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Mormon bishop’s wife isn’t an official calling. “Bishop’s wife” isn’t a position listed on ward documents; there’s no ceremonial laying-on of hands or pronounced blessings from on high. But if the bishop is the father of the ward, the bishop’s wife is the mother, and that meant there were five hundred people who were under my care. I was used to the phone calls in the middle of the night, to the doorbell ringing far too late and far too early. I was used to being looked past, because I was never the person that they were there to see.
This morning at the six thirty doorbell, I shook Kurt. “They’ll be wanting the bishop,” I said. I was already out of bed and putting on my robe.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can, Linda,” he said sleepily. He hadn’t been to bed before midnight last night, I was sure. I hurried downstairs, sure that something terrible had happened. It was late January in Draper, Utah, and as picturesque as the snow on the mountains was, it did not mix well with our modern lifestyle. My fear as I stood hesitating at the door was that someone was here to tell us that a teenager from the ward had skidded off the road and was on his way to the hospital. The doorbell rang again, and then the door was knocked on, impatiently.
When I finally opened the door, I saw Jared Helm, one of the newer members of the ward, carrying his five-year-old daughter, Kelly. She had curly blonde hair that always seemed messy, no matter how often it was combed. The remains of breakfast (oatmeal) were all over her chin. She was still in her pajamas, but she’d been bundled into an inside-out snowsuit. How her father had figured out how to get the zipper up without putting it on the right way around, I didn’t know.
“Can I see Bishop Wallheim?” asked Jared.
Not an accident, then, I thought with relief. “Come in from the cold. He’s awake, and he’ll be down in a minute,” I assured Jared. So would Samuel, the youngest of my five sons, who was a senior in high school; I could hear his alarm going off upstairs and knew he’d be rushing out the door soon.
I led Jared and Kelly to the front room, where my neglected piano waited for me to practice. Mostly, the room was used now for people waiting to go into Kurt’s office.
Jared Helm looked terribly strained, though he was well-kempt. His hair was darker than his daughter’s, but it was clear where she got the messy mop. His was wet now, the curls ruthlessly combed around a side part. He was dressed in a button-down striped shirt, cable sweater, and neatly pressed khakis. I wondered if his wife did that pressing or if he did it himself.
I wished I knew the Helms better, but I had only a general impression that he and his wife were unhappy, although devoted parents to Kelly, and that they were struggling financially, as a lot of people in the ward were currently. Maybe he was here because he was in money trouble? Kurt could send him to the bishop’s storehouse for some basic food supplies, but many people were unwilling to take that kind of help. The stigma wasn’t insignificant. More often, people wanted Kurt to write them a check.
I got out a toy for Kelly to play with, but she held it limply in her hands, uninterested. They were all trucks and building toys, things my sons had enjoyed. I’d never had a chance to build a collection of toys for girls, though I sometimes imagined what I would have bought for a daughter. Dolls? Faux cooking supplies and a tiny stove?
I found a picture book and read it quietly to her, but after several pages I put it down. Kelly’s eyes were wandering all over the room. I finally sat her on my lap and let her plunk on the piano keys, which she seemed to enjoy. None of my boys had been interested at this age, except for Samuel.
But after a few minutes, Kelly’s piano playing earned the attention of her father, who had been staring silently at his lap. “Stop that noise,” he snapped. “You know how to behave better than that.” He didn’t seem to see me at all.
The little girl immediately went still and folded her hands together. The moment Jared looked away, Kelly slipped her thumb into her mouth, her eyes intent on her father, and I had the sense that she would be in trouble if he caught her doing that, too.
I moved slightly to the side, protecting Kelly from her father’s critical gaze with my body, and I thought, as I so often did, about the daughter I had lost. Too often, I knew I judged other parents for not treating a daughter as I imagined I would have treated mine, had she lived.
I could hear Kurt’s feet thumping on the floor of the bathroom. He was out of the shower. “The bishop will be down in just a minute, I’m sure,” I said again to Jared. It wouldn’t take Kurt long to dress. He had become quite efficient at putting on his daily suit. He didn’t used to wear one to work every day, but since he became bishop last year, it had seemed that there was no time when he could wear casual clothes.
Samuel rushed past Jared Helm and out the front door, hair still wet, a piece of bread between his teeth. “Love you, Mom,” he mumbled as he headed out to the bus stop.
“Love you,” I said, still seated with Kelly on my lap. I gave up on the hope of giving my son a hug and kiss goodbye this morning. He wasn’t exactly unwelcoming if I was waiting by the door and it was easy for him to stoop over me, but he wouldn’t kiss or hug me back.
After Samuel had gone, I noticed that Jared was wiping tears from his eyes. He was in distress, that much was obvious. Where was his wife? If this was a financial problem, as I had first thought, why weren’t they here together? I had seen Carrie Helm last Sunday at church and she had been sitting a clear distance from her husband, with Kelly between them. It had been obvious that they were in the midst of an argument, but I hadn’t thought much of it at the time. Married couples fight.
Carrie Helm was one of the voices I most enjoyed in Relief Society, the church women’s group. Carrie was intelligent and she wasn’t afraid of saying something that might sound controversial. She was earnest about what she said, too, and didn’t do it purely for the sake of causing a stir. But I’d always had the feeling her husband’s viewpoints were more conservative than hers, and had wondered how that affected their marriage.
Last week in Sunday School, with Jared sitting beside her, Carrie had made a comment about the priesthood not belonging to men, but rather being God’s power that men had access to. Jared’s expression was livid. He’d leaned over and whispered something to her, and after that, I saw her flinch when he tried to touch her. Four days later, and apparently Jared Helm had still not apologized to her sufficiently.
And now he sat here crying silently in the hall at 6:50 on a Thursday morning. “Are you hungry?” I asked. “I can get you something to eat.” Food is the first thing we Mormons tend to offer. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t, but the offer is a way of showing concern, at least.
“No, thank you,” said Jared, clearing his throat. “I’m fine.”
“I’m hungry,” said Kelly, taking her thumb out of her mouth.
“You don’t need to eat again. I already fed you breakfast at home.”
Kelly looked at her thumb and said nothing.
“Growing children are always hungry,” I said. “I don’t mind fixing her something. It will make me feel useful.” I put Kelly down, covering up the hand with the damp thumb as I led her into the kitchen.
“Behave yourself, Kelly,” said Jared.
I wasn’t sure if he was always like this with her or if he was simply overly anxious about being in someone else’s home. I hoped it was the latter, and I could show him that I didn’t mind the trouble.
In the kitchen, I set Kelly on a stool by the counter and set out six separate jams for her to choose from as I made toast. A few minutes later, I heard Kurt come downstairs. He spoke briefly to Jared in the front room, then invited him into his office. I breathed relief and focused my attention on Kelly. After she had chosen a separate jam for each slice of toast and worked through three full pieces, the little girl drank a glass of milk and burped.
“Are you too hot? Maybe I could help you get that snowsuit off,” I offered.
“Daddy put it on wrong,” said Kelly, glancing in the direction her father had gone, as if she wanted to make sure he couldn’t hear her.
“I can see that,” I said, fighting a smile.
“Mommy never puts it on wrong, but Daddy always does.”
I smiled at the echo of Carrie’s spunky attitude. “Daddies are sometimes good at other things,” I said.
“I know. But Daddy says Mommy is bad,” said Kelly. Her lips quivered. “He says that I shouldn’t want her.”
“But all little girls want their mothers,” I said. “Of course they do.” Was Kelly telling me that her mother had left them? I supposed this was the answer to the question of why Jared was here. Poor Jared. Poor Carrie. But most of all, poor Kelly. The children were the ones who always suffered the most when parents had problems. “Your daddy loves you very much,” I said.
Kelly put her hands to her hair. “He forgot to brush me,” she said.
“Well, let’s deal with that right now,” I said, and led Kelly to the upstairs bathroom. I didn’t have any ribbons or hair elastics suitable for a young girl, but I used what I could. In the end, the hair was well brushed, and I had a few tiny braids in it that were holding. By the time her father came out of Kurt’s office downstairs, Kelly was giggling and making faces at herself in the mirror.
But then Jared called for his daughter and Kelly tensed, all the happiness erased from her face. Just like her mother at church last week. What was going on here? I’d thought it was simply a case of an unhappy marriage, but was it more serious than that?
“I have to obey Daddy,” said Kelly.
“Yes,” I said, and led her downstairs to her father’s arms.
Jared didn’t say a word to her or to me, simply took his daughter and left.
Kurt closed the door behind them.
“Can you tell me anything?” I asked. Most of the secrets Kurt found out were to be held in confidence, but there isn’t the same kind of strictness in a Mormon bishop’s counseling session as there is with Catholic confession.
Kurt shrugged. “It will come out soon enough. Carrie has left him.”
“Last night? Did they have an argument? Why he didn’t come then?”
“Apparently she left him in the night. He woke up and found her gone. She left a note saying she wasn’t coming back.”
“I’m surprised she left Kelly,” I said. I was more than surprised. I was in knots about it. A mother leaving a child, it was—unfathomable to me. What pain had she been in? What had she been thinking? It was one thing to file for divorce and to ask your husband to leave the house. Or even to take your daughter and find an apartment. To leave her behind, and in the middle of the night without a proper goodbye . . . I shivered.
“It’s hard to know what goes on in the mind of a woman,” said Kurt.
I hated when Kurt said things like that. “It is not that hard. Women are just as sensible as men,” I said. “If you understand what their lives are like.”
“Then how could she leave her daughter? I never would have thought it of Carrie Helm, of all people. She loved that little girl so much.”
Yes, she had. She had always walked Kelly to Primary and made sure she had a big hug. “She might not have felt she had any choice.” It was the only answer I could think of. Kurt, as bishop, was the one who should know more of the inner workings of their relationship than I did. But then again, Carrie and Jared had never come to see him together, so now all he would have was Jared’s side of the story. Jared had a calling as an instructor in the elders quorum and fulfilled it faithfully every month. As far as Kurt was concerned, he was the one who was reliable and trustworthy.
“I asked him if there was any hope they might still reconcile. I wish they had come to see me earlier. I might have been able to help.” He looked toward the kitchen, the smell of toast and jam drawing him, and we moved in that direction. I put new toast in the toaster and he got out a plate.
Along with his big appetite, Kurt had enormous faith in the power of prayer. He thought any marriage could be saved with enough work and help from God. I am sad to say I am not as believing. Some marriages aren’t meant to last, and it was quite possible that Jared and Carrie Helm’s was one of these. They did not seem like a particularly good match. There were marriages that worked despite disparities in character, but not many.
“He said she was very final about it. She said she was never coming back. He thinks there may be another man involved.”
“I see,” I said. If Carrie Helm had realized how mismatched she and Jared were, and she’d found someone who was less of a mismatch—well, it almost explained things. It was selfish, but people are sometimes selfish. Sometimes even mothers. Perhaps mothers especially, since they spent so much time being unselfish.
“He’s going to have to deal with divorce papers and child care issues, along with custody agreements,” Kurt was saying as he opened his favorite jam jars and began to stir the contents. Why he did that, I never knew. “But he wasn’t up for talking about any of that. He just wanted to hear me say that he wasn’t to blame for what had happened, and that God still had good things for his future.”
Well, I was glad that Kurt hadn’t insisted on reconciliation, as most bishops would have felt obliged to do to keep the family together. “Poor Kelly,” I said.
“The whole ward will have to band together to help Jared and Kelly. She’ll need a lot of substitute mothers.” Kurt was looking at me then. I would do what I could, of course, but I wasn’t sure I knew what Kelly needed.
“I’d like to talk to Carrie. Do you think Jared might have a number for her?” I asked.
Kurt shook his head. “He said she didn’t leave any way of contacting her. We’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next few days.” He stopped short of saying he hoped that she came back, and that all of this could still be fixed.
“Carrie is a good woman,” I said, hoping it was true. I had thought I knew her, but obviously I had not known her well enough.
“Well, I suppose God can find good in any of us,” said Kurt. That was as close as he came to saying he considered this situation to be Carrie’s fault.
Didn’t he remember those years when I had been at home with all five boys, Adam, Joseph, Kenneth, Zachary, and baby Samuel? I had never said it aloud, but there were times when I had had fantasies of walking away, going out and getting a job, finding a life of my own again, where I wasn’t on call twenty-four hours a day and responsible for tiny lives. It was too much for any one person. Maybe more so for someone who had reconciled herself to not being married and never having children. And then Kurt had come along and changed all my plans, made me believe again I could have the whole Mormon dream. Husband. Children. Temple sealing. And all that went with it. We lived in a city that had once been known for the state prison at the point of the mountain and was now known for the Mormon temple that had just been built. But it seemed that the Mormon plan of happiness with a perfect family full of forgiveness hadn’t worked out as well for Carrie Helm.