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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Mom’s Side of the Family

Updated: Sep 9, 2023


Rodeo, photo by Renee Carter (pixabay.com)

[Jesus explained,]“‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:11-12)

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” ~ Jesus (Matthew 5:20)


My perspective on eternal family, as it developed and enlarged while growing up in the LDS Church, had the greatest effect on my relationships with relatives. I was shaping up to be a fine Pharisee.


I say Pharisee because I was accepting, believing, and using my own and other human-made rules and standards—mixed with God’s—to judge what was “good” or “bad”; and I was equating all these judgments with God’s. I saw doing these “good” works to be the same as being righteous and as a means for obtaining degrees of righteousness before God. I believed I could eventually work my way into enough righteousness or worthiness to inherit Eternal Life with God in His Celestial Kingdom. And I saw these “good” works as the only way for others to obtain Eternal Life as well. It wasn’t Jesus Himself who was “...the way and the truth and the life”—and the only way to the Father (John 14:6), it was the works. All the works I imagined—true or not—God gave us to do.


My mom’s parents and side of the family were generally “inactive” in the LDS Church. Even as a young person, I saw this as a serious matter—a major, unignorable issue.


This alone was bad enough, but it wasn’t the only matter that weighed heavy on my young mind concerning them. The worse—unspeakable thing—was that my mom’s parents had divorced. This was while it was still socially frowned upon, not just in the LDS Church. Because of the doctrine of eternal marriage and family, divorce was (and maybe still is) seen as a paramount evil in the LDS Church. It just wasn’t done. They divorced when my mom was in her teens. She never talked much about either of her parents or about their divorce while I was growing up.


During my youth, most of Mom’s nine siblings lived in Arizona. There were a few exceptions. When I was around eight years old, my Aunt Carol came to live with us in Boulder for a time, while her husband was stationed in Japan. I loved Aunt Carol. She was like the big sister I never had. She was a big help to my mom, too. Occasionally, she would give me an ear and listen to my rants. I felt she understood me like no one else ever had. I think my siblings and I wore on her a lot of the time, but I don’t remember her ever losing her temper with me or any of us. Because she was so kind, I wanted to cooperate with her—though I’m not sure I always did.


She had a fun sense of humor. She was the one who came up with a jingle, to the tune of the old Nestle’s Chocolate commercial, that family members would sing while changing my baby sister’s diapers. The words went like this: “C-E-L-E-S-T-E, makes the very best-ee-ee, muustaard!”


I don’t remember Aunt Carol going to church with us. She probably needed that time as a break from us all. Even worse, her husband was not LDS, so of course, they were not married for eternity in an LDS temple. Later, I was even more anxious for her when I learned she and her husband had divorced. That seemed like the worst thing of all. How could she ever have Eternal Life if she wasn’t a practicing member of the LDS Church, especially if she was a divorcee!? Later when she was no longer living with us, I would see her on occasion at family gatherings or reunions. It was always great to see her, but all the while she was able to gracefully elude my own and my family’s attempts to bring her into the LDS Church family fold. This worried me.

 

My Aunt Verna, another of my mom’s younger sisters, was another story. She came to stay with us at least a couple of times—once when she was a young adult, and later after she’d had two children. The first time she came, I was probably around eleven or twelve years old. She teased me constantly and unmercifully, saying all kinds of mean and nasty things, trying to provoke me—often with success—but never in front of my parents.


My parents would tell me she’d had a rough life and we—meaning I—needed to be understanding. She was also a Jack Mormon[1] and I needed to be a good example to her. I was too young and inexperienced to have much compassion or care. All I understood was that no matter how nice I tried to be to her, she would never have a nice thing to say to me or about me. I knew I should be nice to her anyway to reflect well on the LDS Church. I tried to avoid her, but it was hard to do this since we lived in the same house. When she finally left, I was relieved.


At the time, I thought my parents were too gullible and trusting, and that’s why they had allowed such an abrasive, hurtful person to stay with us. They did and still do have big, generous, caring hearts.


When my Aunt Verna returned to live with us again some years later—this time with my little cousins in tow—I hadn’t forgotten her treatment of me. I was both very unhappy with my parents for inviting her to stay with us and ready to see the worst in her. It didn’t take much. I found myself despising how she seemingly neglected her children. I believed my baby cousin’s head was flat in the back and his hair rubbed off because of always lying in his crib on his back and never being held. I’m not sure that was true. Babies don’t generally have a lot of hair, and what hair they do have is sometimes not evenly dispersed on their heads. I thought all of Aunt Verna’s problems—the reasons she had for living with us—were a result of her being such an awful person. I assumed since she’d grown up inactive in the LDS Church, she didn’t understand the importance of “family-first” and keeping the (LDS Church’s) commandments for her own good. Since it was all her fault, my parents shouldn’t be letting her live with us.


When she came this second time, I was a little older and had a little more success ignoring her and deflecting her contrary, unkind comments. They were much rarer—though it took me a while to realize this. I think she had enough troubles in her life without also going after me as she had before. By the time she left, I had even grown somewhat fond of her—or at least I felt far less hostility toward her—and I had begun to be attached to my little cousins.


By then, I could see my Aunt Verna was going through some hard times, though I didn’t understand what they were. I still firmly believed they were probably all her own fault, but I didn’t wish her ill. I especially hoped she’d get her life together and become active in the LDS Church, if for no other reason, so she wouldn’t have to come live with us anymore. Somehow, I connected most of her problems with her not being a practicing member of the LDS Church.


Aunt Verna lived fairly close by, in the Denver area, for many years. She was married to a man who wasn’t LDS. One or both of them smoked; I assumed both. Because I thought, based on LDS standards, it was evil to smoke, I self-righteously resisted going to visit her dirty, cigarette-scented house. I hypocritically saw her as immoral and judged her to be someone we shouldn’t be spending time with. A few times instead of going inside I pretended to be sick. Other times I’d go in for a short time, then go back out to sit in the car and wait. I didn’t have much real empathy or compassion for her, just pity for myself for having to go visit her in the first place. It never crossed my mind that I might be of some help or encouragement to her while I was there—until later on.


Toward the end of my high school years, as I matured, I had more compassion toward my Aunt Verna and even came to like her in a way. Later, I was even able to love her—with a love God gave me for her—but now I’m getting ahead of my story.

 

During my growing-up years, my Aunt Peggy and her second husband, Uncle John, came from Arizona to visit us a few times. Aunt Peggy was shy and didn’t talk much, but she smiled and laughed a lot. Uncle John was a pilot and a fascinating storyteller. I liked having them around, even though I wasn’t sure my uncle was always telling the truth; even though, to my knowledge, they weren’t active members of the LDS Church or “sealed” in a temple; and even though my Aunt Peggy was divorced from her first husband. I liked their visits so much, I refused to think about these things while they were with us.


Sometime after their last visit to us, I was excited to hear about one, and then later another new little cousin born to them. I wished we could see and be with them, but they lived too far away. Later on, I was deeply saddened and distressed, especially for Aunt Peggy and her small children, when I learned that Uncle John was killed in a small-plane crash. His death affected me for a long time afterward. It caused me to consider how temporary life is and to wonder what people would think of me when I died.

 

Because most of my mom’s side of the family lived in Arizona, a little further away than my dad’s side of the family, we didn’t see them as often. I only remember seeing my grandma on my mom’s side twice in my whole life. One time was when she stayed at our house babysitting me and a few of my siblings for a few days (the story I told earlier). I think I got a glimpse of her another time when my family visited her somewhere in Arizona.


I did get to see more of my grandpa and his second wife, Leola. Whenever we went to Arizona, their house, my mom’s last childhood home, was the first place we visited.


Scattered around on the dark-paneled walls of grandpa’s home were plaques with zany sayings like “The faster I go, the behinder I get,” “Never put off till tomorrow what can be done the day after tomorrow” (Mark Twain), and “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.” My grandpa had this brand of humor, and, as a child I loved it. As I got older I wasn’t always so sure about it.


My grandpa had a collection of polished rocks I loved to look at. He’d also incorporated onto the exterior walls of his house numerous larger, pretty, and interesting rocks he had found in various locations. He’d built a low wall around the house with them as well.


My mom used to collect rocks too. Sometimes, especially when we were traveling, it would drive me crazy because we’d have to find a place for her rocks in our car, already stuffed with kids and luggage. Eventually, my mom created a beautiful rock boundary for housing plants off our home patio with her collection. Like father, like daughter.


The word “spiritual” was my equivalent of “righteous.” I despaired of my grandma and grandpa because they’d gotten a divorce. I looked at them as hopeless, unspiritual “Gentiles.” (LDS people sometimes adopted this word for non-Mormons.) And most of my childhood, I never really liked Leola much, because for some reason I thought she’d broken up my grandpa and grandma’s marriage. I never asked if this was true. I don’t think it was.


Whenever we went to visit, I found fault with Leola and reason upon reason to avoid spending time around her. I never spoke these things out loud—to my parents at least. Besides imagining she was a bad influence on my grandpa and possibly on us, I thought she was fat; she was a horrible cook; her house smelled bad; her house was too cluttered; she was terribly boring; and on it went in my mind.


As I got older, I began to feel convicted for my total intolerance of her. Not simply because she was another human being who deserved to be valued and respected as such. I thought that I needed to be nice to her to set a good example, so she and my grandpa would be interested in becoming active in the LDS Church. Despite myself, over the years she began to seem like a passable, even pleasant, person to me. By the time I saw her last, I had grown to love her. Regrettably, the good times were short-lived. She and my grandparents on my mom’s side had all passed away by the time I was in my late teens and early twenties.

 

As my immediate family grew to include, besides me, my six siblings, we could no longer reasonably stay at my grandpa’s house. My all-time favorite place to stay in Arizona was Love Lake. It was a lake and ranch area named after my great-grandmother, Agnes Love Flake. My mom’s middle name is also “Love.” My family got permission to camp there a few times when we went to visit.


The surrounding area was all desert except where lawns or greenery had been cultivated around people’s homes or by irrigation. Love Lake and its marshy areas created a green oasis alive with birds and wildlife. We’d camp under a copse of trees on the perimeter. Sounds came from all around us. At night, you could hear frogs, and during the day, doves—two sounds I still love.


My mom told us about the time she and her cousins were terrified out of their wits by a wild beast near the lake, a dangerous creature that ended up being one of their grandparents’ cows—to their great relief—and ours. I think my sister, Karie, and I ran into that same cow on one of our expeditions of the lake and experienced a similar relief in finding it was not a mountain lion or a pack of coyotes.


Love Lake was fed by a natural spring. At the spot where the spring bubbled up, you could drink the coolest, most refreshing water in the world. The spring was surrounded by watercress. However, I never understood why my mom would get so excited about harvesting some of it for a salad or snack. I liked it much better as a natural ornament of the spring.


One day, Karie and I decided we wanted to catch at least one of the snakes or frogs we often saw in the area to play with. We arrived at the spring just in time to see a snake gulp down a frog. Our hunt turned into a mission of mercy. We decided we were going to save that frog from the snake. All I have to say about our attempt was that it failed miserably—and I never wanted to hunt either frogs or snakes again after that.

 

Out in the desert, about a quarter mile away from our camping spot, there were railroad tracks and a train that ran by periodically. Karie, Sterling, and I had the idea of putting pennies on the tracks. We wanted to see if the train would smash them like the ones we’d seen on keychains and necklaces. We weren’t sure what time the trains ran, so we decided to put our pennies out and check back after we got back from visiting grandpa and cousins.


Later, checking on our pennies, we found that at least one of them was smashed very nicely. Mine wasn’t. One or two of our pennies had just disappeared. We began to have ongoing fights over found pennies or those obtained by asking adults for them. Someone—an adult—probably teasing us, suggested that our pennies on the tracks might somehow derail the train. I began to worry about this. I also didn’t much like vying with my siblings for pennies. After only one or two successful smashes, I decided I’d had enough of fighting and worrying over derailing a train. I didn’t want a smashed penny that badly.

 

Generally, when we visited Snowflake, while the adults talked and talked, it seemed there wasn’t anything fun to do. Once I’d done a review tour around the house, I became bored. All I could find to entertain myself with were sticks and rocks and sand outside. Eventually, when I was older, my mom and dad would let me wander a ways off to explore. When Karie also got older, we found an irrigation canal where we could race various “boat” materials. Other times we’d explore the dry washes with our hearts in our throats, remembering Mom’s many warnings of sudden rainstorms making them into death traps. Finding Indian arrowheads or broken pieces of pottery was rare but not unheard of. We kept an eye out for them and occasionally we were rewarded. These were desert treasures in our eyes and it was very exciting to find such things.


On at least one visit to Snowflake, I got to go up to the flat-roof deck of a white, four-story, pioneer home with the adults in attendance. Later, when I was older, I went there with one of my cousins, Peggie Ann (Aunt Peggy’s oldest), who was just a year older than me. We snuck away from the little kids. I felt so privileged and mature to get to go there with my cousin for the first time without adults (or little kids). There was a great view in all directions up on that roof. The whole little town of Snowflake could be seen.


A lot of my cousins on my mom’s side lived in or near Overgaard, which was a small town in the pines. It was a nice change from the desert and only a forty-five-minute drive from Snowflake—though it seemed to take forever to get there when I was younger. It also seemed like my family only visited there once each time we made a trip to Arizona—our visits there seemed so rare to me.


Many of my Overgaard cousins were either quite a bit older or younger than me, but a few were around my age. Two of Aunt Peggy’s kids, Peggie and Mindy, were just older and younger than me. Also, my Aunt Corine’s son, Louis, was close to my age. Of all our cousins on my mom’s side, I spent most of our limited time with Aunt Peggy’s kids. I corresponded by letter with these three cousins at one time or another, but sporadically. Sadly, it was never on a sustained basis.


On one memorable visit to Arizona, we drove to see my Uncle Victor and his family. I think I was twelve or thirteen years old at the time. They lived well off the beaten path. I only remember visiting them this once. It was exciting to meet new cousins and my aunt and uncle; however, what stood out most was their house! I never imagined people could build a house “any which way” they wanted. Their house was absolutely unique and utterly creative. It was unlike any house I’d ever seen. It reminded me a little of my own ideal for a two- or three-story fort, but it was far grander and more elaborate. It seemed that as they thought of a room or a feature they needed or wanted, they just added it to the house at will. It was the most wonderful house I’d ever seen. It probably wasn’t built to specs or by any plan that could be discerned. I don’t know what I’d think of it now. I’m just glad I saw it as I did. Its originality made me love these relatives on the spot. I was very pleased to get to meet these interesting relatives.


My favorite visit with my cousins on my mom’s side of the family was a family reunion held over several days in conjunction with a local rodeo. I was probably around fourteen or fifteen years old at the time. It was my first rodeo ever, and it was fascinating.


Rodeos are a culture all their own, with unique dangers and thrills. Questions are continually hanging in the air. Will this cowboy be able to walk away uninjured? ...Alive? How long before he’s bucked off his horse—or bull? Will this ride bring him glory or be his last? It was awesome when a cowboy’s skill would keep him hanging on longer than anyone else! These people had animal skills I’d never imagined.


The animals were pretty amazing too. They were strong and beautiful and also very skilled. Some of those being presented had been trained to do some original and uncommon things. I thought barrel racing, jumping, and animals doing tricks were especially fun to watch. The animals and events together kept my interest continually perked up. It was all new and exciting. What would be next?


Being there with my cousins and relatives somehow helped me feel connected with them in a way I never had before. They knew all about rodeos and could explain everything to me. They knew their way around the grounds and where the best shows would be. It was something they seemed to enjoy sharing with me as much as I liked learning about and experiencing. I was never alone! It was the beginning of a new sense of kinship with them—but one that never really had a chance to grow.


“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!

You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin.

But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—

justice, mercy and faithfulness.

You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

~ Jesus (Matthew 23:23)


 

[1] Definition of jack Mormon, Merriam-Webster online dictionary: 1 : a non-Mormon living in a Mormon community and sympathetic to or on friendly terms with his neighbors; 2 : a Mormon inactive in the church or not adhering strictly to Mormon tenets : a backsliding or nominal Mormon always paid his tithes—only he had to have his coffee so some called him a jack Mormon—American Guide Series: Arizona a jack Mormon, which means that … he no longer pays tithes or holds with the tenet of total abstinence—A. J. Liebling accessed 12/29/2022; https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/jack%20mormon

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