The summer before I started first grade we moved into a basement house 3 miles west of the small town of Wellington Utah. My step-father built the house on 3 acres of alkali dessert. The house was down a lane off highway 50 & 6. There was an expansive wash on the north side of the lane with a drizzling alkali stream and tamaracks. Our house was on the South side where a large irrigation ditch ran by the front of the house.
If I learned anything from Archie, my stepfather, it was that you can do anything you want whether you know how to do it or not. He wasn’t a finish carpenter. He winged it most of the time. His building skills were crude but sturdy. What he lacked in talent he excelled in guts and creativity. I don’t know if it was money or motivation but things didn’t seem to get finished most of the time.
When we moved into the basement house it was lacking. I am not sure if the basement was ever completely finished. There was sheet rock nailed to some of the studs but not all and nothing was painted. None of the doorways had doors. The kitchen had a coal burning cook stove, a few rough crafted shelves and a sink attached to the wall. There was a ringer washing machine in the corner of the room ready to be pulled out on washing day. There were a few patches of linoleum but mostly the floors were bare cement. The linoleum seemed to always have worn black patches so I have my doubts it was ever new in our house or just so cheap it wore out quickly. We also had an outhouse. This was home for the next few years. My mother tried to fix a few things on occasion but mostly it just got shabbier. It wasn’t a place you wanted to invite your friends to.
I often think of my mother in that house trying to create a home for four small children, all sleeping in the same little room. I think of her cooking on that coal stove, baking bread weekly, raising a large garden and canning hundreds of bottles of fruit and vegetables in the heat of the summer. She worked very hard at times. She wasn’t a great housekeeper but I don’t blame her, really. It must have been very discouraging trying to keep that unfinished basement house looking decent. My mother had 3 priorities: the dishes, the washing and she made her bed every day. The rest of the house pretty much went undone. On special occasions she would muster some motivation and clean the place to a beautiful state in my eyes. She would wax the old worn linoleum until it gleamed. When it was clean and organized that worn, shabby 4-room basement house looked wonderful to me. I wanted it like that every day but my mother didn’t care, didn’t have the energy and she wasn’t good at organizing us to work. The reality was she would rather read a Zane Grey novel and escape.
The shopping in Wellington consisted of 2 beer joints, a gas station and a small post office. So, every Friday, when my dad arrived home from the coal mine around 4:00 PM, my parents would drive the 12 miles to Price and shop for groceries. The kids stayed home. If we didn’t fight we would get candy bars when they returned.
I am sure that being the only girl in the family made a difference in how I saw it all. I was very young, perhaps 8 or 9, the first time I decided that I would clean the house as a surprise for my mother. I didn’t always do it but quite often I would get with it and clean everything I could in the 2 hours they were gone, including scrubbing the floor on my hands and knees and waxing the old linoleum.
Once Vaugh J. Featherstone came to our Stake conference and told a story that later he also told in General conference. (Oct. 99) He said his mother worked graveyard shift at the Garfield Smelter to help support the 7 children in his family. On one particular occasion his mother invited 30-40 relatives to dinner. After only 2 hours sleep she got up and cooked and baked all day for the event. When dinner was over the company stayed to visit. Bro. Featherstone describes the following situation: "I remember standing all alone in the kitchen. In my young mind I thought, My mother worked all night; she has worked all day to get this dinner. When everyone leaves, she will have to do the dishes and put the food away. It will take two or three hours, and that’s not fair. Then I thought, I will do them."
For the next 3 hours he washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen. He was 11 years old. He said he will never forget the look on his mother’s face when she came into the kitchen and saw what he had done. How much is a look of gratitude worth? Did I clean for my mother or myself? Was I motivated by the "look" or did I clean because I wanted a clean house. I am not really sure. Because of my father’s alcoholism, and the domestic violence in our home, I had a sense of my mothers suffering and decided I never wanted to add to it.
My mother was able to do something that never worked for me. In her disorganization she would assign someone to wash the dishes after dinner. If they complained she would get up and simply say, "Then, I will do them myself." We would all scramble and offer to wash them, feeling it was not fair for her to do any more work. Usually the errant apointee would repent and wash the dishes.
My kids never saw me as empathetic. I was the capable, energetic, wonder woman, flying through the day doing it all. All but maybe the things I should have been doing, smelling more roses and kissing more hurts. Recently in a group conversation with some of my children about my mothering one of them said, "Oh, if we had a wound mom would tell us to get some toilet paper and duct tape to make a bandage and stop crying. It was funny, and half-true but more indicative of how they saw me as lacking empathy for them. Perhaps all children see their mothers this way. Sometimes the motherhood pressure cooker leaves you exhausted and numb and wondering if you can possibly do any more and by the way what about me? You get a little jaded and callous, at least I did. I remember wanting to run away at times.
Looking back I know I should have cried more. Once I put a meal on the table for my little family only to have them all complain. Even Mike said, "It might be best not to cook this again." Maybe I was having a bad day or hormones were out of whack but I started to cry and went to my bedroom and locked the door. I didn’t come out all evening. My kids kept knocking on the door wanting to know if I was OK, saying they were sorry. Oh Yes, I should have cried more. I should have put down my hurried, capable armor and collapsed in a crying heap, like I wanted at times.
I am torn between wanting and not wanting to do motherhood over. I would do it if I had just one bit of knowledge down pat: "Charity... seekeketh not her own." "Pray unto the father with all the energy of heart that ye may be filled with this love . (Moroni 7:48)" I didn’t do that enough for sure. I should never have run out of real Band-Aids.
About the Wellington house: When I was about 11 my dad built 4 rooms on the top of the basement. It had a real electric stove; a coal burning forced air furnace, and a crudely built bathroom in the basement. The addition had new linoleum in every room. The house was never wonderful with carpets on the floor, nice kitchen cupboards and a good bathroom but a great improvement from where we had been living. Just having windows we could see out was nice, and cleaning on Fridays still gave me a lot of joy. I still clean on Fridays and I still love shiny clean floors.