Sunday, June 14, 2015

In which my mother unwittingly steered me into apostasy

When my family lived in the Bay Area, I was the only Mormon kid in the school. But this was never a big deal; I had friends who went to other churches and I had friends who didn't go to church at all. 

In the middle of 4th grade, we moved to Exeter, CA (a small town in the Central Valley) because my mom had found a job in nearby Lindsay. Why did we move to Exeter if her job was in Lindsay? Well, we didn't have a home yet, and Exeter had a fairly nice motel that offered rooms with kitchenettes. I think the idea was that we could prepare our own meals, but my mother never once cooked in that kitchenette. I ate cafeteria lunches at school and we went out for supper every night. (I remember that I used the stove once to make Jiffy Pop popcorn, which Mom had never bought before because she thought it was an expensive, gimmicky product especially since we had a popcorn maker. But I think she was feeling bad about making her kid live in a motel so this purchase assuaged her guilt. To be honest, I didn't think living there was a bad thing. I got to talk to my mom until one or both of us fell asleep, we could watch TV in bed, and someone else cleaned for you everyday! And yes, after making Jiffy Pop once, I agreed with her assessment of that product. The results were not like the commercials! Bah.)

Near the end of the school year, my mom found a house in Lindsay and so we moved there. I am not sure why she bought a house there instead of Exeter because she hated Lindsay. The commute wasn't far but the fog in area is really bad, so maybe driving was just too stressful. Or perhaps it was because housing was cheaper in Lindsay than in Exeter. Like I said, she hated Lindsay and was appalled that I had to go to the local public school, so she convinced my father to pay for me to go to a private school by telling him (and this is a real quote) "the elementary school here is so bad that kids leave the school either pregnant or drug-addicts." (I personally believe she didn't want me to go to the public school because she was racist and didn't want me mingling with a population that was more than 50% Hispanic. Also because she felt that any private school is automatically prestigious and therefore "better" than any public school. This same time period also coincided with the worsening of my mother's mental illness and the beginning of long bouts of rather erratic behavior.)

You would think she'd sent me to a Catholic school, as Jesuit teaching is well regarded even amongst non-Catholics. That would be a logical thing to do.  But whether it was an issue of cost or the racist thing again, or because I said I didn't want to wear a uniform (actually, I didn't want to wear a short skirt, which seemed to be a part of a girl's uniform of any private school), my mother instead enrolled me in a Seventh Day Adventist school. 

So once again, I was the only Mormon kid in school, but this time I was surrounded exclusively by Seventh Day Adventists. I went there for two and a half years (when we moved again) and my fate was sealed during lunch time on my first day when I unwrapped my ham sandwich. 

You do know that Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarian for religious reasons, right?

to be continued... 

Sunday, June 07, 2015

In which I recall some of my childhood experiences of the Mormon church

Before I launch into this next part of my story, I want you all to know that most Mormons are not a*holes. They are ordinary people, and ordinary people are usually pretty decent. It may have been my bad luck to have encountered a bunch of people who were a*holes and who also were also Mormon and who used their religion to justify their a*hole actions. Unfortunately, the bad apples are the ones who tend to define an entire group (in any tradition).

To continue:

Mormon congregations (called wards) are based on geography and after divorcing my SF, we moved to Cupertino and were in a different ward. Throughout my childhood, we lived in areas where Mormon population density was small so the wards were geographically rather large. I was always the only Mormon kid in my school. So new ward, unfortunately for us that most of the ward lay in an upper-middle class area. Remember, mid 1970s...a woman now thrice divorced and belonging to a religious tradition in which preaches that a woman's sacred duty is to stay home and raise her family and the father is responsible for financially supporting the family as well as leading the family in its religious education.

The Mormons are well known (and admired) for their ability to create community. In addition to its geographically based congregations, the church also has a system of "home teachers" and "visiting teachers". This is a responsibility of all adult members (male and female) who are assigned a group of people in their ward to visit once a month. A person is both a home teacher as well as one who is visited, and active and inactive members are included. It can be as simple as a few minutes of chatting if you see each other at services or as formal as a home visit complete with lessons and anything in-between. The point is to make some sort of personal contact with every member of the ward. The visiting rosters are rotated every few months so that everyone has a chance to meet everyone else.

However, from 2nd grade through 9th grade (excepting part of 7th and 8th grade when we were inactive because we lived in an area where the closest LDS church was a three hour drive away), I never remember a single visit of Priesthood to my home. Single woman with a daughter=household without Priesthood, and it's the Priesthood who is responsible for educating the family and providing religious and spiritual guidance. This period in my life encompassed FIVE different wards within the Bay Area or Central California. The church teaches that women have the right to Priesthood blessings and services (for wont of a better word), but I don't know if this is a recent teaching (as a result of the rising number of mother-led households within the LDS community) or if my mother even knew she could request them. Or if requesting would lead to more judgement (why yes, Sister, we can visit your household since you are divorced and no longer have a Priesthood holder in your home. We are very sorry that your marriage didn't work out. Marriages are really hard work; are you sure you did everything you could to make it work?")

There are lots of things in the Mormon tradition that I never knew about, even though I was raised in it and went to services and extracurricular activities regularly. I fasted on Fast Sundays (first Sunday of the month) and knew to pay tithe.

But I never knew that women could be missionaries and have ALWAYS been able to be missionaries. In my experience, girls were always taught that their role was to be mothers and homemakers. This is definitely a role worthy of respect, but since I lived with a single mom, I knew that women had different choices. (Note: there are several types of missionary service in the LDS church, but I am referring to the proselytizing missionaries. Until recently, the minimum age a woman could be a proselytizing missionary was age 23, although recently reduced to age 19. Now almost half of these missionaries are women.)

I never knew about Patriarchal blessings, which is an individual, personal, and thoughtful blessing usually given to a person in their teens which is to help guide them through their lives. (However, any member at any age is entitled it so adult converts are not excluded.)

I never knew that Mormon practiced laying of hands on the sick. This is something the Priesthood does.

I never knew that a person could request a blessing.

This was not the failure of the Priesthood in a single ward...this was in EVERY ward in which we lived. The only time I remember any Priesthood notification to our household was one year in which the Bishop (head of the ward) enclosed a note with the end of year tithing summaries in which he noted that my mother had paid less tithe that year. I don't know the contents of the letter, but I do know how my mother interpreted it: "oh my God! They've sent me a bill! I can't believe that they've sent me a bill!" She ranted about this for days.

When I was a teen and we'd moved back to Lindsay, my mom had reached the end of her rope. She sent me to church but was inactive herself. (She was also under an incredible amount of stress from all fronts and I honestly think she just needed a few hours of solitude each week.) My mother made me a dress to wear to church, which was no small achievement on her part. Not that she made the dress, and this was the 80s, so this dress had LOTS of fabric. The achievement was getting me to wear it. But I had been shamed enough in prior experience in different wards about the way I dressed (once even being barred from chapel because I was wearing trousers, later followed multiple criticisms about the type of dresses I did wear. Not nice enough, not lady-like enough.) So it's a tribute to how strongly I actually wanted to go to church to wear a dress. (I admit, it was pretty and I really appreciated all the work my mom put into it.) But then people kept commenting that I wore the same dress every week. It was always cleaned and ironed (so.much.fabric...). They commented that my hair was too short, people would think I was a boy. They kept commenting to me about why my mother didn't attend services. They kept saying how sad it was that she was divorced, not once but three times, as if the flaw wasn't that she fell in love with the wrong men but that she couldn't change them into better ones.

Finally, I reached my limit. The Bishop had asked me to stay after services to talk to me, and I honestly don't remember what he said, but he said something that set me off. Sick of constantly being commented on my appearance and pissed off at the way they treated my mom, I lost my temper and told the Bishop to go to hell. And he, possibly tired of a rebellious, constantly questioning (read: insubordinate) teenaged girl, told me to leave and not come back. I stormed out in a fit of righteous adolescent fury which quickly turned to elation. I didn't want to be there, and they didn't want me there. Win win!

And I didn't return for 30 years.

Monday, June 01, 2015

In which I write about my mother's divorce

Before I continue this story, I want you all to remember that this is one person's chronicle, and I don't speak for anyone but myself.

To continue... my family moved up to the Bay Area of California in the summer before I started 2nd grade. My mother and step father had probably only been married a year by that point and their marriage rapidly disintegrated. They split up in the spring of my 2nd grade year.

My stepfather was, to put it bluntly, an asshole. He never laid a finger on me but he treated my brother terribly.  He was snide and the lingo of the mid-1970s, you'd call him a male chauvinist pig. (I remember running up to him one time, crying, and saying "my brother said I was stupid!" His response to me, "well, that's because you are." I was seven.)

So my mother is far removed from her family, and in a marriage with a guy who turned out to be not a good guy, and she's part of a religious tradition which states that the man is the head of the household and has Priesthood authority. Meaning that the father is responsible for leading the family in religious matters and essentially has the final say. The father is supposed to rule with love and wisdom but this guy became a tyrant. My mother had the courage and strength of self-preservation to leave this marriage and turned to her church for help and support.

(A digression, children are baptized into the LDS church at the age of 8. It's a big deal and my parents took me and my brother out to dinner to celebrate. After my baptism, my SF (stepfather) told me that I was a real member of the church now, and if I never sinned again, I would be able to go to Temple. On the way to the restaurant, I got into an argument with my brother because I was EIGHT, and my SF looked at me through the rearview mirror and said, "You've just sinned. You are never going to go to Temple." I found out much later that this is totally wrong but hey, the church taught us the our fathers held the Priesthood authority so they knew what was correct.)

Remember, in the mid1970s, divorce was still uncommon and the woman still took the brunt of the blame. Okay, you want out of the marriage? Fine, but don't expect any comfort. After all, you CHOSE to leave your marriage. You want to be single. Fine. You are on your own.

My mother and SF had jointly bought a house in Hanford when they got married (meaning, my mother also contributed financially) and she worked outside the home throughout their marriage. They sold that house and bought another one in Campbell and when they split a few months later, they sold the house but couldn't agree how to split the proceeds and asked their church Priesthood for help in mediating this conflict. The Priesthood sided with my SF, saying he needed the proceeds so that he could support his future family. Also, a fellow congregate was a lawyer, and offered my SF legal assistance, pro bono. No one offered to help my mother. She came out of that situation in a very bad financial position...she never asked for alimony or child support but honestly felt that she deserved some portion of the sale of the house. She looked to her Sisters in the church for emotional support and the best she got was "it takes two to make a marriage work. Are you sure you did everything you could?" When she retorted that he was a tyrannical, abusive SOB, their response was "what did you do to set him off?".

My mother gave up. She didn't have the finances for a long legal fight, she was geographically far from her own family, and the only friends she'd made were at church. The men, who were all Priests, represented the church, which didn't support a divorce. And the women could at best give a type of condescending comfort, which really wasn't a comfort at all. She gave up fighting for her share of the house sale, which was a financial hit she never recovered from.

And next time, I will tell how the church failed me.