From the Relief Society Magazine, August 1942 –
Bend in the River
By Iris Schow
With mathematical precision, Natalie Gibson eased her smart navy and red hat to a perky angle, bestowing on her reflection a fleeting yet critical inspection.
“I really must dash, Mom,” she asserted. “No time to talk about whether or not it’s for my ‘best good’ to join your Relief Society.”
Snatching her purse and gloves, she terminated Mrs. Reed’s protest with a quick kiss and almost ran out to her roadster.
Bessie Reed moved to the window, struggling to shape into a smile the lines of disappointment on her face as she watched her graceful blond daughter drive away. It hurt, being put off, left in the middle of what she wanted to say. She knew that she, in turn, was being watched by her own aged, almost helpless mother, who sat in a comfortable chair near the window.
“Another party!” said Grandma Fuller. “Natalie goes to so many, you’d thinks he couldn’t help but tire of them.”
“She isn’t really the frivolous type, Mother,” said Bessie mildly. She sat down and picked up her handwork mechanically. “It’s just that Natalie doesn’t know what to do with herself since Joel died. This continual gadding is her way of finding something to occupy her mind. She doesn’t get any real satisfaction from it.”
“I know. haven’t I been through the same thing myself?” Grandma Fuller leaned forward a little, speaking earnestly. “Why, when your father died, I felt lost, Bessie. Losing your husband changes the whole pattern of your existence. It’s as if the river of your life had to make a great bend and strike a new course through strange woods and thickets. You feel unable to realize where you are going. But, of course, I had you six children to bring up and the farm to keep running. There wasn’t much time to grieve, with a dozen tasks always staring me in the face.”
“Sometimes I almost wish Natalie had to work to support herself and Ruth,” said Bessie anxiously. “With her knowledge of home economics, she could fill a position with the Farm Bureau extension service, but Joel’s interest in the Gibson Woolen Mills gives her an ample income. I had thought that if I could only get her to come with me to Relief Society, she might feel that she could make a real contribution to our studies, especially in nutrition. That would give her a more wholesome social interest. But you’ve seen the response I get …”
“She isn’t unkind about it, just indifferent,” pointed out Grandma Fuller.
“But indifference is so hard to overcome,” Bessie stated wearily. “And now there’s the Relief Society festival – a big event to honor the beginning of the Society’s second hundred years of service. We’ve worked and planned for this for weeks. All the sisters are to bring their daughters. When I think of sitting up there as secretary, without Natalie along, sometimes I feel that I just can’t go through it …” Bessie’s voice broke. She rose hastily, clinching her jaws together in a frantic effort to keep back the tears. “Well,” she stated, attempting nonchalance, “I’ll have to scat for the kitchen, or there’ll be no dinner.”
Left alone, Grandma Fuller sat very still, her wrinkled chin drooping toward her chest. She understood what her daughter had left unsaid; pride kept Bessie from urging Natalie to come to the Relief Society party “for the sake of mother.” She respected that pride.
If only Natalie could understand what membership in the Relief Society has meant to the women of our family since pioneer days, thought Grandma Fuller. If I could help her see how that glorious sisterhood has sustained us in our sorrows and prompted us to develop our best qualities in order to help others … Once she realized these things, she would want to join.
Grandma Fuller’s intent brown eyes did not see the pleasant residential street outside the window; she was looking back, down the avenues of memory. She thought of her mother, pregnant, jolting across the prairies toward Zion, forgetful of personal discomfort in her efforts to aid her “sisters in the Gospel.” She remembered her own young womanhood, her discouraging life on the farm. Surely she would have given up to her longing for town life, but for the heartening example of the handful of Relief Society members out there. And Bessie, what would have sustained her back in 1917, when her sons had gone to war, if she had not shared in the faith and work of the sisterhood? Even now, it was largely because of the Relief society activities that Bessie was so remarkably well informed.
Grandma Fuller’s chin rose purposefully. The responsibility belonged to her as well as to Bessie. She would do her best to help Natalie understand.
Next morning while Natalie tidied the living room, Grandma Fuller related memories of the past. “I wasn’t born till ‘56, two months after Pa and Ma reached the Valley,” she said, “but my sister Minnie was quite a big girl when they crossed the plains. She used to tell me how one night when she was left alone in the wagon with Joey and Rube – Pa and Ma were both tending the sick – she woke up to find Ma peeling off the wagon cover in a regular downpour of rain. Ma needed it to shelter a sister who was having a baby – their covered wagon was leaking badly. Well, with what help Minnie could give her, Ma took that cover down, in her condition, mind you. The children huddled together, while Minnie carried out Ma’s directions to protect them as best she could with quilts and coats spread over boxes and the wagon seat. The sisters saved the mother and babe that night, with the help of the Lord, and Ma’s children were none the worse for their exposure to the storm. That’s what Relief Society meant then.”
“Life must have been very hard in those days,” murmured Natalie, the tenderness which had once characterized her expression crossing her face for an instant.
Inwardly welcoming this good sign, Grandma Fuller continued telling incidents which illustrated her own and Bessie’s reasons for their devotion to the Relief Society. “And so for three generations,” she concluded, “the women of our family have done whatever the Relief Society has requested. We have never overlooked an hour’s service or missed giving a bushel of wheat that’s been asked of us. And we’ve been well repaid, too, in increased usefulness and information and happiness. That’s why I hope you won’t pass up the Relief Society, Natalie. I feel sure it can mean as much to you as it has to any of us.”
“Sweet old Grandma,” said Natalie, giving her grandmother’s shoulders an affectionate little hug, “sooner or later I’ll join your Relief Society, of course. But there’s no special rush. I have plenty of friends to keep my time occupied, and nobody here in the ward really needs my help. It isn’t as if we were crossing the plains or settling the state. If real want and hardship should come, you know I’d do whatever I could to help. So don’t trouble your pretty head about me.”
Natalie’s blue eyes sparkled as she gave Grandma Fuller a twinkling smile that was disarmingly affectionate.
Grandma Fuller had not given up. “But, Natalie, on Tuesday there’s the festival in honor of the beginning of Relief Society’s second one hundred years. They’re going to act out an original play. The first act is to show how the Society was organized back in Nauvoo in 1842. The other acts will show how the various lesson departments are conducted. There’s to be an act about literature, and one about the work-and-business department – they study about nutrition in this department and …”
“Yes, Grandma, Mom was telling us about it at the table the other day.” Natalie’s manner was still playfully affectionate.
“Why don’t you go to it, Natalie?” Grandma Fuller asked eagerly. “Then you could see a sample of each lesson department, and you’d know how the Relief society has kept up with the times. Why, Eva Brent Laine teaches the literary lessons now she’s married, and she’s a well educated member of your generation, dear.”
“Oh, Eva Brent,” said Natalie, “literary lessons and dramatizations are her idea of fun, but I’m afraid I’d find them a little stuffy.” Then, noticing Grandma Fuller’s look of disappointment, she added appeasingly, “But I’ll see. Maybe if I’m not too rushed by Tuesday …” She hurried away.
Grandma Fuller sensed that this was not a promise. By Tuesday morning she could see that Natalie had forgotten the conversation. She had related memories of some of her best experiences, and spoken of her most sacred ideals, but she had failed to make Natalie see. Why? It was not as if Natalie were opposed to religion. She would have protested vehemently if her fourteen-year-old daughter Ruth had not been in regular attendance at Sunday school. Why had she not responded? Grandma Fuller leaned back in her chair, apparently relaxed, but her mind was very busy.
Suddenly she remembered the excuse Natalie had given. “Nobody here in the ward really needs my help,” she had said. She thought that she was not needed. That was why she put off real duties in favor of trivial pleasures. But someone did need Natalie at the celebration. Grandma Fuller thought of Bessie’s hurt look when she had spoken of going as an officer to help entertain the daughters, without bringing her own daughter.
Suppose Grandma Fuller told Natalie just how Bessie felt, could she resist this appeal? Once she saw the play and understood the comprehensive program of the Relief Society, once she entered the presence of this great sisterhood, would she not feel the spirit there and respond to it? Grandma Fuller resolved to try again.
Bessie was at the tabernacle, helping with the advance preparations for serving the refreshments that afternoon. Knowing her mother would be late for lunch, Natalie had prepared the meal. When she came to help Grandma Fuller walk to the dining room, the older woman decided to make a final appeal.
“Are you figuring on going to the Relief Society social this afternoon, Natalie?” Grandma Fuller’s voice was steady, but inwardly she felt alarmingly timorous.
“I’m afraid I can’t make it,” said Natalie lightly. “Grace is giving a party for Roxie Phillips today, and I’ve promised to assist in serving. It’s rather an important occasion. Some other time, I may …”
“Natalie, my dear,” said Grandma Fuller distinctly, “I don’t believe you understand what it will do to your mother if you stay away from the festival today. You see, every member is expected to bring her daughters, and since your mother is an officer, it will be very noticeable if you aren’t there. Bessie won’t say this to you; she wouldn’t want me to. If you don’t come of your own accord, she will stand up to it alone. But she needs you at her side today.”
Natalie said nothing. Her facial muscles were strangely tense. Well, thought Grandma Fuller, I had to risk offending her. I must wait. I must be patient.
The old lady grasped the arms of her chair and summoned all her strength in an effort to rise. Natalie’s competent, steadying hands came out to help her. The women moved slowly toward the dining room.
Natalie broke the expectant silence. ‘I hadn’t thought of how it would look for Mother. I’ve just been thinking of myself, I guess, and hating to face the too hearty greeting I’d be sure to get from our ward president. I’m positive she’d be noxious and say, ‘I’m so glad to see you out to meeting at last,’ or she might even strike a gay note by saying, ‘Well, well, Natalie, long time no see.’ But I guess I can take it for once. Of course I’ll go. They can always find someone else who wants to assist in serving.”
As they entered the dining room Natalie was saying gaily, “And what time does this Relief Society celebration start? I mustn’t be late.”
Ruth, who was filling the glasses, gesticulated impulsively with the water pitcher. Her brown eyes sparkled as she interrupted eagerly, “Oh, Mommie, are you going? Well, that’s just absolutely perfect. All the kids in our crowd are going with their mothers. Ethel coaxed me to come with her mother, too, but I didn’t think that would look so … And, Mommie, it starts at four o’clock, but I can make it after school.”
Grandma Fuller gave thanks silently that Ruth, too, needed Natalie. But late in the afternoon, when they had gone to the tabernacle, leaving her alone, fears assailed her. Would Natalie think that going this once satisfied the whole need? Would she think it was a “stuffy” social? Would the influence of her present associates triumph?
I have done all I can, thought Grandma Fuller, except one thing. She could not rise alone and kneel, but never had she uttered a more fervent plea. “Our Heavenly Father, please help Natalie know the importance of Thy work. When my parents crossed the plains, their real purpose was to help establish Thy Church and people here in Utah. For this they pressed on in spite of heat or storms, want or sickness. For this they grappled with the desert and made it fruitful. Now, if their descendants turn from the real spirit of Thy gospel and fail to carry on Thy work, by just that much the struggle of my parents is lost. I have tried my best to help Natalie understand. Now I ask thy help, that her mind will be open, that she will see …” prayed Grandma Fuller in all humility. When she had finished, she felt very calm. It was easier now to wait.
Ruth appeared first. “Peachy time, Gran’ma Fuller; good eats! I served!” she called as she clattered upstairs.
The others came in together. With the fatigued smile of one who has helped put over a successful festival, Bessie hastened away to change her best dress. Natalie perched on the arm of a chair.
“It was good seeing Ruth out with her crowd, Grandma; I’m glad I went.” Natalie smiled reminiscently. “The solemn way those kids served everybody, and the innocent pranks they were pulling as they ate up the left-overs in the kitchen – it was just like the fun I used to have when I went to the socials with Mom. I’m glad Ruth’s best friends are Latter-day Saint girls.”
This was all very well, but Natalie had not said what Grandma Fuller wanted most to hear. She waited anxiously.
“And the ward officers,” continued Natalie, “didn’t act a bit patronizing. They are so natural and sweet. Sister Stratt, the second counselor, and I got to talking about nutrition, and she asked me if I would prepare some talks and outlines on balanced diet, to give to the ward welfare workers. She has charge of the foods, you know, and there’s such a lot to do. I’m going to help wherever I can, both in the Church welfare and the Relief Society. Isn’t it surprising how the Church has kept up with the needs of the people under present conditions? I’m glad you sent me over to find out what the Relief Society really is doing!”
Natalie’s smile was easy; the old tense expression was gone.
“Father, I thank Thee,” whispered Grandma Fuller; “my grandchild has passed the bend in the river. The course of her life runs through verdant, productive land.”