excerpt – Conversion of Jeff Williams
Christopher and I spent Tuesday night at the Sundance cabin. On Wednesday afternoon he and Aunt Helen went to the University Mall to begin buying Christopher’s missionary clothes. Christopher invited me, but I thought it was something that they should do together. I knew how much Aunt Helen liked to buy Christopher clothes, and I was sure that it was something she’d looked forward to for a long time. He’d received the letter from his mission president telling him exactly what clothes to buy and how many of each item. I knew that if it weren’t for the list. Aunt Helen would buy Christopher three times as much as he needed. Before he left with Aunt Helen, Christopher had been practicing the songs he was going to play and sing at Stephanie’s reception on Friday.
I took my lessons, worked out in the weight room, and went swimming. Floating on my back, thinking about going home, I heard the pool phone ring. I got out and answered it. It had to be for me because Sister Johnson knew that I was at the pool. I sat down in the chair by the glass-topped table.
“Hello, is this Frank’s boy Jeff?”
“Yes.” I didn’t recognize the voice.
“It’s Mrs. Olson. I’m calling to tell you that Don Nelson’s wife, Ann, died yesterday. I thought you might want to come to the graveside service. There isn’t going to be a funeral. The poor dear didn’t know very many people, I’m afraid, after living all those years in Denver.”
When I hung up I didn’t get back into the pool. I sat in the chair and thought about this. The pool was shaded. I wanted to sit next to the ocean and think. I looked down at my bare feet and legs. I flexed my toes. I raised my right hand, I clenched and unclenched my fingers. I spread my fingers and turned my hand to look at it.
I knew I could receive a phone call from Mom saying Dad had had a stroke or heart attack and had died and I wouldn’t ever see him alive again. The house, the yard, the cars, his old truck, his tools, his workshop, everything that he owned or used would still be there, even his clothes, but he wouldn’t be.
This possibility scared me, but I still felt it couldn’t really happen. It couldn’t happen for a long, long time until I was a lot older, and when Dad was older too, and maybe it wouldn’t ever really have to happen. I could imagine Uncle Richard’s death, Uncle Richard slumped forward on his desk in his suit jacket and tie, but I couldn’t imagine Dad’s death.
In the late afternoon when Christopher got home, I helped take all the packages and boxes up to his room. Packages and boxes covered his bed. His suits were still at the store to be altered. He had a new pair of Nikes and two new pair of Dockers.
I told him about Mrs. Nelson. He told me how sorry he was and asked if there was anything he could do. I told him no.
I called home. Dad was at an all-day leadership conference for Scouts.
“It’s sad,” Mom said. “Order a wreath and put all our names on it.”
I wanted to ask how Dad was, but I thought the timing wasn’t right, and Mom would just say to stop worrying.
Christopher put his new white shirts into two stacks on his bed, twelve of them. I picked up one. The price tag said $49.99. They reminded me of the scene in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby opens his dresser drawers and piles all his shirts onto his bed to show Daisy how many he had. I liked that scene. Gatsby had dozens of shirts, all colored and all silk.
Thursday I went to Mrs. Nelson’s graveside service. Christopher couldn’t come because he was supposed to visit a rest home. It was my first graveside service. I parked and walked across the thick lawn toward the green and white striped canopy and the small circle of people. I walked to the edge of the group. Covered with a spray of white roses, the casket hung over the grave on wide nylon straps. I was glad that it wasn’t open. I’d thought it might be so that everybody could have one last look.
Three people I didn’t know were sitting on chairs under the canopy. Old Sister Mitchell was there on her walker and so was Mrs. Olson. I shook hands with them. Sister Mitchell introduced me to her daughter Carol. Sister Mitchell told me that the three people sitting under the canopy were Mrs. Nelson’s two nieces and a nephew from Denver.
“Her nephew would like to see you for a few minutes after the service. He asked me to have you introduce yourself. He has some photos or something for you.”
Sister Mitchell introduced me to Brother Baker, who had been my dad’s Scoutmaster and was in the photograph she’d given me. I couldn’t believe he was still alive. I figured he would have to be at least ninety, but he didn’t look it.
“Would you all step a little closer, please? I’m Bishop Wilcox.”
I turned. The bishop stood at the head of the casket.
“The family has asked me to dedicate the grave. Sister Nelson didn’t want a funeral or any eulogy.”
Listening to the prayer, I kept thinking about the pictures Mrs. Nelson had decided to give me. It was a kind thing for her to do.
After the service, Mrs. Olson walked up to me. “Well, poor Ann is finally with Don and in a better world, we hope. She suffered long enough, that’s for sure. She told me last week when I was by how much she enjoyed your visits. Well, I’ve got to get back over to the station and sell gas. I guess you’ll be leaving to fly back home to California soon. Say hello to Frank for me and tell him to come to our next reunion, will you? It’s hard to believe we graduated so long ago. I’m sure Frank would have liked to be here today.”
“Yes, he would.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you that Cory Tuttle stopped for gas yesterday. You remember, he’s Mary’s twin brother and knew your dad. He’s a professor. He was sorry he couldn’t come today. I told him that you were here at the Lowerys for the summer, and he said that he’d like to meet you. Cory stops for gas when he’s out my way and we talk about old times. Cory liked your dad. I told him to call you and invite you to lunch or something at BYU.”
I watched Mrs. Olson walk across the lawn with Sister Mitchell and her daughter, and I waited there until everybody else was gone except for the three people who’d sat under the canopy. I introduced myself to Mrs. Nelson’s nephew, and he introduced me to his sisters.
“Well, Jeff, I’m pleased to meet you. Mary wanted you to have these.”
He reached down to the side of a chair under the canopy and handed me a large yellow envelope.
“These are pictures of your father. She thought you’d like to have them. She knew how much Don loved your father. I understand he blew a mean trumpet. Give him my regards.”
“Thank you, I will.” I was hoping he would have the yearbooks to give me, too, but he didn’t. I didn’t ask him who got the trumpet.
Looking down at the gravestone at the head of the grave, I read Mr. Nelson’s name and dates and the army unit he was in. He was twenty-three when he died.
Inside the Audi, I opened the heavy envelope and took out the pictures. All the pictures of my dad were there. I closed my eyes tight for a minute. I sat there and looked at each picture. Carrying the envelope, I got out of the Audi and walked under the high trees to my dad’s family graves and then to the Thatcher monument and the graves inside the iron fence. It didn’t bother me; for the first time, I felt like these dead people were part of my family somehow or that I was part of theirs.
That Sunday, it was announced that Uncle Richard would be released as stake president so he could be an area authority and a member of the Fifth Quorum of Seventy, which meant that he would be responsible for supervising a large number of stakes, not just one. People came to the house afterward to congratulate him on becoming a General Authority. It was weird to see all these people dressed in their Sunday clothes and wearing white slippers. I helped Sister Johnson carry the refreshments into the family room.
“You mark my words,” Sister Johnson said when I was in the kitchen. “President Lowery will be an apostle some day and so will his son after him. The only thing is, he’s got to get more rest, the dear man. Sometimes his skin has a kind of pallor; that’s not good.”
In the afternoon, Christopher and I went to a missionary farewell and then to the missionary’s open house at a big place in a subdivision called Paradise Hills. Afterward, Christopher went to the hospital to visit a friend named Blake, who had tried to commit suicide. Christopher told me Blake had gotten into compulsive masturbation because of internet pornography.
“Everybody thought he was such a good guy, and he couldn’t deal with his guilt. His parents went on trips a lot and left him and his two little brothers alone. When he turned sixteen, he got a new BMW. They were always buying him things, trying to make up for being gone so much. His whole family is in therapy, and his dad just got released from a BYU stake presidency so he can be home more. Blake’s got a good bishop. He’ll get through it. We were on the tennis team together. He’s got a lot of good qualities. I know he’s got a testimony and believes in the priesthood. You can’t give up, no matter what happens in your life. You just have to keep praying and fasting and studying the scriptures and asking for blessings. And you have to talk about yourself to people who love you. You have to tell them if things are really tough for you. I’ve got five friends who transgressed, repented, and are now on their missions because their parents finally realized they weren’t so wonderful and started to help them.”
“Too bad Blake couldn’t have talked to my mother when he was about ten.”
“I think you were lucky.”
“I guess I was.”
There was plenty of pornography around in San Diego if you wanted it, but it seemed like a sleazy thing to do, sitting around looking at that stuff. When I was fourteen, I told Mom that I’d read in a magazine named Body that the healthiest way to sleep was without anything on and that was the way I was going to sleep from now on.
“Oh? Very interesting, Jeff. From what I’ve heard, most boys ought to sleep in a suit of body armor.”
“Very funny, Mom.”
“Yes, well, forget about sleeping raw. You’d probably take a chill and catch a bad cold.”
“Yes, that’s what it’s called, or at least used to be. Now how about going out and getting the lawn cut before your father gets home–unless of course you plan on stripping down and taking a nap first.”
“Mom, you really are corny.”
“Probably. By the way, we’re having steak for supper and apple pie for dessert. If you’re interested.”
I went out to cut the lawn.
Some mornings when I went to school, Mom told me there would be a pie or cake on the counter when I got home and to bring Boyd and Derek and Lori over if I wanted to. She liked talking to my friends. Of course, I knew she was also bribing me and that she wanted to keep me around the house as much as possible where she could keep an eye on me.
I didn’t wander very far after school if I knew there was something good to eat at home. If Mom was going to be gone and I wanted to bring Lori, I had to bring Derek or Boyd.
“Oh, sure. Mom,” I said, “you really trust me, don’t you?”
“Well, there’s always strength in numbers.”
“Just remember you have to have a license to play house. It’s called a marriage license.”
“I know, Mom.” “That’s a great comfort to your aging mother.”
“You’re not old.”
“I’m getting there.”
Mom told me one night when I was going on a date with Lori that she was thinking about having Dad put a smoke alarm in the Olds, which was the car I always took on dates.
“A smoke alarm?”
“Well, you know what they say, Jeff. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” She laughed of course.
“What? …” And then I understood what she meant.
“Mom, that’s so lame.”
“Well, it might help. You never know.”
But Mom wasn’t too bad. She didn’t hassle me about my room much, she did my washing and ironing, did my chores if I was in some big rush, and she’d slip me a twenty-dollar bill every once in a while just so I’d have money in my pocket.
Thursday evening I went home teaching with Christopher. Friday afternoon we visited a rest home and then picked up Christopher’s two new missionary suits. I saw the price tags when we hung them up in his closet –six hundred and eighty-five bucks each.
That evening we went to Stephanie’s wedding reception. She asked Christopher to wear his tux. I wore my blue blazer, light brown pants, yellow tie, and blue shirt, which looked sharp. We had to be at the reception early so Stephanie could get pictures of Christopher playing the piano.
I didn’t know how Christopher felt about playing and singing at Stephanie’s reception. We didn’t talk about her again after the first time. Uncle Richard and Aunt Helen were invited to the wedding in the Provo Temple, but Christopher wasn’t.
Stephanie’s house was above Aunt Helen’s and maybe half as big, the front all faced with field stone. Four shiny cars sat parked in the triple-wide driveway. One was a new red Mustang, the dealer’s temporary license still in the rear window. In the evening light, the grounds looked beautiful. Freshly planted blooming chrysanthemum plants lined the walks and filled the flower beds; two rows of burning candles led to the wide front door. Light came from every window. The walks and driveway had all been washed and the light reflected in the skiffs of water.
“Nice house,” I said as we started up the walk, even though I thought the blooming plants were a little phony because they’d just been put in for the reception.
“Yes, really nice.” Christopher didn’t look up when he spoke.
We walked through the wide doorway into the light of the entrance hall past a painting of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and a four-foot-wide framed color portrait of Stephanie’s family dressed in matching western clothes and cowboy hats. Next to the portrait was a big sampler that read, “Love Is Spoken Here.” Everything in the foyer looked expensive.
Going into the reception, I didn’t want to think about the Lord punishing rich people. It wasn’t something I wanted to think about at all. You could be rich and not be proud. Lehi in the Book of Mormon was rich. The Book of Mormon was always talking about how rich and prosperous people were because they kept the commandments and were blessed, which was all you had to do. You could still love everybody and help people. God still had the Wasatch Fault in reserve if he wanted to use it in Provo, and brush fires. He could even bring back Lake Bonneville if he wanted to. I was glad I lived in San Diego and not Provo. Provo could get dangerous.
Mom never criticized Aunt Helen for building three new houses in fifteen years. Mom said that Aunt Helen and Uncle Richard gave millions of dollars to the church’s missionary fund because they wanted to see the gospel preached to the whole world, which would mean that the Savior could come and the millennium would start and Jesus would bring peace and justice to the earth. That was okay, but I couldn’t see what the hurry was all about. The church had all the people in China and India and a few other places like Africa to convert, so I wasn’t too worried about the second coming changing everything.
Following the voices into the living room, Christopher and I walked past the bouquets of fresh flowers and past the bottom of the stairwell. People stopped Christopher to congratulate him on his mission call to Austria. There was a built-in wall cabinet in the hallway with a bench under it, but nobody asked us to change into white slippers, which surprised me just a little. I suppose it shouldn’t have because there were too many people to have slippers for everybody. We walked into the big living room.
“Oh, Christopher, you’re here at last.”
Standing with a group of people dressed in tuxedos and formal dresses, Stephanie dropped Jason’s hand and walked over to take Christopher’s, her shiny long hair falling down over her shoulders and down her back. I had only seen her in church. In her wedding dress, she looked thinner and taller; she had very large eyes and a perfect, creamy brown tan.
“Come on, Christopher. I’ve been waiting for you. I want a picture of you and me at the piano.” Turning to me, she said, “Hello, you’re Jeff. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Have a nice time.”
Stephanie led Christopher to the grand piano at the end of the long room. The photographer had her pose with Christopher looking up like he was playing and singing. Then Stephanie and Jason posed by the piano holding each other and looking into each other’s eyes.
“Stephanie, dear, your guests are arriving.”
She turned toward her mother, then, taking Jason by the hand, led him across the room. Christopher began to play and sing “Some Enchanted Evening.” The guest line already extended back into the foyer.
I sat on a chair in the comer and watched. Little girls in white dresses and little boys in tuxes stacked gifts in front of the piano and on a sofa and table. Christopher sometimes turned and looked down at the gifts, the slick paper reflecting the light. The guests passed him going out to the patio for refreshments, some of them stopping to hear him, the girls and women leaning slightly forward with their heads raised like birds.
I don’t think Christopher knew how much girls liked him. If he did, it didn’t seem to matter to him. Girls fall all over guys on crutches or wearing bandages; girls like to go to the hospital and take balloons and cards and sign a guy’s cast and feed him brownies. On Sundays, girls standing talking to Christopher reached up to pick lint from his blazer as if they were removing a slight imperfection. Girls coming through the line with their boyfriends wore light summer dresses and heels so that their bare legs gleamed in the light. I liked girls to dress like that.
Looking at three really hot girls who came in without dates, I whispered, “Then be not coy, but use your time, and while ye may, go marry, for having lost but once your prime, you may forever tarry.”
I wandered through the rooms on the ground floor looking at the Mormon stuff that was supposed to increase your testimony and help make you super righteous because it meant that you were always thinking about the church– a bronze statuette of the apostles, a miniature Joseph Smith under glass praying in the sacred grove, porcelain Book of Mormon figures, and painted scenes from the parables. The family room had temple wallpaper, which I had never seen before or even knew existed, all four walls covered with rows and rows of miniature temples all in white and gold.
If I’d gone into the kids’ rooms, I probably would have found plastic Book of Mormon action figures with all kinds of Nephite and Lamanite warriors fighting on the walls of a plastic Zarahemla or maybe Helaman’s stripling warriors winning some big battle and all covered with blood from their wounds. But none of them would ever get killed, which I never could figure out. You’d have thought that at least one wounded warrior out of two thousand might have bled to death.
Later I walked out onto the patio where the long refreshment tables were set up. Stephanie’s father had spent a bundle on food. It was a real buffet. A violinist walked among the tables playing gypsy music softly. I took Christopher a glass of punch and then went back to get one for me and load up a plate. I put my cup down on an iron table. I stood by the reflecting pool full of floating rose petals eating. Aunt Helen would like the rose petals. The gardens were filled with more blooming chrysanthemum plants. I listened to the gypsy violin music.
“Jeff, there you are. It’s nice to see you again.”
I turned. Miss Lewison walked toward me. I put my empty plate down on the table.
“I saw you come out. You look handsome this evening. Shall we sit down?” She carried a crystal cup of pale pink punch and was walking toward a white bench at the edge of the lawn. “I hear that Jennifer is pregnant. That must be a relief to everybody; finally there will be grandchildren. Of course, Christopher will have a large family. He loves children, and he’ll make a fine father. It’s nice he’s going to Vienna, isn’t it? It’s just the place for him.”
Miss Lewison wore a gold dress and gold bracelets and earrings.
“Stephanie is so lovely. Of course, Christopher looks so healthy again. When I visited him in the hospital last year, he had two tubes coming out of the incision, IVs, and a catheter. What an incredible change for him. I wonder what went through his mind during all that time lying there like some wounded Greek hero.”
Miss Lewison reached forward to put her cup onto the iron table in front of us.
“You’ll be returning home soon, won’t you, Jeff? Well, I hope Provo hasn’t been too boring for you.”
“It’s been okay. I like being with Christopher.”
“Yes, I suppose you do.” Miss Lewison looked up at the trees silhouetted against the night sky. “Have you ever seen the Lowery home from up here at night? It’s something you need to see.”
We stood up and walked to the border of trees. “There,” she said, “an edifice of light. It looks like a temple for the gods, doesn’t it, as white as alabaster.”
The large, lit house seemed to be detached from the earth, floating in the darkness above the temple and the city.
“Stephanie showed me this view once. You have to wonder what she was thinking, standing here looking at Christopher’s house these past few weeks. They were a couple, you know. But I suppose even the young, rich, and beautiful can’t have everything they want, can they, Jeff) The groom is attractive, though.”
“I guess they can’t.”
Miss Lewison stood for a moment, then turned to look at Timpanogos.
“The snow is almost gone, isn’t it? I tell my students it’s our Mount Olympus, home of the gods. It isn’t of course, but it’s nice for them to imagine.”
Miss Lewison turned back toward me.
“Well, I must go. It’s been a pleasure knowing you, Jeff. Maybe we’ll see each other again before you leave.”
I stood and watched Miss Lewison cross the lawn and patio, the gold dress vanishing through the open door. I turned. Beyond the floating house, out across the silvery lake, a thunderstorm was coming. I hoped it would rain for an entire day. We hadn’t had a good rain all summer–only gusts of dusty rain or the heavy, pounding downpours that lasted five minutes. Afterward the hot sun came out. Every day it seemed to get hotter. I missed the beach. People in Provo watered their lawns at night as if moonlight were too hot and might dry up the valley.
I turned and looked at the floating white house again. I still expected to see flocks of doves that never landed flashing and turning in the air around the rising house. I whispered, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree: where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.”
I was glad that Mrs. Hart had required us to memorize a line of poetry from twenty poems. I found it useful. It made me feel wise, maybe even profound, as if I had a knowledge that few people my age shared, particularly the insight into girls and love.
Uncle Richard and Aunt Helen came late because of two other wedding receptions they had to attend. Stephanie’s parents left the line to greet them. Other people gathered around them, smiling, shaking hands, nodding their heads. My uncle and aunt–tall, their white hair haloed–smiled faintly and spoke quietly. They looked like a general authority and his wife. Of course technically Uncle Richard was a general authority now, but he was a minor one. The Fifth Quorum of Seventy was way down the line. Did he ever think about that? Maybe. It probably bothered Aunt Helen more than it bothered him.
After going through the line, Uncle Richard stopped to talk, and Aunt Helen stood listening to Christopher play. When she saw me sitting in the corner, I stood up. She raised her silver glasses with both hands and put them on.
“Jeffrey,” she said, “you look very nice this evening.” If Aunt Helen had taken me aside and said she could look into my soul with her x-ray vision and began to describe the shadows she found there, I would not have been surprised.
When the reception ended, Stephanie and Jason came out to the patio to waltz to the violin music. We watched and clapped. Stephanie said something to Jason, who nodded. She walked over to Christopher and led him to the center of the patio and they waltzed. When they finished, Stephanie kissed Christopher on the cheek and walked back to Jason. She took his head in both her hands and kissed him on the mouth. Then she said slowly, emphasizing every word, “I love you,” which I couldn’t hear, but I read her lips.
Jason picked her up and carried her back into the house. We all clapped and followed. They went upstairs to change. Christopher stopped at the piano to get his music. The ribbon-tied gifts lay stacked and piled, edging out toward the piano, the satin paper almost reflecting light. It was as if the gifts were for Christopher, given to him in recognition of how handsome, talented, and righteous he was and not meant for Stephanie and Jason at all.
“Lots of gifts,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Let’s go, Jeff.”
Christopher didn’t want to wait for the bride and groom to come back downstairs, so we left. We walked past the new Mustang, which was all decorated now. I turned to look back at the house. My mom liked to dance at receptions. She always danced with Dad first but then with me. Sometimes when Dad was gone to a meeting and we’d been out on the patio after supper listening to her old songs, she’d put on her high heels and we’d dance.
“You’re kind of cute, do you know that? Who taught you to dance so well?”
“Oh, this beautiful older woman.”
“Do you remember her name.”
“Nope, just that she was beautiful and a great cook.”
“You ought to keep track of her. Beautiful, older women who can cook are hard to find.”
“I think I will.”
At Aunt Helen’s, Christopher got out of the Mercedes and stood outside the garage, the moon casting his shadow against the white door. He didn’t say anything. He turned and looked up the hill toward Stephanie’s house, which you couldn’t see because of the oak brush and trees. He asked if I wanted to go swimming, and I said sure. The bright, full moon still casting our shadows, we went into the back through the gate between the carriage house and the main house.
When Christopher dove into the dark, unlit pool, he didn’t come up until he’d swum to the far end, and then he went under again, swam to the other end. He would come up and then go under again. He kept doing that. I decided it was what he’d done after he’d gotten out of the hospital and was becoming strong enough to swim again, although slowly and not so far. I also understood that he was still washing something away and that it wasn’t guilt or lust because he had repented. It had to be something more subtle like envy or selfishness.
I got out and sat at one end of the pool in a lounge chair. Christopher needed the pool to himself for whatever reason. I watched for his head, dark in the dark water of the unlit pool, and then saw it disappear again. I decided that maybe even sex would have to be spiritual for Christopher, but how he was going to pull that off was beyond me.
Sunday, the first day of August, I was already taint from hunger when the fast and testimony meeting started. After the sacrament they had five babies to bless, which was the most I’d ever seen blessed at one time. The ward was really in production.
I had only three weeks before I flew back to San Diego. It still surprised me how much I wanted to go home, how much I thought about it, and how much pleasure that brought. I knew I missed the ocean, surfing, all those wonderful glistening girls on the beach, all the things there were to do and the excitement, because in Provo time seemed to slow down. I missed my friends and the people in the ward and the neighbors. I missed my mom and dad. I wanted to be with them, help Mom fix supper, talk to her and Dad, play cards, and dance with my mom. I wanted to talk to them about a lot of things. I even missed Mom’s irony. Aunt Helen wasn’t capable of irony.
What surprised me most was how much I missed our house. I missed the smaller rooms and the furniture, the warm colors, the curtains, drapes, the simple doors and windows, the patio, which I’d helped build. I missed our old upright piano Dad had salvaged. I missed the feel of my house through my bare feet. I missed the smells. I even missed the mother look and my mom tearing into me because of some numbskull stunt I’d pulled. I wanted to look at the pictures on the walls. I wanted to go out into the garden and pick things for a salad and, after supper, play the Brahms intermezzo for Mom and Dad. I wanted a house like Aunt Helen’s some day but not now, and it surprised me how good I felt about our comfortable house. Even if we didn’t have a pool, I was tired of the vast enclosed space, the unused and unnecessary, the pastels and whites, and so much silence.
Christopher bore his testimony. It was the first fast meeting since he’d received his mission call. I sat next to him and sensed him stand up before I saw him. He took the traveling microphone, his left hand on the top of the bench. I watched his hand.
“Brothers and sisters, I love the gospel. I know the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was God’s prophet. I’m happy to be going on a mission to Austria, and I know that my call was inspired. I know the Savior lives and that he loves us all and wants us to repent of our sins. He is our Redeemer. I love hint. I want to teach people about him and the atonement and the resurrection and grace. I want to teach the Austrian people about the Holy Ghost and how he can comfort us because he comforted me when I was sick. I’m grateful to be totally healthy again and be able to accept responsibility for my life. It’s a wonderful blessing from the Lord. I feel I love everybody. I know how important it is to be honest. I’m grateful for the blessings of the temple and for eternal life and for my family. I want to tell my mother how much I love her. I love my father and Jennifer and Mark, and I’m so happy they’re going to have a baby. I want to tell Jeff how much I appreciate him being here this summer and how much I’ve come to love him. He’s a wonderful guy who has helped me a lot. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
Standing up. Aunt Helen took the microphone from Christopher.
I wanted to stand up and tell Christopher and everybody how much I’d grown to really like him. It was a good feeling, a warm, clean, honest feeling. I wanted to tell him that I’d been afraid to be a donor. I needed to be honest, too. At least, I wanted to reach over and put my hand on his shoulder. I couldn’t; it was as if I didn’t want to feel that intensely or be that honest or that I had to be older and more grown up to do and say those things. I looked down at my folded arms and listened to Aunt Helen.
“My dear brothers and sisters, I would be ungrateful to the Lord if I didn’t bear my testimony this morning. I have much to be thankful for. I am thankful for my testimony, that I know God is our father and that Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer. I love my Savior. I thank him every day of my life for his atoning sacrifice. We must always ask ourselves what Christ would do and seek his Spirit in every moment of our lives. I love the Book of Mormon, which is the guide to my life. I love the Prophet Joseph Smith and our living prophet who guides this church today. I know that this is the only true and living church on the face of the earth. It has a great prophetic destiny, which will be fulfilled in the Lord’s good time if we all work to bring it about. I love genealogical research and going to the temple. I know that the dead are not far away and that they influence our daily lives. I love my good husband and my daughter, and my two sons who are now beyond the veil whom I shall see again some day, and what a glorious reunion that will be.”
Aunt Helen paused. “I particularly this day want to tell Christopher how much I love him. His life has been an inspiration to me and to his father and sister and all of his wonderful high school friends. I know that his illness was very difficult for him, a refiner’s fire, yet he has learned much from his suffering. He has been so filled with the Spirit that, at times, I have felt unworthy to be his mother. No mother in the church ever had a finer son. I wish him the Lord’s richest blessings on his mission. I know he will be a wonderful missionary and a faithful servant of the Lord.”
I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Aunt Helen suddenly start speaking in tongues or begin to rise slowly into the air, circling the chapel under the hanging lights, everybody watching her go. I’d felt all summer that she just might start rising, not going to heaven necessarily, but just circling the house two or three times and then landing again. I knew if I ever ended up in spirit prison, Aunt Helen would be the one who would show up to preach the gospel to me so that I’d repent and start progressing again. It wasn’t something I looked forward to.
Jennifer and Mark came down for dinner, and after we’d eaten, Jennifer brought in a cake with eighteen lit candles, and everyone sang happy birthday to me. My birthday wasn’t until November, but Christopher said they wanted to celebrate it now because I wouldn’t be there in November. Aunt Helen and Uncle Richard gave me a Mont Blanc pen for writing letters on my mission; Mark and Jennifer gave me a silk tie; Christopher gave me a gold CTR disk on a gold chain like his.
Later when we were upstairs, he said I didn’t have to wear the disk if I didn’t want to but that he had thought I might like one. “I noticed you don’t wear a CTR ring.”
“It’s a great gift,” I said. I took it out of the case, put the chain around my neck, and tucked the disk under my t-shirt.
“What did you wish for when you blew out the candles? A car, I’ll bet.”
“Oh sure, a new red Corvette. Fat chance.”
“You never know.”
That night, Christopher talked about his family’s money. It was completely voluntary. I didn’t ask him any questions. He simply started talking about how the Lord expected his family to be good stewards and to use their money wisely.
“It’s important to share what you have,” he said, “to help people and to be fair with employees and to build up the church. Having money is a great responsibility. It can’t be the most important thing in your life, I know that. I’ve seen kids at school who think it is. But it could cost you everything that’s important. The Book of Mormon tells how it can corrupt people. It happened over and over again. People were righteous and the Lord blessed them and they fell away because their money was more important to them than the gospel and they became proud. They knew the church was true, but it didn’t matter.”
Christopher talked in generalizations. He didn’t say anything specific about the eight-million-dollar house, the swimming pool, his Mercedes, the boats at Lake Powell, the cabin at Sundance, or the rarified atmosphere in which he lived, but this didn’t bother me. I saw nothing wrong in it. It was what I wanted too, although I hadn’t thought too seriously about sharing it with anyone. I had to get it first. I figured I could handle money, lots of it.
Sitting there on the balcony drinking cold juice, I looked at Christopher as he spoke. He’d never had a job. He had never worked on a job until he was so tired he was ready to drop, never had some boss yelling at him. He didn’t know what it meant to earn money. I could do things that he couldn’t, things Dad had taught me–framing, laying cement, fixing a clothes dryer, wiring a room, taking care of a yard, growing a garden (Mom had taught me to cook). Uncle Richard had never really taught Christopher how to do anything. Looking out over the lighted city and beyond to the lake and the darkened mountains under the moon, I thought about that, and then, the understanding seeping into me, I knew that I would rather be me than Christopher, even if he did have a lot of money. I really didn’t have any reason to be jealous, not that I ever had been, about anything, not even his money.
Later, Christopher stood at an open balcony window looking up at the sky.
“Jeff, can you believe that the Milky Way has two hundred billion stars in it? It’s over ten thousand light years thick. There are over five hundred million galaxies.”
“It makes you wonder how many other worlds there must be.” He was still looking up at the sky.
“Did you ever think about what it would be like to create a world through the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood?”
“Not really–not lately, anyway.”
Christopher didn’t speak again, although I thought he might say that he had considered the process of creation, that he would do it some day because it was his ultimate destiny and that the responsibility would require all of his abilities and talents for which he would need to prepare himself through a lifetime of study, service, faith, and devotion. Christopher must have understood that I was perfectly satisfied with the world I lived in, so what was there to say to me?
The prospect of becoming a god and creating worlds didn’t interest me. It wasn’t something Dad ever spoke of; he didn’t long for other worlds, as far as I could tell, and that was okay with me. Although we read a chapter a day out of the Book of Mormon in our house, Dad wasn’t a student of the scriptures; he didn’t worry too much about doctrine.
At the table, we didn’t have gospel conversations about the long eternities; Mom and Dad didn’t deliver gospel sermonettes. They were far too practical for that. As far as I could see, they wanted to live quietly, safely, and honestly, do good work, have a family, and help other people. They believed in the church, but they never talked a lot about their testimonies. Mostly they just helped people.
One evening when we were out home teaching and working on this old sister’s leaky faucet–I was fourteen–I asked Dad if heaven was going to be fun. He said he didn’t know but he hoped so for my sake, at least, which I thought was a nice thing for him to say.
On Monday I went down to the Herald office to get a copy of Mrs. Nelson’s obituary. I didn’t want to ask Aunt Helen if I could cut it out other paper. That afternoon, I received a call from Brother Baker, Dad’s Scoutmaster, who I had met at Mrs. Nelson’s funeral.
“I’ve got an old eight-millimeter movie of your father we made to show boys how to set up a camp. I found it when I was cleaning out some things after I moved back and thought you might like to have it. I can’t think of anybody else here in Provo who might want it.”
“Really sweet.” I never thought I’d see my dad in a film when he was young.
The next day, I went to see Brother Baker to pick up the film. When I got there, he had a projector set up.
The film was silent and in black-and-white, but there was my dad loading a backpack–first holding up each item to the camera. He was in uniform and looked like he was about fifteen. After the pack was loaded, the film showed him hiking up a trail. He unloaded the backpack, set up his tent, and cooked supper. The end of the film showed him getting into his tent. He looked out smiling and waved, then closed the tent fly. It was the year before his father died.
“I’ve always remembered your father, Son. I’d like you to have the film. It’s something to remember your father’s boyhood by.”
In the Audi I kept turning to look at the aluminum film canister on the seat. I could hardly believe that I had seen my dad smiling, hiking, and camping when he was fifteen. It made me happy and it made his life more complete for me now. Mr. Nelson’s photographs, talking to Mrs. Olson, Sister Mitchell, and Mrs. Nelson, and hearing the stories had helped. But seeing Dad in the film made his boyhood seem real. It was proof he had been young once like me. It was wonderful.
I’d decided I wouldn’t tell Dad about the film and that I’d have it copied to video and just run it for him and Mom when I got home. I wouldn’t even tell them what it was first. They’d be sitting down in front of the TV, and suddenly there he’d be as a fifteen-year-old Boy Scout. Thinking about that made me want to laugh.
When I phoned Mom that night after family home evening, she said that Brother Norton had died.
“Yes, Brother Norton. You cut his lawn for him four or five years ago. He lived across the street from the high school.”
“Couldn’t he find anything else to do except die?”
“Jeff, Brother Norton was old and sick and alone. He was glad to go. And by the way, your father’s fine. He was at the clinic yesterday for a check-up. So you can stop worrying about him so much. He’s at a stake Scout meeting and then he’s got an Eagle board of review.”
“He puts in almost as much time as a bishop.”
“I suppose. But it’s what he likes to do.”
I didn’t tell Mom about the film, but I did tell her that I had met Brother Baker. I wanted to surprise her, too. I told Christopher.
The next morning, I asked Christopher if he wanted to play tennis, but he said he was tired. Mark was in Provo for a meeting with Uncle Richard and stopped by for lunch. I played him in the afternoon and almost beat him.
“You’re getting better, Jeff.” He shook my hand. “It’s really been nice this summer getting to know you. Jennifer thinks you’re tops, and she’s not easy to impress.”
“Thanks. It’s been a good summer.”
After Mark left, I practiced diving, which was improving, too. Some days I practiced the intermezzo two hours, sometimes three. I nearly had it memorized, and I couldn’t wait to
see the look on Mom’s face when I played it. I really had it down.
I was looking forward to seeing Derek again and beating him at tennis. I’d never beaten him before. I didn’t think Boyd would have much time for tennis now, or the beach either. We used to spend as much time as possible on the beach surfing and looking for girls. I wanted to go to a swimming party at somebody’s pool and show off my new dives.
It was going to be fun being around Mom again and having her give me a bad time. I’d kind of missed that. In June just before I left for Provo, she read in the paper that the Nature Boys, the band I wanted to play in, had been busted for dealing and running a meth lab. Of course she handed me the paper.
“Looks like your friends won’t be playing for a while unless, of course, they are allowed to take their instruments with them.”
“They aren’t my friends.”
“Well, they might have been. Your dad and Dave and Mike and I could have come and visited all of you. Maybe they give concerts in the state prison. We could have invited Bishop Barnes and maybe the priests quorum.”
“Well, five or ten years pass slowly if you don’t find something interesting to do.”
“Mom, give me a break, will you?”
“Well, you know what they say, Jeff. Birds of a feather flock together.” She laughed.
Sadie came up and stood by me.
“Don’t baby him, Sadie.”
I could have argued that I hadn’t gone to the wild beach parties I had been invited to, but that wouldn’t have done me any good either. I heard about those parties all the time at school. The boys got so wasted they took off their suits and threw them into the fire. They staggered up and down the beach yelling and swearing and trying to run, falling down on their knees in the surf. They urinated into the fire and drank beer at the same time. Screaming and laughing, girls got drunk and high too. Later, wrapped in blankets, everybody laid around in the darkness by the dying fire, out of it or sick, but some of them making love, or trying to.
Aside from my usual curiosity about such things, even before I left San Diego, the whole idea of a wild, drunken beach party, when I thought about it, became gradually really funny, if not just plain dumb, which would have pleased Mom to know if I had told her.
After I practiced diving, I floated on my back and looked up at the cloudless blue sky and the white sun. I kept thinking about the film of my dad and going home in two weeks and how surprised he was going to be. I wanted to have known Dad when he was my age. That was impossible, but the film and pictures and talking to people who had known my dad helped me to imagine what he might have been like. Slowly that summer, I’d come to realize what a good person he was and how much I loved him.
I still hadn’t told Christopher about not wanting to donate a kidney when he was sick. I had to do that before I returned to San Diego. I wanted to be honest with him since he had been honest with me. When I got out of the pool and stood drying off with my towel, I noticed that all the snow was gone from Timpanogos.