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The Wilderness

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 14, 2013

From the Relief Society Magazine, January 1942 –

The Wilderness

By Alice Morrey Bailey

Kathryn Clayton kept her eyes on the gold-colored draperies of the Relief Society room while the class progressed about her, only dimly aware that the subject was “Neighborliness.”

“My neighbors and me,” Sister Meade was saying – and Kathryn turned to look at her, a lumpy little woman whose hair was pulled back to an unbeautiful knot on the back of her head – “we are just like one big, happy family. If it’s joy or sorrow, we share it.”

Kathryn averted her eyes from the woman, and her mind drew fastidiously from this distasteful doctrine.

“When my boy …” Mrs. Meade was saying, but she couldn’t go on. After a minute of embarrassing silence she sat down, fumbling for her handkerchief. Everyone knew about her boy – a big hulk of a man, with a little boy’s mind; silly from a fall, some said. He was harmless enough, but Kathryn thought he should have been in an institution long since.

“Sister Clayton, how do you feel about neighbors?” said the class leader with uncanny perception.

Kathryn started, but her confusion was only momentary; she got to her feet.

“I don’t care for neighbors,” she said, and was aware of a shocked silence in the classroom. “That is,” she amended hastily, “it depends on who you consider neighbors. Crowded together as houses necessarily are, one can’t choose who lives next door.”

One or two nodded agreement, and the rest sat looking at her uncomprehendingly.

“I am a busy woman,” she went on. She was, too, with six children, one of them a year-old baby. Thinking of her baby, Sara Lea, her heart gave a leap of pure joy, so that she forgot her surroundings momentarily. Sara Lea, so deliciously dimpled, her blue eyes like larkspur, her hair like silk – a pink and blue and gold baby.

“I am a busy woman,” she repeated, recalling herself. “I haven’t time to gossip over back fences, waste my own time and that of my neighbors.”

She caught sight of Mrs. Meade’s face, pink with chagrin, and remembered suddenly that Mrs. Meade lived just two doors from her in their fairly new neighborhood.

“Now I’ve done it,” she thought. “And I wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings willingly. Perhaps I might have expressed myself better; but, then, they shouldn’t have asked me.” She thought that maybe she should have kept still and let the class go on, all of one opinion, in sisterly love and kindness.

It wasn’t as if she wanted to come to Relief Society meeting, but there had been nothing else to do, the way the president, Sister Beckwith, had approached her: “You are the only one in the ward that can do it, Sister Clayton. We need your lovely voice and your training as a chorister. Our music department was a failure last year.”

That had been in September; now it was April, and she had done a good job of her little group of “Singing Mothers,” now outstanding in the stake, but she still resented the time it took. it wasn’t as if she’d rather play bridge or do some other thing, useless, or even wicked. It was just that she loved her home and her family – every minute of the routine, the busy mornings, the afternoons at her desk, the evenings with Thomas reading under a spot of light in the living room; the girls playing their quiet games, the boys downstairs in the rumpus room; Sara Lea and fat little Dickie right now at home in dreamless baby sleep.

Relief Society had its place in the old days when there was no outlet socially – in the days of Nauvoo, in the days of the pioneer wilderness. Kathryn knew all about the background, and it was a splendid one she freely admitted – black-eyed Emma Smith, turning her house and dooryard into a hospital for victims of the ague in Nauvoo, equal to entertaining the prominent visitors of the Prophet or to conducting Relief Society meetings along parliamentary lines; Eliza R. Snow, intelligent, brilliant, guarding, preserving and bringing the records of the infant Society across the plains; the establishment anew of the society in the mountains; lovable Aunt Zina D. Young, who could mother and nurse all the world, traveling through the raw country to organize new branches and to teach the sisters the silk industry from cocoon to the making of a silk lace collar for the wife of the President of the United States.

There was Aunt Bathsheba W. Smith, undaunted in her efforts to build the Society; there was “Aunt Em” and the saving of thousands of bushels of grain (her own mother had helped do that). There was the wonderful work of the women in connection with child welfare, nursing, suffrage, and with building a hospital. There were the mammoth relief programs and the recognition that had been gained in the large women’s councils of the world. There was the launching of a magazine in a literary wilderness. Much had been accomplished – all of value then.

But now it was different. There were endless contacts, the best of earth at one’s fingertips, so much of richness that there was not time to assimilate it. There was no need for people to be dependent upon each other for anything. There were specialists for your baby, hospitals for the sick, and culture from its original sources in such abundance that selection was necessary. And Relief Society, Kathryn reflected, looking at the assembled women, was far from being exclusive. None of them, she thought, had anything of value to offer her.

The discussion was considerably livelier; hands were popping up, cheeks flushed with debate. One woman sat in the back saying intermittently: “my neighbor …” trying to insert a story that was perpetually interrupted.

After the closing prayer, Sister Beckwith and the class leader approached Kathryn, and she thought, “Now I’m in for it.”

“We couldn’t do without you, Sister Clayton,” the president said warmly. “The Singing Mothers were wonderful at April Conference. Now the stake board wants the chorus to begin on a pageant for the centennial. Can you meet Friday as usual?”

The class leader beamed and said, “Thanks for the lift; the lesson was about to die.” Kathryn perceived that the woman was sincerely grateful. She went home feeling somewhat abashed. “Maybe I’m the one who is out of step,” she thought.

“We broke our bean bag,” Iris greeted her. “Mother, will you fix it? We picked up all the beans.”

“Yes, darling. Are the boys home from school, and how are the babies?”

In three minutes Kathryn had picked up the threads of her housekeeping. The boys were in the basement and Dickie was in the bathroom. Sara Lea was waking up, and she gurgled happily as Kathryn picked her up. She patted her mother with soft little palms and planted big, wet kisses on her cheek.

“Don’t put her in her play pen,” begged Iris and Dot. “Let us have her in the living room to walk between us.”

Kathryn watched a moment as the girls, their arms outstretched, encouraged Sara Lea to take her unsteady little steps between them. Her heart swelled with deep content. Sara Lea was enchanting in her baby triumph, turning from one to the other. Sara Lea was an enchanting child – her last, Dr. Chalmars had said.

Kathryn looked at the clock. Dinner would be late because of meeting. Thomas would be home in less than an hour. She must hurry …

“Mother! Mother! O Mother!” Kathryn had just finished peeling the potatoes when Iris began to scream. “Quick! The baby!” Dot was wailing in frightened panic, but there was no sound from Sara Lea. Fear gripped Kathryn, weighted her movements.

Sara Lea, stiff in Iris arms, was fighting for breath. Kathryn swept her up, shaking her frantically, pumping her arms.

“A bean, Mother!” Iris was panting. “She got one of my beans in her mouth!”

“Iris, call Dr. Chalmars quickly and tell him the baby’s choking. The number …” But there was no time. Sarah Lea’s face was growing progressively blacker, and Kathryn felt that she too would suffocate in her effort to help the baby. She rushed out into the street, alternately pounding the baby’s back and reaching into her throat with her finger, searching for the bean. “O dear God! Babies die like this!” she cried. “Help me! Oh, help me!”

A car slid in front of her. Sister Beckwith, who took, in the scene at a glance, swung open the car door and commanded: “Get in.”

Without a word she shifted gears and put her hand on the horn, shooting her car into instant speed. Kathryn knew the woman was driving with the facility of an expert, that she was passing all cars, that they were going at high speed, but it seemed as if they were creeping.

“Dr. Chalmars?” asked Sister Beckwith, not looking aside nor taking her hand from the horn.

“Yes. Medical building. Hurry! Please hurry!”

“You bet I will! Keep fighting.”

“I think she’s … dying.” Kathryn’s voice failed on the last word.

“We’ll get there.”

And, amazingly, they did. Kathryn didn’t question it that Dr. Chalmars was on the sidewalk, that he snatched the baby from her and rushed into the elevator, working with her as he did so.

“Express!” he commanded of the operator, and the elevator shot to his floor, ignoring all signals.

Then, suddenly, miraculously, Sara Lea’s face was clearing.

“She’s breathing,” said Dr. Chalmars laconically, and Kathryn almost worshipped him. what a wonderful creation a doctor was! Sister Beckwith slipped a chair under Kathryn’s bending knees. A nurse was holding a fluff of cotton under her nose, and the sharp smell of ammonia cleared her head. She must have tried to faint!

“Your neighbor, Mrs. Meade, saw the commotion and ran into your house,” Dr. Chalmars was saying in a matter-of-fact way. “She gave me the whole picture over the telephone. That’s why I was waiting for you. That extra minute saved your baby’s life.”

Sara Lea began to cough queerly, and Dr. Chalmars bent over her, examining her intently. Kathryn searched his eyes.

“Tom!” said Kathryn to no one. “I want Tom.”

“I’ll get him. I guess there’s nothing more I can do here,” Said sister Beckwith.

“You saved my baby’s life,” Kathryn told her. “I’ll love you – and Mrs. Meade – as long as there is so much of me as a breath.”

Sister Beckwith didn’t answer, except to grip Kathryn’s hand; and Kathryn, looking into her eyes, saw there an understanding, a kinship as deep as eternity. She wondered how it had escaped her before, how she had ever thought this woman commonplace.

Thomas came, and the doctor, busy with his stethoscope, listening first to one side of Sara Lea’s chest, then to the other, barely glanced at him.

“I met Sister Beckwith downstairs,” Thomas explained. “Sister Meade telephoned me at the office. I’d have been gone in another five minutes.”

Dr. Chalmars straightened and removed the stethoscope from his ears.

“The bean,” he said, “has apparently gone on down past the trachea and lodged in the bronchial tube, closing off the left chest. “We’ll have to do a bronchoscopy.”

A bean in Sara Lea’s lung! One read of such things in the newspapers – of babies in Tennessee or North Dakota getting safety pins, of swift airplane rides and emergency operations. But such things didn’t happen here – not to one’s own baby! Kathryn looked at Dr. Chalmars in horror.

“There’s only one man here who can do it. Dr. Howard – very competent.”

“When should it be done?” Thomas asked, his face white.

“The sooner, the better!” Dr. Chalmars was already dialing Dr. Howard’s number, already making arrangements at the hospital for an “emergency operation – bronchoscopy.”

It was a nightmare of time, waiting outside the operating room while the smell of ether pervaded the corridors, jumping up every time a nurse whipped briskly through the swinging doors – time that swam, that seemed to have no end, to have no beginning. Sara Lea was back in the room, though, moaning with returning consciousness before Kathryn thought of the children at home.

“Tom! The children! It’s past their bedtime, and I forgot dinner.”

“The boys …” Tom began vaguely. But the boys had never had to get a meal in their lives.

“I’d better telephone,” said Kathryn.

A woman’s voice answered, the voice of her visiting teacher, Sister Andrews, serene and heart warming.

“I fed them all,” she said. “And they are all asleep. Sister Beckwith sent me. I told them stories and kept them from being frightened. I can stay all night if you want me to, and I’ll get them off to school in the morning.”

“Bless you!” said Kathryn from the bottom of her heart. “If you only would.”

“Don’t worry about a thing here,” said the woman. “Sister Beckwith said she could get you a good woman to come in, if you want one, through the Relief Society agency.”

Kathryn hadn’t thought of that. “We’ll see,” she said. “They got the bean, and Dr. Chalmars says that Sara Lea will have a quick recovery.”

But Sara Lea didn’t have a quick recovery. It was on the third day that she developed pneumonia, that her fever was soaring dangerously, hour by hour, until her short breathing filled the room, and she moaned in coma. It was clear that nothing was helping her, none of the fine care, none of the magic science. Kathryn was filled with the slow grip of fear, crystallizing into a knowledge that Sarah Lea, so precious and beautiful, was going to die.

Kathryn left the hospital for only necessary and flying trips home, and on these occasions it was always the same. Though the woman sent by the Society agency was installed, there were endless messages, endless gifts – cakes, flowers, salads – mute wishes for good. There were loaves of bread, fragrant and fat, fresh eggs – all poured from a bounty of love, brought by the Relief Society sisters.

People she scarcely knew were concerned about Sara Lea. Even Mrs. Meade’s poor, big boy brought flowers he had wandered in the hills to pick “because you sing so pretty,” he said. Kathryn was amazed and touched that all the love, the good wishes, the faith fused into a very real power, almost a tangible force, a support that kept her and Tom going through the awful days – kept them ashamed to admit defeat.

On the day that even the doctors shook their heads in scientific despair, Sister Beckwith came to Kathryn in the hospital corridor. Kathryn, answering her look of inquiry, could not speak, but swiftly and suddenly wept in this kind woman’s arms, while the worn, old phrases fell like petals about her head – “keep up your faith”; “we’re all praying for you”; “have faith”; “have faith!”

Kathryn went back into the room without any light of faith in this wilderness of fear. Doubt rose about her like tall trees. Fear tore at her feet like tangled vines, pressed down like fog, shrieked at her like savages. In that little room her baby fought a losing battle with death, and Tom looked at her through haggard eyes, hopeless in his own wilderness of fear.

But suddenly the bishop was there, and his counselors. Kind, sweet men, whose faces seemed to shine with an inner strength, alien to this room.

“Sister Beckwith thought you needed us to administer to your baby.”

“We do! We do!”

They went through the ritual in clear, positive tones. Tom’s hand gripped hers as they listened to the prayer: “… anoint you with this oil … rebuke this disease … make whole in every particular … that she may grow to young womanhood,” phrase upon phrase, building a tower of faith. Kathryn’s faith soared with their voices, free of fear. Sara Lea was going to get well! Sara Lea was going to get well! She looked at Thomas. He knew it, too. The room was suddenly bright, suddenly sane.

That night Sara Lea slept, her baby skin cooling in fine dew. The doctors, coming in the morning, looked at her in surprised wonder.

The first Tuesday after the baby was pronounced out of danger was testimony day, and Kathryn arose.

“My dear sisters,” she began, looking about at them, their dear, plain faces, so beautiful in individual strength. “I thought that Relief Society had been only useful in the days when our country was raw and new, and people were dependent on each other for soap and candles and fire, but there’s a different kind of wilderness. When my baby …”

She stopped and tears blurred her vision, pain thickened her throat. She wanted to go on, to tell them of the wilderness of fear, and how their faith had reached out to her when she was in it, but she couldn’t go on, nor had she need. Every woman there knew what she meant.

“What I could never understand,” she said to Sister Beckwith afterward, “was how you came to be in front of my house when I needed you.”

“Nor I,” confessed Sister Beckwith. “I ought to have been home getting Bob’s supper, but I had such a feeling you needed me, and I was going to tell you not to bother with that pageant. I thought we must have been overworking you.”

“Next September,” promised Kathryn, “I’ll be back, and don’t you leave me out of anything!”



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