by Richard John Hawkins
Freeway Entrance 275. My great-grandmother Marjorie once wrote a short autobiography. After publishing and distributing the blue-bound book which now lies on the seat beside me, Marjorie, at age ninety-three, reclaimed every copy from the family. Several pages were cut out of each book when she gave them back to us. Her conscience apparently got the better of her. I didn’t know about it at the time, though; I was only three years old.
Exit 263. Curious, I asked Grandma Kay last year about the book and the peculiar missing passage. Her crying made me feel uncomfortable. In fact, I didn’t recall ever seeing her cry before. I never should have asked, I thought, as I changed lanes and accelerated.
Exit 256. I was amazed at how easily I discovered the inconsistency once I reexamined the pedigree chart. The dates overlapped, just like Grandma Kay through her tears said they would. Had I not spoken with Grandma, I could easily have attributed the strange split in the family tree to death, or divorce followed by remarriage. However, knowing what Grandma knew, the overlap in dates told the story long before Marjorie cut up her book.
Exit 248. Orem, Provo, Springville, Spanish Fork, Salem⸺as I drove, they all ran together, making it difficult for me to decipher where one stops and another begins. Santaquin, however, marks a break in the chain. Between Santaquin and Salt Creek lie only the farming community of Mona and a single cluster of peculiar houses. The group caught my attention because its compound-like arrangement typifies polygamous colonies throughout the state. I had driven by the colony dozens of times before, but I never realized the important role these people once played in my family’s heritage. I wondered if genuine polygamists still lived in the communes just off the freeway or if time had left them behind.
The family history goes something like this: My great-great-great grandmother, Martha Hannah Peake, a widow with six children and a true pioneer, traveled to the West from Derby, England, in 1862. She remarried and homesteaded in Salt Creek, Juab County, Utah, where she raised her surviving children into adulthood. Her daughter, Emily Ann, married Addison Cooper and began the process again⸺homesteading and raising her own children, Eliza, Linda, and Marjorie. Marjorie would raise Kay, who raised my father, who raised me.
Marjorie described her childhood as fulfilling and carefree. School days, community theater, and family picnics all pointed toward a happy and well-adjusted family life. Hard times, however, forced her father, Addison, to move to Canada in search of prosperity and stability in the canal construction business. He did not return.
Exit 236. Mormons love gossip as much as anybody else, though they deny it. Apparently, that’s always been the case. Years after Addison left Emily Ann for the new frontier, word from Canada reached Salt Creek like a steady wave across Lake Bonneville’s desert floor. Whispers filled the town and eventually reached Emily Ann’s ears⸺Addison had been spotted in the Mormon colonies of Alberta introducing himself and another woman as husband and wife. While others justified his actions as polygamy, his daughter, Marjorie, screamed bigamy when she eventually decoded his disappearance.
Three years after her father’s departure, Marjorie asked her mother why her father never visited. Her uncle, Addison’s brother, regularly returned from Albena to visit his family, but Addison never even wrote. Emily Ann avoided Marjorie’s questions but reluctantly replied several days later that her husband was “living in Canada with a woman whom he [had] introduced as his wife.” I remembered the words she wrote in her journal.
I thought for a second she must be joking but when I saw her face full of anguish, I realized she spoke the truth. Suddenly my fairyland disappeared. I found that the idol of my girlhood had clay feet. I sobbed in grief, Mother looked at me with pity and said that she had kept this from me for this long time because she realized what a blow it would be to me to learn that my father, who had been so loving, so considerate, thoughtful, and compassionate all these years, had left all this behind him, had deserted his family and gone off to live with another woman.
“This can’t be. He would not do such a thing. Would he?” Marjorie had cried. Emily Ann had placed the Doctrine and Covenants into Marjorie’s hands and opened the book to Section 132. As she read the Mormon doctrine of polygamy, Marjorie felt the walls of her world collapse around her: “That my father had justified what he had done by the words I had just read was unbelievable, but apparently such was the case. If my father had died I could not have gone into deeper mourning.”
After the discovery, Emily Ann had difficulty leaving the house. Following her husband’s abandonment and marriage to the woman in the North, Emily Ann lost her daughter and best friend, Eliza, to death. The death of both her marriage and daughter proved too much for Emily Ann to bear. Within six months, she died in the home at 100 East and Main Street in Salt Creek.
Exit 228. The short section of I-15 that runs through Salt Creek is the most neglected of the entire route. The road has buckled in several places, and has been that way for years. No one fixes it because most federal funding is directed to the roads that run through the valleys in northern Utah. They’re major arteries, they say. It makes driving to Salt Creek somewhat uncomfortable, but it’s worth the sacrifice. I moved into the right lane and slowed down.
Since discovering Marjorie’s tragic history, I longed to determine the morality of Addison’s act, an act deemed heinous and tarnishing by Marjorie, bleak and distressing by Emily Ann. I desired to understand his desertion and, more importantly, how his abandonment affected me. I needed to know if the fire set in Marjorie’s heart still burned. I wanted to connect with them, to understand my family’s history and my place therein.
Exit 225. My black Mazda leveled off at the lip of the Bonneville shoreline, which traced the rim around a series of valleys that once contained the ancient sea. Two mountains face each other at either end of Utah Valley, separated by the empty seabed. Mount Nebo, standing at the south end of the valley, owes its name to the Mormon pioneers who relocated to Nephi. To the first settlers, this spot represented the point from which they viewed their Promised Land, and, looming over Juab County, the mountain served as an omnipresent reminder of their wild wanderings. Mt. Nebo is simple and understated, boasting neither unusual formations nor distinct characteristics.
Mr. Timpanogos sits at the north end of the valley. It provides a majestic and Himalayan backdrop to Utah County. Plunging cliffs, undulating foothills, and arrogant peaks render the mountain spectacular at any angle. From the valley below, most are hard pressed to identify Mt. Nebo, but none can mistake Mt. Timpanogos. It’s odd that Mt. Nebo is almost forgotten, because even though the mountain is nondescript, it stands 128 feet taller than Mt. Timpanogos. For most, time had left Mt. Nebo behind.
Despite the differences in the mountains’ aesthetic appeal, Marjorie loved Mt. Nebo. She described it as the center of her world, noting, “everything was below, behind, on top of, or down from that center point.” She never forgot the mountain, nor the fact that it would always be 128 feet taller than its competitor to the north.
100 East and Main Street. Finding the home was easier than I expected. “Near Main Street, next to Salt Creek, it’s a two story adobe house. There are some apartments across the street,” my father told me before my departure. Beneath two imposing Box Elder trees, the symmetrical home exemplified quintessential frontier quaintness and practicality. Whitewashed, the home’s facade stood defiant after 130 years, its black pitch roof fading into the trees’ shade. The oddly proportioned windows on each level were trimmed with green shutters, each with a heart cut from the center, revealing the white adobe wall beneath. Someone had renovated the home, adding a cliché wagon wheel to the front yard. I didn’t like it.
As I examined the home from the front yard, I imagined Marjorie playing in the tall grass with her father and never suspecting the intent of his heart. I envisioned a father’s departure, a daughter’s confusion, and a mother’s secret. I pictured the room that Emily Ann had locked herself in, its shutters closed, the setting sun casting heart-shaped projections on the wall. I decided on the top-left bed-room as Emily Ann’s terminal asylum.
The home faced west, away from the mountains. A wood-slat fence circumscribed it on three sides, the north bordered by Salt Creek. The small creek flowed from the canyon through the town, lined on either side by heavy willow trees with branches that dragged in the swiftly moving water. Salt Creek’s water, as the name suggests, contains a high concentration of salt due to the large deposits in the nearby canyon. The Nebo Salt Company once mined here, but the Island Crystal Salt Company on the shores of the Great Salt Lake to the north proved more successful in price warfare. Of the company, Marjorie wrote, “A competitive society can easily wreck havoc on the little man who may have a better product to sell.” The competition drove the operation under and the owners abandoned the mine, leaving only a-faint residue in the runoff that feeds the creek and gives the stream its name.
I leaned over the muddy bank, reached through the dense willow trees, and dipped my finger into the water to taste it. I imagined the water growing saltier as it passed by Emily Ann’s bedroom, supplemented with the tears of the weeping willows and the widowed wife.
While Emily Ann consigned herself to sackcloth and ashes, Marjorie grew belligerent. She refused to communicate with her father for several years after the death of her mother.
Father came from Cardston to attend the funeral. His first view of mother as she lay in the casket was so overpowering that he was swallowed up in his grief. ‘How she must have suffered,’ he sobbed. I thought, how little you know the mental anguish she suffered. To her was added the physical suffering. When these two kinds combine only Christ on the cross knew the full extent of what the body can tolerate before death comes to bring blessed relief.
Thinking of these words, I tried to hate the man who left my great-grandmother for the woman in the North. I attempted to blame him for Emily Ann’s death and for the life-long bitterness that Marjorie carried in her heart, despite their later reconciliation. Staring at the white adobe house on Salt Creek with the blue-bound autobiography in hand, I searched to find my place in the pages of familial anger; but instead of feeling hatred, blame, and bitterness, I felt nothing. I couldn’t understand why Addison would leave his perfect family, or why Emily Ann would mourn the loss of a man that she was probably better off without. I didn’t understand how Marjorie, at age ninety-three, could still harbor feelings strong enough to merit their removal from the family annals. I thought that in traveling to Salt Creek I would condemn Addison, protect Emily Ann, and justify Marjorie, but I accomplished none of my objectives. I set out to understand my ancestors, but I couldn’t understand them at all. I didn’t feel what I knew they felt. Confused, I stared at the top-left window, visualizing heart-shaped projections on whitewashed walls, when something occurred to me.
The feelings I sought didn’t exist. My great-grandmother, Marjorie had cut them out with her scissors.
Staring at the window I imagined to be Emily Ann’s, I understood why I felt sorrow for Marjorie and her mother, but I realized I held no personal vendetta. Marjorie herself decided to end that at age ninety-three with the recall of her book. I would never feel how they felt, understand their struggles, or fully appreciate their grief. Addison’s actions were unquestionably wrong, but I’ll never understand just how wrong. Marjorie wanted it that way. How arrogant I was to think that in one trip I could settle the family secret.
As the sun sank over the west desert, I knew it was time for me to abandon Salt Creek. I climbed into my car and headed back towards the interstate, speeding.
Mile 244.4. Utah Juab County Line. Marjorie loved music, and she’d often sing and hum old favorites: “An old gramophone song,” she wrote in her history, “embedded itself in my memory years ago.”
Oh, you don’t know how much you have to know
In order to know how little you know.
Never say, or think you know it all,
Look and listen, be wise, keep mum.
The fool, as you know, always says, “I told you so”
But the wise just surmise, and you never hear them blow.
Oh, you don’t know how much you have to know
In order to know how little you know.
Heading north towards Mt. Timpanogos, I sang Marjorie’s ditty to myself the entire ride home.
650 North 100 East. Home. I pulled into my driveway and removed Marjorie’s book from the seat next to me. As I placed the book back on the shelf with the other volumes of family history, I wondered what other books might have passages removed and memories unwritten. I smiled because I knew that I’d never know. Traveling a neglected stretch of Interstate 15, standing in the shadow of forgotten Mt. Nebo, and tasting the cool waters of an abandoned salt mine, I had found what little I actually knew about my neglected, forgotten, and abandoned foremothers.