chiseled face in the water: “Who am I? How did I come to be? Time: where does it take me? Toward death? And then what? Where did I come from?”
Surely, I felt, I was among the lucky ones in all the world to have beautiful answers to those questions, and I wanted so badly for the man gazing into the water to have them too.
The surface of the water rippled and then faded into swirls of turquoise, purple, and brown, inhabited by people in white clothing, moving peacefully and contentedly among the mists, none of them touching, but some of them talking softly in groups. “At birth you did not suddenly flare into existence out of nowhere,” the confident voice related. “You have always lived. In pre-earth life you lived with your Heavenly Father as his spirit sons and daughters. You learned, until you were ready to come to earth.”
My mind reached back against its opaque limits, against the forgetting we called the “veil,” stretching for a glimpse of some corner of that pre-earthly life.
Suddenly the screen split: on one side, the swirly pre-earth realms, on the other, the cold hospital, the masked doctor and nurse holding a newborn baby by his heels. “Upon entering mortal life, the memory of your life before birth was blotted out, that you might live by faith and further prepare for everlastingness,” the voice continued.
I reached and remembered nothing but still felt the certainty of my own life, my spirit, like a long blue cotton thread from one of the spools in my grandmother’s sewing box, but without beginning or end.
On the screen, the operating room melted into the unholy laugh of a nodding mechanical clown, the gateway arch of a carnival on a darkened studio lot. “Life offers you two precious gifts: one is time, the other—freedom of choice. You are free to exchange your time for thrills.”
The headlights of a roller-coaster car flared out of the darkness and rushed by. The darkness of the carnival is a menace.
“You may trade it for base desires.”
The stockinged calves of four female dancers can-canned across the screen, red marabou boas floating along with them.
“You may invest it in greed.”
A sideshow barker wearing shirtsleeve garters spun a roulette wheel and flashed tickets to the captive crowd.
“You may purchase with it vanity.”
A man in a gray suit and fedora admired himself in a fun-house mirror, while his blond wife chortled gamely along.
“You may spend it in pursuit of material goods.”
Another man raised an air rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the mechanical ducks going round and round in the shooting gallery. Pop-pop-pop. The sideshow barker handed the wife a china doll, which slipped through her fingers and fell to the ground, where it broke into pieces. She makes a sour sound of disappointment.
“But in these you will find no lasting satisfaction.”
The woman gave her husband a disgusted look. How I disliked her, how I disliked the way she glared at her husband. Who wanted a china doll, really? Was that all this earthlife had for me?
A series of ticking clocks converged on the screen.
“Every minute, every hour, every day of your mortal life must be accounted for. Your eternal reward will be according to your choosing.”
The camera panned down the length of a grandfather clock, as a gray-haired grandfather in a suit and tie adjusted his own pocket watch and showed it to his blond grandson who was wearing a plaid vest.
How much better it must have felt to be in their warm bread-smelling house, I imagined, than it did in the dark carnival full of randomness and cheap prizes.
“After death, though your mortal body lies in the earth, you, your spirit self, will continue to live.” The outline figure of a man steps up through a skyscape of amber and burgundy clouds.
“Like coming out of a darkened room into the light, through death you will reemerge into a place of reawakening and find loved ones waiting to welcome you.”
And so it was revealed: the man was the gray-haired grandfather, who left behind his pocket watch and traded his gray suit for clothes all in white. He stepped out of the mists, arms raised, into the embrace of his gray-haired wife and countless others clad in all white who stepped forward out of the mists to welcome him, as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang exultant.
Seeing their embrace, I thought always of my own whitehaired Utah-born grandmother, still alive, but thirty miles down the freeway. It always felt like a million miles, and I wanted to be sitting at her kitchen table. I wanted her to slice me a dish of peaches. I wanted to feel the soft worn pads of her thumbs in my hands. I wanted to sit on the back porch wrapped in an afghan on my grandfather’s lap watching the planes line up in the night sky to land at Los Angeles International Airport, coming home.
“This is the way to peace, happiness, and eternal life,” the voice concluded, as the scene changed from heaven to a concourse of living mortals, pressing forward, some in the traditional costumes of their native countries, Swiss, Samoan, American Indian, babies in their arms.
“Hold fast to that which is good. Only if you are unafraid of truth will you find it. It leads to limitless opportunities, with your loved ones with you, always and forever. Therein lies your happiness. A happiness deeper than passing pleasures. A happiness not of the moment, but of eternity.”
I felt the voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir surging all around me, and I thought of the broken china doll on the ground, and the sour look on the face of the vain and disappointed woman. Every time I saw Man’s Search for Happiness I promised myself: I would be different. For what were they to me, the passing pleasures of this life—profanity, face cards, and Coca-Cola, even my favorite birthday zip-up vinyl boots—the hollow pleasures of the spooky carnival of earthlife? What were any of these next to the knowledge of who I was, where I came from, and where I was going? In the cool safety of the darkened Sunday School room, I hugged my knees and felt the pull of a great, deep longing through the center of my chest. Where else would I rather be than in the embrace of my ancestors on the other side of the veil?
On Friday nights, after my mother had put my younger sisters and brother to sleep, I was allowed to stay up and watch the Donny and Marie Osmond show on the ABC television network on the little television in my parents’ upstairs bedroom.
How proud I felt of them, the world’s most famous Mormons, their noncaffeinated smiles sparkling out on invisible television rays from Osmond Studios in Orem, Utah, radiating across the globe, causing untold throngs of unsuspecting television viewers across the globe to rub their eyes in wonder and ask themselves, “What is it that makes them different?” and maybe even “Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?” Even better was knowing that I was part of a special audience of other Mormons around the globe who all tuned in these Friday nights to watch with special intention the opening ice-skating number with glamorous skaters in spandex and sequins, the “I’m a Little Bit Country, I’m a Little Bit Rock and Roll” duets, the wholesome comedy skits, the outrageous costume changes, delicious down to the closing song, the deeply true brown eyes of Donny and Marie connecting directly with ours:
May tomorrow be a perfect day,
May you find love and laughter along the way.
May God keep you in His tender care,
Till He brings us together again.
Good night everybody!
Sitting on the avocado-green shag carpet in front of the television screen, I felt a deep connection to the thousands of other Osmond-watching Mormons: all of us knew who we were, where we came from, and where we were going! And we also knew that, unbeknownst to millions of unsuspecting non-Mormon viewers worldwide, the “God” Donny and Marie were thinking about when they sang their farewell song was our God, the same God who appeared to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove, the God for whom our ancestors crossed the plains, the God who commanded us to keep our bodies clean by abstaining from Coca-Cola. On Friday nights I knew that even though I did not live in Utah, I was not alone. There was Marie, and across the country, there were other girls like me watching her, she being the best possible version of our homely Mormon selves. We Mormons: we were everywhere the satellites touched.
How to describe what I felt in that instant, when Marie winked at the camera just for us through her thick black fake eyelashes? How to describe the burgundy and turquoise watercolor tones of the pre-existence and afterlife, the joy I felt hearing the surging sounds of the Mormon Tabernacle, and seeing peoples of every nation, kindred, and tongue stepping forward into the currents of eternity? How to describe my hunger for that beautiful world of sparkling difference beyond profanity, and beyond the pollution we learned about in school, and beyond the fearsome men, who, according to our parents and teachers, might lure us into their cars with candy? How to describe the hunger that made me climb up in my mother’s lap and cry for its pleasure and beauty?
When I was eight years old, I could not yet see the shadows in my world of sparkling difference, the hard edges of the lines we drew to distinguish ourselves from others. I did not know, for example, that the people I loved had only recently allowed black men to hold the priesthood, after excluding them for more than a century. I did not even know how to see that there were no black people sitting in our pews on Sunday, just as I did not know how to see that there were no black children in my elementary school. After all, my grandparents and parents had moved away from Los Angeles to the orange grove suburbs to put freeway miles between themselves and places like Compton and Watts. In my primary classes, I learned stories of the kind and loving Jesus who would return to save us all from the destruction and cruelty of the earthly world. How was I to know that Mormons had played our own special if minor role in that cruelty?
Yet all around me, just within the range of my hearing, grown-ups spun elaborate stories to explain away the absence of black people in the Mormon world. Some said that African Americans were descended from Cain, who killed Abel, or, as my mother explained, from Ham, the son who humiliated Noah. It was the curses God levied on those ancient characters that had been transmitted and preserved through time in the blackness of black people, and it was the curse of blackness that barred black people from the priesthood. Perhaps it was my father who told me another version of the story: that in the life before this one, our souls sat in great councils and deliberated over God’s plan to send us to this earth, where we would learn and grow through a lifetime of experience. Debates led to conflict, and in these great conflicts in heaven, it was said, the souls of those who did not fight valiantly for God’s plan later came to earth in the bodies of black people. The people I loved dropped heavy tears over stories of our pioneer ancestors trapped by snowstorms in the Rocky Mountains and yet did not blink when they stated with assurance that millions upon millions of African people across time were permanently unworthy of God’s favor. All of this I silently absorbed.
It would be many years before I learned to sort out the stories that had been sown into me like tares amidst the wheat. I did not yet know and would not know for many years that even when I was a child there were in Salt Lake City Mormon historians who had found evidence that in the early days of the Church black Mormons had truly belonged just like the rest of us, that there had been black Mormon men whose hands had blessed and baptized and anointed. And I did not yet know and would not know for many years that priesthood had been yanked away from black men and a host of excuses allowed to grow up and take the place of doctrine.
These are the unspoken legacies we inherit when we belong to a people: not only luminous visions of eternal expanses of loving-kindness, but actual human histories of exclusion and rank prejudice. We inherit not only the glorious histories of our ancestors, but their human failings too, their kindness, their tenderness, and their satisfaction with easy contradictions; their wisdom as well as their ignorance, arrogance, and presumption, as our own. We inherit all the ways in which our ancestors and parents and teachers were wrong, as well as the ways they were right: their sparkling differences, and their human failings. There is no unmixing the two.