My friend Rachel and I spent a very pleasant couple of hours on Temple Square yesterday afternoon. I took my promised trip to the COB, and despite trying to convince my quite delicious elder guides to let me through the unmarked closed doors, I was unable to break in and thrust myself upon the unsuspecting COBBERS with a demand to know their deepest secrets. This was in part because of the excessive security that exists at the COB, but also because it simply doesn’t seem like the decent thing to do to knock over sweet retirees in a bid to get to the inner sanctum. However the disappointment at my failure to infiltrate was muted by the discovery of a most extraordinary feminine sub-culture who daily escort COB guests up and down the elevators and out onto the balconies in their sturdy pantyhose, shoes and conservative Sunday best. These are the widows on Temple Square.
Many of the volunteer ‘guest services’ Temple Square jobs are filled by retired men and women living in the Valley. In the COB, the volunteer jobs seem to be largely taken up by widows who happily take tourists up to the balconies of the COB to get a birds eye of Salt Lake City and beyond. However, more than the wonderful 25th floor views, I was simply struck by stories of these women. To many it might seem wholly mundane, but I for one was enthralled as they told me about the antics of ancestors long dead, husbands since passed, children long gone, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who at last count total well into 10s. I asked one woman – a widow of 13 years:
Did you ever doubt this Mormon life of yours? Did you ever want to run away from it?
She smilingly and knowingly replied:
Yes of course, over the years I’ve had that thought once or twice, but not seriously. I’ve had a good life with a wonderful husband and beautiful children, that’s what I’d be giving up.
When I suggested she might like a toy boy or another masculine diversion she laughed out loud:
One husband was enough for me! I’ve never had a desire for someone else. Although it can be very lonely. But I have purpose and I have hope and that’s all one can ask for at this stage in life I suppose.
It might seem like an innocuous and facile conversation but it came on the heals of stories of polygamous wives, poverty, dances beside the lake to the swing and tap of big bands, weekly children of record baptisms in the tabernacle, angry great aunts who left the church and became staunch Catholics, the burning of effigies by be-robed KKK Mormons on the front lawn of a newly married ‘mixed race’ couple, and laughter over the small burial plot for Brigham Young that simply wouldn’t have been able to accommodate his numerous marriage partners. Her pantyhose and Sunday best belied a rich and interesting life and heritage which seemed worth paying attention to. And with that, like my many Mormon mothers and sisters back in New Zealand, there was no affront in my obvious lack of orthodoxy, there was no question I couldn’t ask, there was no story that wasn’t worth being told, and (I suspect) there is no pain that wouldn’t be understood.
And so it is with these widows. Mormon to the bone they spend their twilight days in the quiet pursuit of something meaningful and find it in their dignified service to the Church and in the quiet pleasure of their families. I love that my church brings me into proximity with such good, kind, humorous, loving and decent women. And so I salute you, my brilliant, wonderful, gracious Mormon mothers. Notwithstanding the searing interrogation of Mormonism I am inclined to, I want it publicly acknowledged that there is a gentle dignity in aspects of the Mormon life that is captured most beautifully in the lives of our women who make me feel proud to be a Mormon girl.