Born in 1921, my mother had her family when she was considerably older than most mothers of that generation: her first son was born in 1956 (Sputnik!), her daughter in 1959 (Mercury!), and her second son in 1960 (dawn of the Space Age!). She sometimes told us that as long as she could have only three, she was glad that her three were the best. Pleased at being the best, I glowed at hearing the last part of her comment; the first part never quite registered.
We were the tail-end of the Baby Boom, that huge demographic bump caused by servicemen home from World War II, eager to begin their families at last. (My parents were both servicemen home from the war, too, who met unexpectedly ten years after the war’s end and only belatedly followed the lead of their cohort.) We lived in one of those new subdivisions at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, on ground that had until recently been farmland, and all the houses on our block and on the nearby streets I knew as well as my own were spilling over with children.
All those children meant a lot of out-grown clothes, and a lot of tight budgets. The ward Relief Society tackled both challenges in one project: They filled a bushel fruit basket with children’s clothes and circulated it through the ward. When the basket reached your house, you took out any clothing you wanted for your own children, donated clothes your kids had outgrown, and passed the basket to the next ward family on the list. By the time the basket made it back to your house, chances are that it would contain other clothing to fit your kids, and you had newly outgrown clothing to put back into it.
The basket came to our house once when I was about six years old. I had followed my mother down to our basement, where I watched her open a large cardboard carton and begin to remove baby clothes. I was fascinated – these were the clothes my brothers and I had worn, and I was entranced by the beautiful little bootees and the frilly dress Mom said I had worn when I was blessed. I asked her if I could have some of them, and she let me pick out a few things – not as many as I wanted (I can remember a small pair of jeans that she wouldn’t give to me), but several really nice things. The rest of the clothes went into the fruit basket, which then went on its rounds.
Despite being so young when they came to me, I carefully kept those baby clothes. I used them a few times when I taught the three-year-olds in Primary, in an always-popular demonstration of how much the children had grown since they were born. Some things I eventually gave to a sister-in-law so that she could dress my nephew in the hand-crocheted outfit our mother had made for the baby’s father; most are still folded away in the bottom drawer of my dresser, where they’ve waited almost 50 years for children, and now grandchildren, who never came. I don’t look at them often. Still, I can’t bring myself to dispose of them.
That, I realized early this morning during one of those sleepless nights when my thoughts flit from one irrelevant idea to another, is one way I am different from my mother. She did dispose of the baby clothes she would no longer need. And yet … my mother and I may not be so very different in this respect after all. I heard her say again, in memory, “As long as I could have only three …” Only three. I think she would have welcomed more … but by that afternoon when she filled the fruit basket for younger women to sort through, she knew there would be no more.
It’s an ongoing struggle for us to see people of the past for who they really were, with their individual hurts and longings and successes. My mother wasn’t just “Mom”; she was a full personality with a complex life of her own totally distinct from her children. The names on your pedigree chart represent real people whose lives are not adequately encompassed by the few facts recorded on a family group sheet. Lorenzo Snow was more than prophet, seer and revelator: he was a man who liked certain things and barely tolerated others. Emma Smith was more than the compiler of a hymn book: she loved and grieved and fought and worshiped.
There is a challenge for all of us intrigued by our shared religious past: to remember, and understand, if only occasionally and in shadowy glimpses, that the people we read about are more than characters in story, more than the roles they filled in the development of the Church. They were – and still are – people, people who cannot be neatly pigeonholed with simple labels like “prophet” and “missionary” and “apostate” and “pioneer.”