It’s hard to keep a secret in a small town.
Even harder is keeping a secret in a deeply religious town where everyone keeps moral tabs on each other, and often under the direction of their religious leaders.
My grandparents had a huge farm in a small mountain town, Lehi, Utah. My father’s high school class of 1965 had eighty-six kids. When I lived with my grandmother during college, there were about 7,000 people in the whole town. Small. Everyone knew everyone else. Lehi is also deeply Mormon. It’s just up the Wasatch front from Provo, Utah, home to BYU and the Missionary Training Center.
For those unfamiliar, when you’re an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s more than just attending Sunday meetings with your neighbors. You have morning Seminary for teens, daily Institute if you’re in college, Home Teaching, Visiting Teaching, Relief Society, Sunday night Firesides, Monday night Family Home Evening activities, youth activities on Wednesdays, and of course, Sunday service, which is three hours long.
It’s a lifestyle. Mormons prefer mingling with other Mormons, so you’re usually in each other’s pockets, especially in a small community like Lehi.
Secrets aren’t easy to keep.
In the early ’90s, my grandmother had a stroke, and I moved in to care of her. Those were some of the best months of my life, even though they were tinged with the knowledge that her time was coming to an end. I got to know her in a way most people never do with a grandparent.
She’d grown up the middle sister, her older sister a wildly dynamic and popular young lady. In her 20s, she developed a skin-disease–neurofibromas, raised tumors over her face and body. It always left her feeling like the ugly duckling, leaving her ashamed to be out in public. She’d been the second wife to an older husband who spoke lovingly of his first wife. Due to a “quirk” in the Mormon faith, her husband was still “sealed” for time and all eternity to this first wife, which meant that my grandma would share her husband with his first wife, Florence, forever. Mormons don’t believe in “until death do you part”.
She’d become the caregiver for a rapidly declining husband thirty years her senior while taking over as the main breadwinner for our sprawling family. And through all of this, she always honored her church callings. She never failed to miss a meeting, visit the sick, or feed the hungry.
After her stroke, she was just tired. She wanted to be left alone and didn’t care for what felt like false sympathy from the neighbors she’d known for decades, able to see the performance for what it was. Instead of entertaining visitors, my job was to turn people away with kindness and help carry her to her Big Chair where she would read.