“Are you ready?” he asks.
It’s January 12, 2016. My brother and I sit huddled in the rented Subaru that I’ve just driven from Chicago to my hometown in Iowa.
“How about now?”
I curse the lapse in judgement that means neither my brother nor I have thought to bring a flask of whiskey.
The dementors are obviously breeding in this thick, grey fog that closes in around us. As the snow starts to cover the windshield, he says, “Look, sis, I’m getting really cold.”
We get out of the car and I immediately almost slip and fall on my ass from the high heels I never wear anymore. I arrange the skirt of the black dress I’ve only just managed to deep clean of the memories of the last funeral I wore it to and turn to face the church.
We walk up the familiar steps and pause in front of the door of the utterly un-remarkable brown building. There is no stained glass, no decorations, no cross. Only a steeple that points toward the sky, but that’s on the other side of the building. The side that faces the road and has large letters that declare: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”
We stand for a moment, staring at the photo of my grandfather — the same one from the obituary — that someone has taped to the door as a signal to people that this is the church they’re looking for.
My brother turns to me.
“By the way,” he says with a sad sort of smile, “Happy Birthday.”
Growing up Mormon was like growing up knowing that the sky was purple. I didn’t believe it was purple, I knew it was. I knew it like I knew that fire was hot, and water was wet, and the sun would come up every morning. Mom and Dad said so. It was true. It was fact.
And the church was as all-encompassing as the sky, as present as another member of the family. It dictated what we ate, when we slept, how we thought. We lived in a world of pastels, baby blues and pinks and lavenders, rejecting anything bright or brash or dark that might ever come our way.
We wore our faith on our skin, literally. As 8-year-old children newly baptized into the church, we were given a silver ring shaped like a shield, inscribed with the letters CTR.
Choose The Right.
The girls, especially, were encouraged to wear it on our ring finger and never take it off, until the day it would be replaced by a golden wedding band and accompanied by the magic underwear that Mormons are so famous for.
Which — okay, a word about the magic underwear.
They’re called Temple Garments, received in a special secret ceremony where you also learn your spirit name and — no joke — the handshake to get into heaven. Thin and white, covering from the shoulders to the knees, they ensure modesty and, if you believe the stories, can stop both bullets and fire. Removal for showers and sex is purely optional; there are slits to allow for the latter. And with only those potential exceptions they are to be worn at all times.
The Garments, the CTR rings, daily prayer, scripture study and church meetings, they were constant reminders that we were the chosen ones. Saturday’s Warriors, the most precious of all God’s spirits saved for these latter days. We were soldiers on the front line of the battle between good and evil. Follow the Prophet, we were told, and everything would be fine.
I step into the church and am immediately attacked by memories on all sides. It smells like home cooking and oppression as the women of the church busy themselves in the kitchen. My brother-in-law stands talking with a group of men in suits, doing nothing while my very pregnant sister attempts to single-handedly wrangle her three blonde children.
“Well, little Ally, all grown up!” I cringe at the nickname I haven’t heard in years. A woman in a shapeless dress and greying hair approaches me with a smile and says, “You look just like your mother.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard my entire life and I’m suddenly overcome with a feeling I can’t name. It’s the opposite of nostalgia. The urge to run as fast as I can, just like I do in my recurring nightmares about being trapped in this very building. But what roots me to the ground is the deep instinctual pull to my mother’s side I’ve never quite been able to shake.
As a child, my mother was magical. She took bolts of cloth and transformed them into beautiful works of art. I spent hours sitting on the floor of the sewing room arranging patterns and solids to create perfect blocks for a Double Wedding Ring quilt, a Log Cabin, a Virginia Star. Quilts that were given as tokens of love to family and friends in the church. For weddings. For babies. For new beginnings. I can measure my childhood in the quilts we made.
And at night before bed she would read to me. Little House on the Prairie. Little Women. A Wrinkle in Time. She taught me to love books, passionately, deeply, just like she did.
When my 7th grade teacher was positive I’d copied my essay because ‘no 12-year-old has that vocabulary,’ my mom informed her — in person — that she’d clearly never had a conversation with me and maybe she should fix that. My mom bought me ice cream on the way home. “That woman’s an idiot,” she said in the car. “She’s just mad that you’re smarter than she is.”
I could be anything, my mother taught me. I could be anyone I wanted.
Except for an atheist lesbian. I mean, that wasn’t really on the menu.
In my teen years I started to suspect I was hardwired differently from other girls. By this point I was an established theater nerd, desperate to be anyone but myself. A haven for the outcasts, the wierdos, the queers — the theater was the only place I had ever been where I didn’t feel invisible.
Not like church, which I had begun attending daily since the Mormons, knowing teenagers left unattended might start thinking for themselves, required a class called Seminary at 6AM every day of high school. My teacher was Brother Nelson, a cop by profession, who didn’t like questions or the women who asked them. We spent four years learning how the Garden of Eden was actually in Jackson County, Missouri, why it was totally fine Brigham Young had like 55 wives, many of whom were minors, and of course all about the Priesthood, a direct line to God of sorts, bestowed only on boys at the mature age of twelve, while grown women were left at the mercy of their husbands to interpret God’s messages for them.
One day my senior year, I roused myself out of a drowsy stupor to hear Brother Nelson rant about how gay men were all child molesters, and lesbians and feminists were damaged, sick, broken people that wanted to burn the world down out of spite. In a rare moment of engagement, I sat up straight, raised my hand and said,
“Um, that’s the dumbest bullshit I’ve ever heard in my effing life.”
The room collectively held their breath and I waited for his angry words, but instead, he breached my personal space, placed his hands on my head as if to give me a blessing and said, “This is exactly why women don’t have the Priesthood, you aren’t capable of seeing the truth.”
All I could see was red.
At home that night, I realized something had happened in the last five years. Whether to save her struggling marriage or out of some genuine re-commitment, my mother had doubled down on the rules of the church she’d bent when I was little.
“It isn’t right, Mom,” I pleaded with her as she dismissed my objections to the lesson. I thought if I could just make her see me, that she would come to my rescue again. With tears in my eyes I asked her, “Is that really what you think of gay people?”
“Choose the Right,” she said betraying no emotion whatsoever. “When you choose the life, you choose the consequences. Gay people deserve exactly what they get.”
Leaving the church was like realizing the fucking sky had been goddamn blue all along. So then, what color was the grass? Or apples, or the sunset? I had to relearn an entire color wheel, a whole world, like a toddler. Nothing was what I thought it was. Nothing made sense anymore.
The only thing I knew, was that I could never go back to not knowing. I could never again look at the sky and see even a hint of purple.
The logistics of having my name officially scratched off the scroll in the sky required a formal letter, a home visit and a three-month waiting period. Once received, the Prophet could either accept my wishes or excommunicate me, in a “you can’t quit; you’re fired” kind of move.
The day I moved into my college dorm in Chicago I sent two letters in the mail. One to the church leaders requesting my resignation, and another to my parents explaining what I had done and why.
After waiting for weeks for some kind of response, I got a two-line email from my mother:
We have received your letter. We will respond in time.
The silence that followed lasted almost a full year. A Christmas. A birthday. One school break and then another.
Even the letter from the Prophet, stating my resignation had been accepted and on January 16, 2003 I would officially become an ex-Mormon, didn’t help the hole in my heart.
In many ways I was the happiest I’d ever been. I found my chosen family, artists and queers and lovers of books. I traded dresses for ties. I cut off my hair. I dabbled in tarot and witchcraft.
But still, I craved my mother’s voice like a drug, and one day my hand reached for the phone. She greeted me cheerfully as if no time had passed, pretending my revelation had simply never happened. I was back to being invisible, but I couldn’t help it — I still had dreams.
I dreamed about her marching beside me at a Pride Parade someday. Of sewing my wedding dress — or suit — together like we’d once made baby quilts. That she’d be proud of who I was, and not just proud of things I do.
She’d never cared if I was rich or poor, lived in a trailer or a mansion. She didn’t care if I was a doctor or made my living sweeping floors. All she wanted was a daughter who would go to church on Sundays and marry a nice boy in the Temple and make the same kind of life she had chosen.
What a disappointment it must have been to get me.
That’s why I’m here — on my birthday — in this fucking church, wearing heels and an actual bra. Why I force myself to smile when Brother Nelson ignores my outstretched hand and pulls me into an uncomfortable hug.
“Well, aren’t you just your mother,” he says, a smug smile stretched across his face.
“Wow really? God, no one has ever told me that before.”
I search for my brother, but he’s been cornered across the room by the Bishop and throws me a long look.
When after several more, long seconds this man still hasn’t released me from his hold I try — quite obviously — to pull away.
“Oh hun,” he says, tightening his grip on my shoulders, “sarcasm doesn’t become you. Don’t upset your mom by making a scene.”
But before I can let any number of retorts I’ve perfected after a decade of city life fly, my mom suddenly appears and smiles a deceptively sweet smile.
“Take your hands off my daughter or you won’t get a scene you’ll get an entire action movie.”
And for one gorgeous moment she is the mother from my childhood. The hero finally rescuing me from the troll who lives under the bridge.
For one beautiful, marvelous second, I think we’ve made some kind of breakthrough, that things will be different from now on.
But after he walks away, she turns to me and says, “Oh good, you dressed like a girl.”
My mother, it turns out, is not magical. And she is Never. Going. To. Change.
Maybe at some point she could have. But I can’t dream anymore.
All I can do now is choose the right for myself about what and who to keep in my life.It’s the easiest decision I’ll ever make, and the hardest thing I’ll ever do.
By the time the service is over, the fog has lifted. The sun is shining.
“Are you ready?” my brother asks me as we stand out by the car.
We get in and I drive away, staring into the deep, deep blue of the sky.⚡
Edited by Carmen