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The following originally appeared on Segullah. It is reprinted here with permission.
Daddy was our childhood hero.
Mom said he looked like Van Johnson, but the six of us kids just thought he was handsome. He smelled like Old Spice, and when he scooped us up in his arms, his tweed coat was always just the right amount of scratchy. I was sure he was a much better dancer than the average daddy, judging by the way he could twirl us around the living room. Although he wasn’t a famous singer, he had once considered being a famous singer, and that made him famous enough for me. He was not even afraid to sing loudly as we took walks around the neighborhood. We all sang and did not care what the neighbors thought (although we suspected they thought we were pretty talented). It was true that Daddy had to be a boring trial attorney all day. But when he came home, the fun came with him.
Unless Daddy was mad.
Mom said Daddy had an Irish temper, meaning he yelled when we ran out of clean towels, or when we weren’t scrambling up to bed fast enough, or when chores weren’t done. Anything could pull the trigger.
Although we all witnessed his tantrums, I was somehow spared his personal wrath. For the first eighteen years of my life, I cannot remember a harsh conversation between us. We adored each other. We were best friends like Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks—only we weren’t millionaires and I wasn’t an orphan named Annie. But you get the idea. I was a classic daddy’s girl.
Until the third grade, I never worried about losing either of my parents. But that year, one of my former teachers “passed on” (as adults described it). It didn’t take long to figure out that passed-on people were never coming back. This was my first contact with death, and I was determined it would be my last.
The night after the funeral I jumped onto my parents’ bed where they lay sleeping. They woke up, groggy and squinting as I cried, “You can never die! Please promise me right now that you will never die. Promise that I will never lose you!” My mother promised immediately. My father smiled at me with a puzzled look. There was a dim sparkle in his eyes, which I took as a yes, and bounced back up to bed, reassured that we were all safe from change.
But change came.
As I made my way through high school, Dad’s hair got grayer and mine morphed into Farrah Fawcett layers. My best friend was Dana Rowe, the most honest person I had ever known. She was open with me about her beliefs, and I found myself intrigued by her Latter-day Saint religion. That’s when things got complicated.
One day, Dana and I were at her house engaged in our favorite pastime: chatting and laughing with occasional swearing. Actually, I was the one doing all the swearing. Dana’s sister was home from college and she looked at me with gentleness. Pressing her finger to her lips she said softly, “Shhh.”
Something happened just then, something that would change me forever. Something ran through me with a quick, powerful intensity that felt like painless electricity. For just a moment, it literally took my breath away, and I was left knowing something unequivocally, something I had not known before: God did not want me to swear. I didn’t say anything, but instantly I swore off swearing.
One Sunday, Dana invited me to visit her church. We arrived early. The building was clean and tastefully decorated. Families were dressed in their Sunday best. There was a spirit of animated camaraderie as they all mingled together.
Dana introduced me to a gentle, petite woman with dark brown hair. She did not seem to recognize me, although I was sure we had met somewhere before. I just couldn’t place where it was, or when. Then Dana introduced me to someone else, and I experienced a similar déjà vu moment. To my wonderment, this experience kept repeating itself with each introduction. Finally I just stood in the back of the chapel, surveying the little social knots of people that had formed before the services began. Tears formed in my eyes as it slowly dawned on me that I knew them all. Deep in my soul, I knew that somewhere, at some time, these people had once been my close friends. There was a great feeling of belonging coupled with an unexpected feeling of relief. I kept thinking, I am home.
We sat down and the service began. Watching reverent teenage boys in white shirts and ties (a rare sight for a high school junior) pass the sacrament was beautiful. Then five little girls in white, all sisters, sang, “Love at Home.” It was a simple song, but its message was deeply profound. Something seemed to echo from eternity: the family unit was sacred, divine, and of critical importance to the Lord. Someone spoke of forever families sealed together in the temples of the Lord. I couldn’t remember hearing anything like that before, and yet the sudden realization of its truth was so touching it brought tears to my eyes.
Until that morning, I thought I understood the purpose of church. It was a place for individuals to commune and celebrate their individual relationships with a higher power. I was genuinely surprised to learn that God was interested in so much more than just the individual. He wanted the whole family. His plan for family bonding and joy was, apparently, specific and organized. He was not messing around with vagaries. There was work to be done all right. And His church—if it was His church—was apparently not afraid of the hard work it took to bind families together.
My soul suddenly yearned for these blessings for my mother and father, my brothers and sisters. We were a good family, but through the Spirit that day I could sense that so much more was possible. God wanted to bring us to heaven together: pure, whole, and forever.
I left in a quiet, contemplative state, but my busy life soon got the best of me. The Spirit that had been present at church did not stay with me, and I locked the experience away in a place in my heart labeled, “Marvel About This Again … Someday.”
But a few weeks later Dana gave me a pamphlet on Joseph Smith, which I tucked inside one of my textbooks. That night, as I tossed my books on my bed, the pamphlet fell out. I picked it up with curiosity. I read Joseph’s account again and again, searching for subtle clues signaling dishonesty. I couldn’t find them. Joseph’s voice was so pure and without guile it touched me to the core. In the deepest part of my soul I wrestled with the question: Had Jesus and Heavenly Father appeared to Joseph Smith in the spring of 1820? The thought was stunning, joyful, petrifying.
What if I learned it was all true? My family would never accept a new faith; we had been Catholic for centuries. It was hard not to think of the third daughter in Fiddler on the Roof, who had a change of faith and ended up cut off from her family forever. The thought of breaking with my family terrified me.
Over the next two years, I tried to study the restored gospel of Jesus Christ from all angles. As it turned out, there were a lot of angles, but I had to be sure. I spent a year at Brigham Young University as a nonmember, another year at St. Mary’s of Notre Dame. I took religion classes and talked to Catholic priests. I talked to members of other faiths. I talked to Mormons and felt that same electricity run through me as they bore their testimonies. But mostly, I talked to God.
I felt that He wanted me to prayerfully study the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. I put off the idea for a long time. Finally, at nineteen, I read the Book of Mormon with a prayer in my heart, and I just knew. I had already had so many spiritual experiences by then, so many witnesses of the truth, but the Book of Mormon was so solid. It was too hard to deny. So much of me didn’t want to know what I knew, and I felt empathy for Joseph Smith’s statement: “I knew it, and I knew God knew it, and I could not deny it.”
Now it was “all over but the shoutin’.” I had a feeling that Dad would take care of that.
The night before my baptism I was very scared. Alone in my room, I poured out my heart to God. Why did He want me to do this? Why was it so impossible? I knew Dad would be angry and wouldn’t understand. I knew his love for me might change. I had relied on that love for so long, I wasn’t sure I could live without it.
I tried to recall the first time I went to church and the powerful feelings I had there about family. From the beginning, I had known deeply that this faith had the power to bless families like no other. It could bless my parents, my siblings, my future family. I knew by the Spirit that this was what God had in mind: blessing my family.
I pushed my head into my pillow and sobbed. I knew God understood. I could feel His compassion. And that alone made me want to weep. But there were other good reasons to cry. I sensed that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.
I just didn’t know how much worse.
After baptism, Dad insisted that I leave home permanently. All financial help was cut off. A couple of jobs and an academic scholarship helped me return to BYU, but Dad initially insisted that even my mother and siblings have little to do with me.
The loving father I had known packed up his laughter and kindness and left. A vacant look replaced the sparkle in his eyes as emotional amnesia took hold of him. He no longer seemed to recognize me as his daughter.
More than two decades of near-silence followed, occasionally punctuated by fury. Sometimes he would throw me an anti-Mormon question, never intending to let me answer. There was no way to compete with his trial lawyer tenacity, his filibuster acumen. It was like talking into a wind tunnel; the cacophony of his resistance was so intense that all meaning was lost.
I gave up.
I refused to respond in anger when no family members attended my wedding reception. I did not cry (not publicly, at least) when my sister told me that I could not be her maid of honor because I was “no longer a Christian.” I did not comment when my husband patiently listened to my father’s tirades for hours at a time.
But my good husband always made sure we never stopped praying for Dad. Early in our marriage, especially, we prayed morning and night that whatever stood between Dad and the gospel would fall away.
One of the only times we spoke was about two years after I married. Mom told me that Dad was about to call, and I stared as the phone rang. This was going to be significant. “God spoke to me, Mary,” he said. “He spoke to me out loud. He told me that I would never drink again. And that I would never have a desire to drink again.”
I was speechless.
Years later Mom told me that Dad’s temper issues had always been deeply connected to drinking alcohol. I was shocked. I had never seen Dad drink heavily. I had never known about this struggle. She said Dad’s experience with God launched the best years of their marriage; the start of twenty-four years (and counting) without alcohol. Dad has never desired it since that day he heard God’s voice.
About twenty-five years after my baptism, I had a prompting to organize a formal reunion for Dad’s side of the family. This ranked near the top of my list of good things I did not want to do. We came, we rented, we catered; it all went pretty smoothly. At the end, Dad was full of compliments. He said my mother looked gorgeous, my sister sang like an opera star, my siblings and cousins couldn’t possibly be more marvelous. Then Dad nodded cordially in my direction, bowed formally, and left.
The next night, together with my husband, children, a couple of siblings, and their children, we had family home evening. Miraculously, Dad came. The warmth of the Spirit settled around us, bringing us close and thawing my frozen heart. Later, when nearly everyone left for ice cream, Dad and I wound up in the quiet living room.
“Dad, can I talk to you about something?” I asked.
“Yes, Mary, what is it?”
I took a deep breath.
“I just wanted to tell you that all of the reunion stuff … a lot of that was for you.” I smiled nervously. “I just wanted you to know that I love you.” Annoyed by tears forming in my eyes, I brushed them away. But Dad’s eyes were narrowed in concentration. He wanted to hear more. I took another breath and continued. “So I … I just wanted you to know that it’s been really hard, I mean all these years. Anyway, I hoped the reunion would please you. It has always been my hope that I would please you. Do you remember when I was a little girl and I would perform in front of an audience sometimes? Well, I just wanted you to know that it was actually you that I was scanning the audience for. It was always your approval, your validation that meant the most to me. Do you remember how I would defend you when your temper would get the best of you, and others would criticize you? I always took your side because … because I believed in you, Dad.”
I could hear my voice getting softer. I looked right at him and reached out for his hand. I took another deep breath and sent up a silent prayer for courage. “I only joined the Church because God told me to. I never did it to offend you. I would never want to do anything to hurt you. Please believe me.” I spoke my last words quickly, looking directly at him. “The Church is true, Dad.”
The Spirit was nearly palpable. Neither of us spoke for a long time. The dishwasher hummed quietly in the kitchen.
“Mary,” Dad said, clearing his throat. His posture was soldier straight as he spoke in even, measured words. “The worst thing I have ever done,” Dad paused to compose himself, “is what I did to you. For this … I am truly sorry.” Tears glistened in his eyes. His shoulders trembled slightly.
“It’s okay,” I said, patting his shoulder, tears hurrying down my cheeks. “I love you. Thank you for listening to me.” Thank you for recognizing me, I thought. I couldn’t stop crying. Our carefully maintained walls of pride were crumbling.
We heard footsteps shuffling toward the front door and gentle laughter. I looked out the window. There were my children and husband, my lanky 6’4” college student son carrying my diminutive five-year-old, her soft brown hair blowing behind her in the summer wind. My husband was dipping his head down to listen to another of our daughters. I recognized the look of adoration in her eyes.
I squeezed Dad’s hand. What were a few decades between friends? It didn’t matter. It couldn’t matter. Forever was ahead of us. I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him like I was five.