My parents are leaving home soon for a long mission. They are old, and I think how it will be when they are gone and their voices no longer heard. So when I moved back to their home after my funding dried up in New York, I decided to record them.
The first few times my brother and I recorded Mom and Dad, Dad was the one telling stories of personal moments with humorous honesty, while Mom tried to provide a comprehensive chronicle of the family. Not only was her narrative rather flat, absorbed into the Family – “and then so and so went to X school and so and so moved to the third grade –“ but every one of Dad’s honest moments, such as the struggle of being bishop of a congregation of working class people, or the lousy aspects of a certain house, were met with an incredulous look, a raising of the eyebrows, as if honest reflection were a personal insult to God. Or to the idea that (perfect) appearances must by upheld at all costs.
Last night, when for once no one had anywhere to go, I told Shane to bring down the microphones, and Mom and Dad sat in their usual place on the smaller sofa. We began with food. I thought we were going in the same direction when Dad said, “at first we’d bring our own food to the Big E (Eastern States Exposition) for lack of money. It was only later that finances got better, and we would go up to gorge ourselves.” My brother and I laughed at this apt, vivid verb, its low key usage springing doors on a hundred memories of all of us standing, wolfing down baked potatoes in the Maine building, or nibbling clam fritters in the Rhode Island building, or blueberry pie or funnel cake, as crowds flowed around us. . .but Mom acted offended.
“We did not gorge ourselves!” she said.
But somehow over the next couple of hours she stopped being the scold on the sidelines of the story and became an actor in it. She made frequent comments making clear her approval of liberatory changes. “Oh, I remember what a difference it made when Susan began wearing pants to school! Think about trying to climb the jungle gym in a skirt or dress!” But more than this was her letting go of her memories, letting them out for us to hear.
It began with talk of Drive Ins, I think. Both of them eagerly talked of this odd cultural development, this wish to eat in one’s car, the worry about dripping ketchup on one’s pants, or letting conversation falter, the ease of scanning the people in the surrounding cars. Then it moved on to clothing, and Mom suddenly flowered with praise for her Mom’s sewing skills. And her own. “I still remember the dress I made in sewing class in middle school. It was pink and green with a white belt I bought. And it looked so good on me!” Dad looked on with an amused, affectionate smile.
She went on to tell how she had acted in various church or high school plays (something I had not known), “even touring around with ‘Patsy’ to Fort Cove, to Heber, to what was that little town. . .” We laughed at her pride in these metropolitan triumphs, at her story of the arm breaking off the sofa in one play, at her thrill in kissing the boy. “Oh, we had so much fun!” she said, adamant and surprised all at once.
In her beloved remembrance of the vivacious girl she had been, I could see that it was reappearing unbidden, inhabiting her old pudgy body, animating the still-sparkling face. And Dad beside her, lips pursed in an attempt to suppress his merriment, that quirky crooked little smile we had dubbed “Kermit the Frog,” still the shy kid pleased as punch but not about to say anything daringly sweet.
But the utter joy of the memories brought sudden tears, almost as soon as she mentioned something called the Dance Festival, and she waved her hand for us to stop the recorder. She had lost her composure but the beautiful thing was on its way out of her anyway. And our interest was piqued. In fits and starts she said the annual Dance Festival was when all the LDS girls in Utah of a certain age would dress in the same costumes and dance all at once in a stadium or arena.
“One year we all wore white,” she said, lips pressed together, “It was so beautiful.” I asked why they stopped the Festival soon after she took part and she said there were just too many girls to fit. Dad had seen it once, thousands or tens of thousands of girls whirling and forming at once. He also recalled a mass singing event in the egg dome of the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, half the seats taken by young singers, a gale force that vibrated the seat under him.
It sounded to me as if some odd fetish or vision of youth had prevailed on the old Leaders, some wish to see or hear young people formed into one sea of heavenly power, waves of overwhelming voice or spectacle, bursting out from the center of Zion. Now the church is all about low density sprawl, decentralization, modest temples all over the world, a denationalization of the church (even while keeping power tightly held in the Mormon Vatican in Salt Lake).
But for my Mother, to be part of that divine sea, locking arms and twirling giddily with her girl friends, dresses flaring in the clear evening light, was a treasure of memory. They were at that moment the very center of the Saints. Unlocked, this treasure memory was both painfully real and painfully far away, across the dark waves of forgetting. I switched off the tape recorder reluctantly, still transfixed by the glimpse of Mother before she mothered us nine, of her transfixed at the strength of her own adamant joy.