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.
And this is when I learned of her secret.
My grandma, who only kissed her children and grandchildren instead of her husband as he considered it untoward, my grandma evidently loved romance books. Now, this wasn’t the type of book one read in her community. Oh, you and I both know those women did. They just had to be secretive about it, same as she. One day she seemed out of sorts in her Big Chair, and after a while, asked me with what seemed resignation to bring her a book she’d wedged between her mattress and box springs in the upstairs bedroom.
It was a well-worn and dog-eared copy of The Thorn Birds.
I brought it to her and tucked her afghan around her more securely (the woman would freeze in the hottest of rooms while wearing a sweatsuit with pantyhose underneath).
As I handed it over, I said, “That book always made me want a dress in Ashes of Rose.” She visibly relaxed at the lack of judgment and at our shared understanding.
We look alike, no?
So much changed between us after that moment. Suddenly, my grandma wanted to discuss things she’d never openly talked about. We would watch Anne of Green Gables on repeat and sigh over how dreamy Gilbert Blythe was. She told me how much she loved when women on TV shows didn’t look like supermodels because “it gives the rest of us a chance.” But most memorably, she started talking about her past, specifically, of her first husband who died suddenly of Bulbar Polio six days after their seventh wedding anniversary. My father was only nine months old.
“Oh, I could just kiss Fred for hours. Sensual, wonderful man.”
He’d been deeply romantic, loved to kiss and hold her, tell her how beautiful he found her and would dance with her in the kitchen. She lit up while telling me these stories. The hard years of raising so many children and caring for an ill husband for decades fell away as she sighed and smiled while recounting those lovely, whirlwind years. I ached for her, still so lonely for a love five decades in the past.
The man who I’d grown to know as my grandfather but was actually a step-grandparent was thirty years Rhea’s senior when they married in the early 1950s. He died in 1991 at the age of 99. He was a hard man. Oh, he was a good provider, important in the community, but there was no softness in him. And my sweet, tender grandma wasn’t the “fresh young flower” he’d first married in 1912, a woman named Florence. In fact, the family made a book detailing the family history, and scores of pages were dedicated to his first wife. My grandma, the woman who had stepped in after Florence died too young and who cared for my grandfather as his personal nurse for decades, was given 11 pages in an almost 200 page book.
There were more pictures of my step-grandfather’s tithing slips than of her.
He would never hold my tiny grandma in his arms and dance her slowly across the kitchen, humming a song into her hair. He wouldn’t take her scarred face in his palms and tell her how beautiful she was. He would never have pulled her into his lap just to kiss and hold her, smiling at the woman who had chosen him for time and all eternity instead of the man who had done all those things.
Due to another quirk in the Mormon church, because my grandma had first been “sealed” to Fred for time and all eternity, to marry her second husband required that she have an eternal divorce to her first husband in order to be “sealed” to the second–this only applies to women, mind you. Mormons may say they don’t practice literal polygamy on earth, but they still do in heaven.
Rhea had to give up her love, divorce her “angel of a man” in heaven for the promise of having her children sealed to her second husband, who was rather important in the church. It bothered her. It bothered her that it bothered her, because she’d been with my grandpa longer—five decades—and only had about ten years with Fred.
But what years they were…
As a writer of literary romance, I’m often confronted with a negative viewpoint of the genre. It’s not a “serious” literary endeavor. It’s glib, flippant, easily tossed off as the junk food of the literary landscape. But I ask you to look at music, poetry, paintings. So often the subject is love, either love lost, found, desired, wronged… you name it.
Love is the food of our souls.
We starve without it. We get a taste and crave it endlessly.
We lose it, replace it, and look back wistfully on it for five decades. We experience other’s love through dog-eared books that we hide, perhaps ashamed to feel so needy for a love of our own. Romance, stories of love, they offer hope to the hopeless. Often we read them to find ourselves within the pages, especially to find a happily ever after when our own outcome is perhaps not so certain. My grandma never believed she’d be loved again and so she read and re-read a story of two lovers who could never be together because of religion, then turned to other, happy-ever-afters to soothe that soul-deep ache she’d kept hidden for decades.
Romance offers what so many of us need: Hope. Perhaps this time they’ll find each other in the end and walk off hand in hand in the sunset. It may not have worked out for Fred and Rhea, but she was able to enjoy reading about couples for whom it did. Wanting to immerse yourself in other’s happy-ever-after shouldn’t be a secret, something to whisper about and hide from others.