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The Father She Never Knew

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 27, 2012

My grandfather Homer Taylor was only three years old when his father died in 1895. Homer served a mission to Missouri beginning when he was 19, then he came back to his mother’s Utah farm and worked for a few years until he enlisted in the service during World War I. His unit had barely come in sight of the European coast when the war ended; then it was back to the farm again. He married my grandmother, a schoolteacher working in a nearby mining camp, in 1920.

Before they had any idea that my mother was on the way, a second mission call came. Family lore – undocumented, and probably undocumentable – says that the call came to Homer’s brother, also a newlywed, whose bride would not let him accept it. But their mother – the determined widow who had kept her farm viable by laboring in the fields alone all those years until her boys were big enough to help – insisted that the call had come, and someone must fill it. So my grandfather left his own bride and served his brother’s mission, this time to England. My mother was born a few months later, and didn’t meet her father until she was two years old.

When he returned from that second mission, there was no more farm life for Homer. He reached Salt Lake, sent a telegram asking his wife and daughter to join him there, and he never went back to the farm. Instead, he worked even harder as a laborer at the oil refineries north of Salt Lake. By the time four more children had joined the family, it was Depression times. My mother said she remembered him as an extremely hardworking man, with skin permanently tanned to a thick leather from his years of working inside coke furnaces cooled barely enough for a human to tolerate the heat while cleaning them.

Then when my mother was about 15, her parents divorced. Homer was killed in a car accident when my mother was a young adult; she told me more than once that she didn’t really know him, that she regretted not having the time to get to know him as an adult.

It was a century past Homer’s birth when I began hanging around the Church archives and getting to know the records there. I discovered the Millennial Star, and, knowing of my grandfather’s missionary service in England, I went page by page through the old magazines one day, looking for any trace of him there.

I found him:

17 February 1921: Arrivals. — The following elders arrived per s.s. Victorian, February 7, 1921, and were appointed temporarily to London : … Homer Taylor, Marysvale, Utah …

10 March 1921: On February 20th, 1921, a branch conference was held at Graves-end. Elders John E. Ingles and Homer Taylor were in attendance. The authorities of the Church were sustained and many valuable instructions were given.

Appointments: … Elder Homer Taylor, from London, March 1st, 1921, is appointed traveling elder in the Sheffield conference.

22 December 1921: The Sheffield semi-annual conference commenced at 10:30 a.m., Sunday, December 11th, 1921, at the Latter-day Saints’ Chapel, Sheffield. There were in attendance President Orson F. Whitney … and traveling elders … Homer Taylor … The afternoon session commenced with singing … Elder Taylor bore a strong testimony and spoke of the happiness that comes to one when the gospel truly finds place in his life …

There were many other brief glimpses of my grandfather’s participation in mission work. One of my favorites, because it suggested some of my grandfather’s actual thoughts, was:

7 December 1922: The morning session commenced at 10:30 … Elder Homer Taylor spoke briefly on Obedience. Cited the example of the Son of God, who by strict obedience to the will of his Father had entered into his glory. Only the humble, the willing and the obedient are fit subjects for the kingdom of God …

Then came the last two items, written when my mother was two and a half years old:

5 April 1923: The annual Sheffield conference was held Sunday, March 25th, in the Latter-day Saints’ chapel, Pitsmoor, Sheffield, There were in attendance: President David O. McKay … and all of the traveling Elders of the Sheffield conference.

The morning session commenced at 10:30 … Elder Homer Taylor spoke of the lessons he had learned in the mission field, many from little children They can indeed realize the power and blessings of the Lord. He told of an interesting experience where this was clearly shown…

The afternoon session commenced at 2:30 …

President McKay commended the work of President J.W. Ernest Tomlinson, and Elders Homer Taylor and Ervin Rawlings. He announced the honorable release of these brethren …

17 May 1923: Elder Homer Taylor, honorably released as traveling elder in the Sheffield conference, left for home Friday, the 13th inst., per s.s. Montclare.

I called my mother that evening and read the brief bits to her. Her reaction? Silence.

Well, gee. I knew they weren’t all that exciting, but weren’t they worth some reaction?

“Read that last part again,” she finally said, rather flatly.

“Elder Homer Taylor, honorably released as trav– ”

Honorably released?” she interrupted.

“Yes,” I said. “David O. McKay met with the missionaries in England on his round-the-world tour, and it says he ‘announced the honorable release’ of …”

“Read those parts again!”

After hearing those words a third time, my mother began to cry. She told me something she had never hinted at before: All her life, she had been ashamed of her father because, she said, her mother – in the bitterness of a failed marriage, we now supposed – had told her that Homer had been sent home early from his mission, in disgrace, for some kind of misbehavior so grave that it couldn’t be repeated.

Who knew two words – “honorably released” – from a 75-year-old book on the library shelf could give a father back to his daughter?

The photograph was one of those group shots of missionaries. My mother had only a cracked fragment of the larger photo, so my father airbrushed out the other elders to create this lone portrait we have of Homer Taylor as a missionary.



15 Comments »

  1. What a story, Ardis! What a conflict! What a resolution! And what a cool picture of your grandfather.

    Comment by Amy T — March 27, 2012 @ 8:29 am

  2. Amazing how the smallest thing can mean so much. Wonderful story!

    Comment by Meghan — March 27, 2012 @ 10:29 am

  3. Beautiful story Ardis.

    Comment by andrew h — March 27, 2012 @ 10:34 am

  4. Ardis, did your mother’s siblings ever find out the truth as well?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 27, 2012 @ 11:34 am

  5. Wonderful. The airbrushed bit explains why his left elbow is at such an awkward angle.

    Comment by The Other Clark — March 27, 2012 @ 11:36 am

  6. I told them what I had found, Gary, without mentioning what Mom had said, and didn’t get the same reaction from any of them. It’s possible that my mother is the only one Grandma had misrepresented him to — I have the feeling from other things Mom said that she was the one her mother treated as a confidante — she was three years older than the next child.

    Yeah, TOClark, it’s apparently resting on someone’s vanished knee. Still I like the picture this way with the unusual crossed legs, much better than if Dad had cropped it across the chest to make a more common portrait pose.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 27, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

  7. Wow, what a great story. Thank you for sharing!

    Comment by lindberg — March 27, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

  8. I actually got a bit teary while reading this. What a special story.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — March 27, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

  9. absolutely amazing !

    Comment by Cameron — March 27, 2012 @ 8:00 pm

  10. This is a beautiful account. Thank you. I like the man you retrieved through your research and writing as well as the one who immerged from the fragment of the old cracked photograph. You are a great story teller.

    Comment by Bessie — March 27, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

  11. Being the child of a bitter-divorced couple who only heard one side my whole life, I can appreciate this wonderful revelation to your mother.

    What a blessing for her and kudos to you for research skills and diligence that made that possible for your mother to know the truth.

    Comment by Allison in Atlanta — March 28, 2012 @ 9:37 am

  12. What a great story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Comment by Karen — March 28, 2012 @ 9:52 am

  13. Thank you for this jewel of family history. Can you help me with one question?

    I understood that Homer worked “decoking” the retorts used to boil crude oil as part of the refining and “cracking” process. Is that correct?

    These retorts are large pressure boiling vessels with access portals. Over time in operation, the heaviest fractions of the crude oil break down under the constant heat, and deposit on the heated surfaces of the vessel as a hard crust (like gravy burning on the bottom of a pan). Over time, this accumulated black rock-like material gets so thick, it impairs heat transfer from the outside burners to the boiling crude oil, and the boiler looses efficiency. At some point, they shut it down and drain what residual crude oil will come out. Then, as soon as it cools enough, (still pretty hot) they bring in the on-call “De-Cokers” who shimmy in through the portals with sledge hammers and picks, and these men, working in a hot, smoking, carcinogen-packed boiler, go to work chipping and pounding off the black coating and shoveling it out the portal so that that the boiler can be put back into efficient operation. Since the entire associated section of the refinery shuts down during this process, the men employed for this nasty task had to be available on virtually no notice, 24 hours a day, in order to limit down-time. I believe the dangerous work paid well, but took a heavy toll on its practitioners.

    Comment by Jeff — March 28, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

  14. Jeff, that’s a far more detailed description than I had any idea of, but it does fit with what bits I had heard from my mother and her siblings. It was brutal, and the timing was, as you note, unpredictable.

    One of the reasons my mother didn’t realize how poor the family was during the Depression was because they had both a car and a telephone, luxuries most other families in the ward did not have. But they needed those tools because Homer had to be instantly available when called; if he couldn’t be reached, the company went on to the next man on the list. And he needed a car so he could get to the refineries at any time, day or night, even when the streetcars weren’t running.

    Whatever caused the breakup of my grandparents’ marriage, it wasn’t for any shortness in Homer’s willingness to work for the support of his family, regardless of the personal cost.

    (Jeff is a grandson of Homer’s younger brother, the brother I report as receiving the mission call that Homer filled. I appreciate Jeff’s and his own brother’s not holding that claim against me, reflecting as it does somewhat negatively on their grandparents, especially when I have no documentary evidence for the family lore. I will, though, report my grandmother’s repeated assurance that Jeff’s grandfather took good care of my grandmother during Homer’s mission, and treated my infant mother with the same fatherly generosity as he treated his own infant son, born 6 days after my mother. Grandma Taylor raised two fine sons!)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 28, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

  15. Ardis; My father was Earnest Ray Birdsall. My Grandfather was Leo Ray Birdsall. As you know his sisters were Cora and Elsie. Dad and his brother, Ivan, were raised by Elsie. My dad told me a few stories. I would love to hear from you

    Comment by Delwyn Ray Birdsall — April 2, 2012 @ 4:20 am

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