By Tilda Wilson
It is a warm early September day in Wales, 152 years before I’m born. My great-great-great-grandfather John Parry, Jr. is persuaded by the Latter Day Saint missionaries Lucius Scovil and Joseph Cain to go to church. Years later, John Parry, Jr. tells this story in his journal. He knows immediately upon entering the LDS church building that “this is [his] eternal home.” It is a feeling so profound that John Parry, Jr. decides to give up his entire life in Wales. He travels across an ocean by boat and then across a continent by foot on the U.S. pioneer trails to reach Zion, the promised land. A place labeled on maps as Salt Lake City, Utah, and labeled in the hearts of my people as a birthplace: home. John Parry, Jr. goes on the be the head contractor of the Mormon Temple in Logan, Utah, which I pass by on my way to class every single day during my freshman year of college.
Meanwhile, on the same hot, dusty pioneer trails that John Parry, Jr. would later cross, my great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side, John Stucki, is eight years old and hiding in the back of a handcart as his family sets up camp. John is waiting for his mother, Magdalena Stettler Stucki, to reach camp. She falls far behind the group every day, burdened with the task of carrying and caring for John’s newborn baby brother. John is hungry. So hungry that his stomach is painfully lurching and he can’t think straight. He eyes the carefully rationed food sitting in the back of his family’s handcart, and decides to take a small piece. Nobody will notice, he thinks. Once he takes one bite, he cannot stop, and he eats through well more than two days of his rations. He sits in the back of the cart, horrified and awaiting punishment when his mother arrives. When Magdalena finally reaches camp and sees what John has done, she does not
reprimand him. She begins to cry. It is painful to see her son so hungry and unhappy.
I find all of this information in the dutifully transcribed and annotated books of the journals of both John Parry Jr. and John Stucki. My ancestors don’t write journals for themselves; they write them for me. They write journals in the hope that all of their descendants will gain an understanding of just how much the Mormon church means to them, and how much was sacrificed to make my church the large and meaningful institution it is today.
Flash forward 120 years and it’s 1966, just 32 years before I’m born. John Parry, Jr.’s great-great-grandson, my father, is six years old. He is sitting cross-legged on a shaggy-carpeted floor in Riverside, California. It is a Monday night, so the whole family has gathered for a night of scripture reading and family history and games and treats and laughing called Family Home Evening. This isn’t their own tradition, it is part of being a Mormon. Families go to church together on Sunday, and on Monday nights, they spend time together as a unit. It cannot have been easy to do. At just 30, my grandmother already had to keep four kids sitting together in one room for an entire evening. My grandfather asks my dad to say an opening prayer. My dad folds his small arms, and says words he’s uttered a thousand times since learning how to talk: “Dear, heavenly father.” Everyone shuts their eyes reverently except my grandmother, who opens hers briefly to keep my baby uncle Alan from fussing. She smiles down at her family from her perch on the cushy leather couch, and feels how strongly the holy spirit ties her to these people.
It’s 1980, 18 years before I’m born. My mom is 17 years old and applying for college while attending Skyline High School in Oakland, California. Most of her friends are going to UC Davis, but she doesn’t even apply there. In fact, she only applies for one school: Brigham Young University. The Mormon school. My mother’s upbringing isn’t always stable like my dad’s. When things get complicated––when her dad spends nights away drinking with Bob Douglas, when her parents fight, when she gets negatively compared to her sister––she turns to the church. Mormonism is a place of stability and predictability for her. The adults at church care for her deeply. They are people she knows she can fall back on if she ever needs to. When, at 18, my mom leaves her home in California for Utah, she heads towards stability. She is undeniably proud to be a Mormon.
Around the same time, my dad is 19 and getting on a plane from Provo, Utah (where he also goes to BYU) to Seoul, North Korea to embark on his two-year Mormon mission to preach the gospel. He doesn’t know the language yet. He goes without considering any other options. This is just what Mormon boys do. My grandma still has binders full of the cheerful and funny letters my dad wrote home to his family. He tells stories about baptizing people and making conversions, as well as funny moments like accidentally attempting to proselytize to a group of prostitutes who think he is trying to purchase their services. My dad, like many of his ancestors before him, writes journals about his mission. Years later, I catch him reading through all of his old mission journals, and I ask if I can read them, too. He looks deeply emotional. He shakes his head. No.
On August 29th, 1992, six years before I am born, my parents are married in the Salt Lake City temple. My grandfather on my mom’s side cannot attend because he is not following the church’s teachings, so he does not have a temple recommend. My parents are married in the temple to become an eternal family. They are tied to one another in the afterlife now, and any children they have will now be tied to them and all their Mormon ancestors before them, as long as they follow the teachings of the church and end up in the celestial kingdom of heaven. My grandfather waits outside the temple in a suit during the marriage. For him, this family is temporary.
Four years before I am born, my parents go on a roadtrip to California to visit family. They make a stop in Southern Utah to take a picture of my newborn older sister, Magdalena Stucki Wilson, with the grave of her namesake, Magdalene Stettler Stucki. The grave is inscribed with the words, “Walked 1,000 miles.”
I am born on Wednesday, December 2nd, 1998. 11 days later, on December 13th, I am dressed in a long white dress, worn by my mother and her mother before that, and am given a church blessing by my dad in front of the entire congregation. I am blessed with the name Matilda Rose Stucki Wilson. I am the first of my siblings to be given my own first name; we don’t have a close ancestor named Matilda. Rose, on the other hand, is a family name. I had never thought to ask my father what he blessed me with before thinking about this paper, so I call him on the phone and ask. “I blessed you with curiosity,” he tells me in a comedic tone. “Most girls get blessed with finding their eternal companion and having children, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Everyone thought I was weird.” I laugh and tell him it is his fault that I’m never going to get married. All I’ve got is damn curiosity.
I am six years old and my dad is walking home from work on a chilly September day. He is thinking about religion. For years, he has justified his position as a member of the Mormon church despite the numerous more outrageous beliefs he doesn’t accept (see: everyone gets their own planet when they die), because he believes in God. On this walk home, he comes to terms with the fact that this isn’t true anymore. The last thread that ties my father to the Mormon church doctrine breaks. My dad doesn’t believe in God.
I have just turned eight years old and I am driving to church with my grandma. Today is special, because I am getting baptized. I have a brand new white dress and my hair is tied up in small braided buns right above my ears. I think I look like Princess Leia. I have been told all about what it means to get baptized. My sins will all be washed away, and I will be blessed as an official member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My grandma looks at me lovingly. “I am so proud of you for making this choice, Matilda. This is an important decision,” she tells me. I giggle at her and say “What choice? It’s not like I could actually just not get baptized.” She rolls her eyes at me. “Your father’s daughter.”
We get to the church and I change into a different all-white outfit, this one to be baptized in. I step out into a pool of warm water and smile because it is like a hot tub, and I’m wondering if anyone ever fills up the baptismal font just to swim around. My dad meets me in the middle of the font and holds my wrists with one hand while raising the other hand in the air. My large extended family watches in seats facing the font. I see my cousins, playing with toys in the corner of the room, and I feel left out. I’d rather be playing with them. My dad gives the memorized prayer: “Matilda Rose Stucki Wilson, having been commissioned of Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” He guides me under the water. It isn’t until many years later that I discover that my father has already lost his faith by the time he baptizes me. My dad isn’t being dishonest during my baptism. He is passing on a tradition that still matters to him. He is giving me an extra community, should I ever need it. He is giving me the chance to find the faith he lost.
I am 12 years old and I am feeling rebellious. At school today, Kassidy Johnson called me a goody two shoes, and I want to prove her wrong. I know exactly which rule I’m going to break; it is a rule that I have been psyching myself up to break for a long time. I am going to drink coffee. There is a scripture in Mormon text that states, “hot drinks are not for the body or belly,” which has been interpreted by church authority to mean that coffee and black tea are sinful, regardless of temperature. Mormons don’t drink coffee, but non-Mormons do. Non-Mormons drink a lot of coffee. I pass by a drive-through coffee stop on my walk to middle school every morning, and the cars line up so far back that they block the street and cause a traffic jam. I can’t help but wonder at what I’ve been missing out on.
I walk to the same drive-through coffee stop today. I am brimming with excitement and nerves. Coffee must be even better than root beer. Why else would God make it a sin? I walk up to the drive-through window, and shakily ask for a small coffee. The barista, staring down an anxious 12-year-old wearing a CTR ring, asks, “Do you want decaf? It’s kind of late.” I take a deep breath, gather all my confidence, look the barista directly in the eye, and say: “Hell no.” I walk a few blocks down the road with my hot cup of coffee, and then I sit down in the grass to try it. I take a slow sip. My face changes. I spit the liquid out on the ground, horrified. I take out my journal and write, “This? This? This is what you’re all going to hell for?”
I am 19 years old and I am sitting on the floor of the living room of the gigantic house that my extended family has rented out for the triennial Wilson family reunion. We’re all wearing matching, bright blue t-shirts with a picture my sister drew of my grandparents printed on the front. My aunt Jennifer is reading from the journal of Rose Badger, my namesake and great-great-grandmother. Rose writes about her daily life, about how much she loves her church and her family. She is funny and endearing.
There is more tension in the room this year than there has been at previous family reunions. We all show up, but there is a divide between those who are actively practicing and those who are not. My dad lets me take a sip from his Hydro Flask, which has diet coke that he has secretly spiked with rum. My oldest sister let it slip to some of the older cousins yesterday that my middle sister has a girlfriend.
When we’re done telling stories, the adult Wilson siblings—my aunts and uncles—meet in a separate room to discuss how best to care for their aging parents. The conversation quickly dissolves into a discussion of the church. I listen outside the door, feeling tension permeate from so many unsaid words. When my dad and my aunt Rosanne stopped going to church, they abandoned their eternal family. Unless they repent, unless they start following the rules again and get their temple recommends back, this family is temporary. My aunt Kathy starts crying. She looks my dad in the eye and asks him how he can deny the church that raised him. The church that built his community and family and world. I do not hear a response.
I’m 19 years old and I’m nervously bouncing my leg and staring at the grey walls of an airport terminal. I got in a car with my dad and drove here directly from the family reunion. I am going to Ithaca to start a new life. I get my backpack and pull out my journal and a new pen from the pack I have purchased for school. Writing calms me down. I can’t stop thinking about Rose Badger’s journal, and the love with which my aunt Jennifer read it out loud. Rose was just detailing her day-to-day life, and my family cares deeply about this because we believe we have only been briefly disrupted from knowing her. One day, my family will be up in heaven laughing with her, already understanding her. But I no longer have this privilege. I have chosen not to go to church on Sundays, not to attend BYU, and not to go on a mission. I am flying away from the promised land that my ancestors adored, and into the unknown. I feel sick to my stomach. I look down at my journal and realize that I have cut myself out of my family narrative to the point where my journal and my story are entirely my own. The story of the girl who left won’t be told at the family reunions of the future.
I am 19 years old and I am sitting on my bed, drinking black tea on a rainy September afternoon. As I listen to the rain patter on the window, I feel a deep sense of calm wash over me. I do not have my family’s eternity, yet my history and my present add up to a bright and uncharted future. I am deeply indebted to the people who raised me, but I cannot let them define my path. I, too, am a pioneer.