From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1959 –
The Day I Turned Eight
Ilene H. Kingsbury
The rain beat on my head. It struck my braids until they hung sodden. From my belted middle to my shoeless feet, I was quivering as the aspen leaves whose shade flickered over my face. This standing in a pond of spring water was almost more than I had bargained for. The ripples on its clear surface answered to the pelting April rain with dancing splashes and ever-widening circles. The persuasive tug of the water almost pulled me over on my face. Only the steady arm of my father kept me from floating away. This was the moment of my baptism.
The day was warm for the season or we would not have started out on this serious errand. Our home on the desert, nearly a hundred miles away, had never given us the luxury of enough water for outdoor shower baths, let alone a swimming hole. And this was my first experience in deep water. No extravagant use of this precious substance was a maxim with us. For many years it was carried from artesian wells in wooden barrels. this, then explained our visit to grandma’s in time for the spring baptismal day in the pond at the outskirts of her southern Utah town.
From Grandma’s to the meeting house and from there, in converging buggies, perhaps a dozen, we had headed for the pond. It was only after the horses were tied to the fence that we felt a little moisture on our faces and saw it fall in the dust and kick up miniature clouds at our feet. But, as the sun still shone and the spot shower would soon move on down the valley, the plans of yesterday went forward.
All my life up to that day, I had been taught the magic of becoming eight. For then I could be baptized. So, in the nurturing rain, which did not cease its gentle falling, we hurried to a lean-to on the north side of the deserted ranch house to prepare ourselves for the event.
Once under cover, my teeth began to chatter, not with cold, but with fear of the next few minutes. I sneaked a glance at one of my cousins, and at four or five other girls my age. They had already begun to peel off their dresses and were down to their long underwear. This ankle length garment of ribbed cotton, some of it combed soft on the skin side, reached to the shoe tops; and on the arms, to the elbows. The style had been designed for a wrist length, but during the winter most of us had begged our mothers to cut them off short, meaning to the elbows. Where this request had failed, some of us had done it ourselves back of the kitchen stove on bathing nights, and then stood the consequences.
One could tell by our faces we wished it were at least May the first. On that great day we could shed this cocoon type encasement and, for perhaps a half year, be lightly clad either in vest and bloomers of woven cotton, elastic threaded at waist and knee; or in store pants of white knit. But today, April 25th, was a week before the historic change to lighter garments, and even this momentous occasion hadn’t warranted summer underwear.
Modesty took over the scene at this point, and each girl hid herself behind a towel while she changed to a white dress, in two cases several sizes too big. Then, each stepped cautiously over the board floor and stretched around the door frame to see whether the great outside world was looking her way.
Several mothers, solicitous of every detail, stood in the kitchen path and motioned us to hurry, didn’t we know the rain might come down harder any minute? Three of us made it safely out of the house, but the fourth caught the hem of her gathered skirt on the loosened wire screen. This had unwoven itself in long rippling tendrils, each hanging out at odd angles as unbraided hair does when we say electricity is combed through it. This little girl, entangled in the wire, became frantic as a caged squirrel. She snatched her dress so quickly it billowed out around the screen and curled against the frame. One couldn’t tell whether she was going out or coming in.
The next two girls, stalled in their ceremonial march, bent to help her extricate the folds, but too many hands only made the matter worse. They shrugged off all responsibility then, and ran around her to catch up with the others. These first, prompt, unimpeded ones turned around to question the delay, couldn’t decide where their duty lay; but upon hearing their mothers commanding them to come on, they took to their steady course down the path.
In after years I asked the entangled one how she felt at the moment of desertion, and she said, “So hopeless! What if I never got loosened in time to be baptized. Then the Lord would never forgive me for stealing Grandma’s candy from the jar in her parlor.”
She did unleash herself, however, and came running, a bit tear-stained, to catch up, and pridefully clutching the torn hem to hide it. Then what happened made someone quote “the last shall be first,” thought from a Sunday School lesson. The girl’s name was Adams, and she headed the line!
Here we were, tremblingly standing, a bit breathless, ready for the great moment; but where were the boys? Sounds of a minor battle over in the tool shed gave notice of where they were, all right. But why weren’t they ready? One of the fathers hastened to the ruction – it was hard to determine from his face and stride whether by now he wanted to quell the trouble or join in and beat up the noisy offenders. The upsurge of sound as he opened the door was cut off with his stern presence and, in short order, a half dozen boys came filing out, each looking temporarily guilty, or perhaps it was embarrassment at, for once, being dressed all in white. They, at least, wore better fitting outfits than the girls, and only the color seemed odd.
Of course, we all knew what we were about, this baptism by immersion, but a stranger to our ways would have been somewhat puzzled. His enlightenment would have been less likely upon hearing two bold remarks. The biggest boy, by a head, evidently long over the eight-year limit, stated louder than boys ever realize they are talking, “I decided I’d get baptized today, even if I had to do it myself in the bathtub!” His friend, standing near, boasted, “If they just don’t hold me under more than two minutes, I can hold my breath!”
One could see straight off that someone along the line had neglected to inform the lads that eight years was the time to know right from wrong. Immersion, complete for an instant only, was the commanded form to symbolize a new birth into a life of consecration toward better ways. Also, the brief ceremony, packed with deep spiritual significance, was to be loved, not feared.
As young as I was, I could see twelve children with as many hopes and fears showing all over their faces. that is, except for one, a little Indian boy, totally calm, absolutely noncommittal, always on the outside of the group, alone in a white man’s ceremony. I guessed his parents were the Pahutes, motionless as totems, a ways off under a cottonwood tree. I was grown before I realized how sensitive this race is to the eyes of outsiders, white or red.
My turn to enter the waters came before I could quite understand why the biggest boy came on the bank blubbering, or why the littlest girl seemed almost transported to angelic bliss at her moment of purity. Nor could I understand why the pudgy blond girl should have been shaking as with laughter; or for that matter, why in middle age, she is still chuckling over life. All of us resembled soaked weeds – hair streaming, straightened, tangled, eyelashes dewy and gathered in beauty’s up-length – soggy clothing clinging in shapeless drapes and utterly refusing to stand out from our formless selves.
Each looked at each with the purest inward touch was would probably ever have again. We knew our sins had been forgiven us, and we solemnly believed we never could offend a soul, if we lived to be a hundred. Most of us felt considerably older than we had an hour earlier. Age eight is truly a marvel in mankind’s progress. We were all well launched on the path to heaven, and we knew at the end of the journey all of us would be there together.
Such was our faith, repentance, and baptism.
Quickly we ran to the lean-to. Now that it was all over, except of course our confirmation on next Fast Sunday, we were in haste to join our parents and relatives who already were roaming restlessly about the grounds. Some of the older ones named the year they, too, had come here to be baptized. A couple of very little boys spoke up. They didn’t think the pond was anything but a swimming hole. The elder in charge hoped that one day a font would be built within a new meetinghouse. His dream showed in his eyes.
As we entered the house, we looked back just in time to see three boys racing for a surrey at the gate. And, still sopping wet, each with his dry clothes under his arm and his shoes tied together and slung around his neck, off they drove for town.
One boy yelled back, “Why stop to dress when it is raining anyway?”
This seemed reasonable, except that to little girls, in a chattering state of wetness and excitement, the delay for getting dressed was more urgent. And besides, we thought, what mother would let girls drive about soaking wet! That was just for boys, we guessed.
By the time we drew on our long stockings over our damp skin and crumpled underwear and laced our high-topped shoes, all the boys and their families had left, and most of the remaining parents were calling us to hurry.
In a way, I hated to leave. I felt a little sad, just the way my spirits fell when we said goodbye to Grandma after a visit or when Christmas day was finally over, and it wouldn’t happen again for a whole, interminable year.
As we climbed in the buggy and the harness slapped the mare to signal motion toward home, we looked back at the pond. The April rain was strengthening its fall, a gust of canyon wind ruffled its surface. With a little shiver I looked for comfort to Mother and Grandma sitting in the front seat. They were happy to be on the way home again. Their concern, then, was about my birthday cake which they hoped someone had thought to take out of the oven.
It was then I knew I was still a little girl, and not so terribly grownup after all; for I got so hungry for that cake that I nearly jumped out of the buggy and ran ahead of the horse.
When the whole day was over: rain, baptism, cake, and all, I tried to think of the most wonderful thing to remember when I got real old, say twenty-five. I settled for the moment in the pond, the deep water gently swaying me and the loving arms of my father steadying me as he began to talk to the Lord in my behalf.
It all came back, each detail – as it has most of my numerous birthdays – the next morning when Mother combed my hair. My braids were still damp from the rain and the water in the pond – that day I turned eight.