top of page
  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Obsessions and Dad’s side of the Family

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21)



Because of my dad’s example growing up, I developed disciplines that would eventually help me grow closer to God. Through these God-seeking habits, God gradually stirred up a desire in me to really know Him (by His Spirit). This longing increased because of the sound, real, and beautiful results that came to my soul along with the practices of sincere prayer, Scripture reading, journaling, fasting, tithing, observing a Sabbath-Day rest, sacrificially serving others, and the observance of other commandments I trusted were from God. The pursuit of God has continually shaped me into a better, more blessed version of myself—healthier, happier, freer, and more balanced, joyful, loving, and peaceful. But all these benefits have not come without pain, and sometimes a great deal of it.


This is because God has had to wean me from various idols I set up for myself, or that others set up for me. An idol is anything or anyone that is prioritized as an object of worship before, to a greater degree than, or instead of God. The self-realization that comes along with this process of weaning can be one of the most difficult and excruciating aspects of the growth process.


As I’ve mentioned, my dad’s side of the family was also mainly inactive in the LDS Church while I was growing up; they lived their lives much more independently of the LDS Church and its teachings than my immediate family did. Because we generally saw more of them than my mom’s side of the family, I also felt even more invested in (or obsessive about) their eternal welfare in relation to LDS Church teachings and practices.


The area around Mapleton, Utah is where my dad’s side of the family lived while I was growing up, except for one of his sisters, my Aunt Beverly, who lived in various other places with her own family.


While I was still a child, Aunt Beverly and her family lived near Denver, so we got to spend time with them on occasional, brief visits. I don’t remember them ever coming to our house in Boulder. It seemed like we always went to theirs; and whether it was true or not, I always had a feeling that our visits were pretty overwhelming for my aunt. My siblings and I were younger and much more disorderly than our three much-more-well-behaved cousins.


It appeared these cousins had regular, early bedtimes because that was often one of the reasons given for their early disappearance or absence. Either that or as they got older, they were busy with homework or other school-related activities.


I was in awe of my older cousins and wished we could spend more time with them. It was disappointing for me when, time after time, they weren’t around very much, if at all, when we visited. Our visits were uninteresting without them—just a lot of talking between grown-ups—though the adults gave us things we could entertain ourselves with, like coloring books, paper to draw on, or books and magazines to look at.


Eventually, their family moved away. My cousin Kathy and I corresponded, some, through letters. However, if my diaries and journals from that era are indications of what my letters were like—intolerably self-absorbed and boring to read—it’s truly amazing that Kathy continued to write to me at all.


Growing up, I saw Kathy as a kind, soft-spoken, beautiful, graceful, well-dressed person—an untouchable idol—whom, whenever I thought of her, I worshiped. I can’t count the number of times, I wished I was more like what I imagined her to be. Despite my awe of her, as I got older, this didn’t keep me from occasionally becoming preachy out of my concern for her eternal soul; my worry emboldened me. Because I admired her so much, I was especially distressed when she married someone who wasn’t even a member of the LDS Church. And later, whether it was true or not, I heard she’d converted to Catholicism. These things were quite upsetting to me.


In time, I outgrew my obsession for being a clone of Kathy; and sometime around the time of her marriage, Kathy and I lost touch completely.


 

During my childhood and teens, with as much reliable regularity as it seemed my family ever had outside of church-going, at least once a year as a family, we drove out to Utah to visit my Nana and Papa, aunts and uncles, and cousins there. It was at least an eight-hour drive, not including stops, through the terrifically boring Western-Colorado-Eastern-Utah desert. I generally slept most of the way. (Driving any distance of more than a few hours still tends to make me feel sleepy, whether I’m driving or not.) Less often, we took the even longer route through Grand Junction so we could stop and pick ripe peaches or pears by the bushel for our family and others. A taste treat—not soon forgotten—but that, for me, still wore off with the extra driving involved.


As a child, some highlights I looked forward to when we visited Nana and Papa, were a tricycle my siblings and I would fight over; Nana’s meals, desserts, and treats; and their dog, a beautiful, velvety, and friendly collie named Lassie (of course). I was so sad when Lassie got old and died. I missed her every time we went to their house for a long while afterward.


Nana made the best rolls, jams, Jell-O, mashed potatoes, cakes, and cookies. I looked forward to every meal at her house. Thanksgiving dinners were something I especially anticipated. You could almost live on the good smells coming out of her kitchen ahead of time.


In the summer I loved going barefoot on Nana and Papa’s lawn and eating watermelon, sometimes having watermelon-seed spitting contests. Or even better was when Papa and Nana cranked up some homemade ice cream either with walnuts from trees that also gave shade to a portion of their front lawn or with freshly-picked peaches. Both flavors were heavenly.


I loved playing outside at their house. They had a farm with cattle out in the back acres of wide-open fields. Behind their house and to the side of their detached garage lay an enticing arrangement of old farm equipment, river rafting paraphernalia, campers, trailers, cars, trucks, and other items Papa had collected over the years. Much of the equipment was rusted and probably unusable, but it was super interesting to me. When I was small, I was only allowed to go back there and play if I was with an adult. I always wanted to go with my dad and Papa when they went back there to look at something. They let me explore while they talked and tinkered with things. As I got older the restrictions gradually diminished.


I liked helping Nana—when she could get me to help her—unless she was sending me downstairs for something. I was scared of the dark, dank basement where I was sometimes consigned with my siblings to sleep. It was cold with inhospitable cement floors and walls. This uninviting basement could be reached either by going down some exterior cement steps, to a separate entrance below the side door of the house, or by going down some steep stairs inside the house. Both ways intimidated me. The windows down there were at the top of the walls and sunken in exterior wells. Shrubbery blocked the light from getting into many of them.


I could just imagine the spiders—especially Black Widows and the large Wolf Spiders that were so common—that certainly lived in the cracks and crannies and under the beds down there. As Nana kept her house super clean, there weren’t any webs that I ever saw, but we did see and kill a few spiders over the years. With each one, I felt every fear and reservation I’d ever had was more than warranted.


Besides bedrooms and storage areas, the basement held an old washing machine, lines for air drying clothes, and a large stand-alone sink next to the door. Across from the door was an open shower with a pull-around shower curtain. The floor in the shower merely sloped down slightly into a central drain. I couldn’t imagine ever taking a shower there. How could one avoid getting water everywhere? And how could there be any privacy getting in and out of the shower? That basement had no good associations for me.


Upstairs was almost as intimidating but in a different way. Nana was single-minded about having a clean house. It was spotless, while I and all the rest of my siblings were anything but. She always made sure we wiped our feet well coming into her kitchen through the side door. (We never entered the front door onto the living room carpet.) Sometimes she even cleaned our hands and faces with a washcloth at the door. She didn’t want any of us kids playing unattended in her hall or living room where her beautiful, but breakable knickknacks were displayed. This area was strictly off-limits to all of us kids.


I remember one time being allowed to play in the living room by myself when I was a little older and Nana felt she could trust me. I think I had a pad of paper and a pencil to entertain myself with. Instead of touching any of the knickknacks, I ate too many of the specialty candies she had on a platter in there and made myself sick. I never admitted this to anyone, but I never touched, let alone ate, any of those candies ever again.


Since the upstairs part of the house seemed to be entirely Nana’s territory (the basement was Papa’s for cleaning up before coming upstairs), I was puzzled by a placard on Nana’s kitchen wall which read: “The only way to fight a woman is with your hat. Grab it and run.” Maybe Nana understood she could be overbearing at times and had more of a sense of humor than I gave her credit for.


 

When I was a baby, before my parents moved to Boulder, Nana babysat me. From this, there was a connection between us I didn’t understand until I got older. She faithfully wrote letters to me—all my life—until she passed away after I was married, and she’d met and loved-on all five of our children. I didn’t value this as much when I was younger, but as I got older it became something I treasured, and I tried to always write back. Whether I did or not, Nana’s letters came. She was always there.


Once, in our correspondence, I got preachy with her and chastised her and Papa for not being active in the LDS Church and for not being “sealed” in an LDS temple. She firmly (and rightly) corrected me for this. I never did that again. I still worried for her and Papa though. I was very honored, also relieved, when some years later they arranged, on their own, to be sealed—on the same day, in the same room with my husband Bruce and me, when we were sealed—in the Salt Lake City temple.


As a side note, though this temple-sealing day with my grandparents should have been very special, this ordinance ended up being strangely disappointing to me instead. Because I loved my Nana and Papa, as well as my new husband, Bruce—and after everything I’d grown up believing about eternal marriage—I expected this event would be an unsurpassed spiritual experience pointing to even greater things. I was more disappointed than I’ve ever been—but that’s part of another story.


After Papa died of Parkinson’s disease, I visited Nana in person every chance I could get. I knew she was lonely without Papa. During that time, I grew to know and love her more than ever. When she died, she left a hole in my life that no one else can ever fill. I hope one day she’ll be one of the family of souls with Jesus welcoming me to my true home in heaven. I imagine she’ll have me wipe my feet before I enter.


 

My favorite Utah cousins, growing up, were Uncle Dean’s boys, Greg and John, who were just older and younger than me respectively. Greg, John, Karie, and I spent a fair amount of time playing outside at Nana and Papa’s, rolling on the slope of the lawn or doing cartwheels, and generally showing off for each other, while avoiding our other siblings. With them I had fun taking turns on the tricycle, taking turns pulling each other in a red wagon, “carefully” exploring Papa’s great junk heap, experimenting with tools and equipment, and playing on the hay bales.


I was always “secretly” sweet on my cousin Greg. He was another cousin I wholeheartedly adored. In my mind, I assigned to him every attribute I’d ever liked in a boy or man up to that point. I could easily fill in the blanks because he was super shy and didn’t talk a lot. (I believe I talked enough for both of us.) One day when I was eight or nine years old, and we were deciding what to play next, we “somehow” came up with the idea of playing house, like we were married.


Of course, this game required, Greg and I, and John and Karie to pair off. Greg and I climbed into the camper shell (our house) and pretended to set up housekeeping. When it was imaginary nighttime, we found a place to nestle underneath the bed boards and lie side by side, holding hands in the dark. It was wonderfully thrilling to be snuggled so near my cousin, holding his hand, but, at the same time, along with my exhilaration, I felt so guilty I could hardly bear it. My guilt was almost proportionate to my desire to be close to my cousin. We weren’t really supposed to be in the camper shell, though technically we weren’t disturbing anything. But, for sure we weren’t doing what the adults supposed we were—wasn’t that kind of like lying? I decided for the time being I wasn’t going to worry about it and just savor lying there by my cousin holding hands.


In a little while though, we all figured the adults might come looking for us if we didn’t show ourselves. I’m pretty sure when we finally went back into Nana’s house after playing outside, I acted even guiltier than I felt, and I felt plenty guilty. The adults letting us play out back was already a concession. The adults must have wondered what we’d been up to.


At some point in my young life, I asked Nana if cousins could marry each other. I was devastated and went into denial when she told me it was better if they didn’t. I fought against this declaration for a long time, even while somewhere in me I supposed what Nana said was probably right. I couldn't let go of my feelings, my absolute obsession with this gentle, adorable, faultless (in my mind) cousin.


After that, it seemed like the adults kept us apart when my family visited. For the next few years, every time we visited Greg and John were involved in other activities and were not able to come with their parents to see us. They were probably legitimately involved in sports and other activities; but to me, it seemed like the adults were working together to keep us apart.


What made it worse was how all that while I was continually fantasizing about being with my cousin forever. The thought of marrying my cousin became an obsession. I grew love-sick for him. I’d envision us going to an LDS temple in wedding clothes to be sealed and then living happily ever after. Of course, at the same time, I’d also be distressed because I didn’t think my cousin’s family even went to church. How could we be eternal companions if we couldn’t be sealed in the temple?


I could hardly control these fanciful daydreams on our visits to Utah. At one point, I got so far ahead of myself and reality in my mind and emotions, it was unhealthy—and, before God, I knew it. My grandma had a solution for this as well. She said I was in love with love—something that happens to a lot of human beings when they are young. Eventually, I realized she was right. And she might be right on the issue of marrying cousins as well.


Out of this, I also came to realize I didn’t know my cousin that well. He might or might not be the near-perfect person I had imagined and made into an idol. Chances were good—since no one I knew well, including myself, was perfect—he was no exception. Also, as my interest in boys at home in Colorado began to grow, I soon had enough to deal with there, and the storm regarding my cousin subsided.


It turned out, Greg and I were not destined to be forever-partners in marriage. Once I was settled back into reality, Greg and I were able to be good cousin-friends in reality. We wrote letters to each other briefly, but that fizzled out also as we got older, our lives became busier, and our interests diverged.


The last significant time we spent together was in our high-school years when, on invitation, Greg came and stayed the night with my family. We were camping at a site outside of Mapleton, so as not to overburden Nana and Papa by invading their house. (One of them was having health issues.) It was fun reconnecting with Greg, hanging out, and talking for hours into the night with my family all there around us.


My younger cousin, John, and I also became good friends as we got older. In our teen years, we had what I thought were long and in-depth philosophical conversations while we were hanging out with our families, and Greg was preoccupied or elsewhere—dating the girl he eventually married. The rest of my Utah cousins were all older or younger and I didn’t pass as much time with them or get to know them as well.


 

Of my aunts and uncles on my dad’s side of the family, Aunt Jeannie was my favorite. She was always kind and seemed glad to see us. When our families got together, her time was taken up with the adults and the needs of all the children with our families combined. I knew she loved her children and she seemed to like our family too. I never got to know my Aunt Jeannie very well, but I have always had a soft spot for her.


Because of this, when I was younger it concerned me that her family also wasn’t active in the LDS Church. Like some of my other relatives, she too seemed to be able to sweetly avoid it. This didn’t stop me from wishing she and her family were practicing members of our church.


My Uncle Dean lept up hundreds of degrees in my estimation when he, being a small airplane pilot, took me up to fly over Utah Valley once. It was during my teen years. I don’t remember how it came about, except that it was an unexpected treat and the most delightful experience of my life up to that point. We could only go one at a time, so I didn’t have to “share” the experience or the view with any siblings, which was wonderful by itself. I immediately loved being up in the air, looking down on miniature houses and farms, with the blue sky all around, and my soul soaring with the plane. It was over far too soon, but it was heaven while it lasted—and even for a while afterward, as my soul continued to glide in the joy of that ride in the sky.


Because of how sublime this experience was, it was pure mercy from God that despite this, and my tendencies, He somehow kept flying from becoming another all-consuming fixation for me.


Through my very active conscience and the wise words of my Nana, He had already freed me from cousin worship, though I had yet to be freed from the abject worship of outward beauty and grace. (My slathering devotions weren’t isolated to my cousin Kathy.) He had freed me from a compulsive obsession with marrying my cousin, but He had yet to help me let go of my own ideals for family relationships—especially regarding eternal marriage—as well as putting the relationships themselves, before my relationship with Him. I still had yet to learn to release the steadfast devotion I held toward my church with its “glorious” teachings and practices, to let the Lord and His teachings by His Spirit and His Spirit-inspired word in the Bible lead me, first and above all. These later preoccupations were much more difficult and painful to sort through than my earlier fixations; they were more deeply embedded in my heart.


I believe seeking the truth of God is a lifelong process that will not be completed in this life. All the while, I thank God for exposing and helping me put aside false creations, images, and ideas of what is good, true, and worth pursuing along the way.


It’s difficult learning to see what I’ve been blind to—because of having to give up the things that have made me blind. It’s agonizing when I am convicted of sin by the truth of God. Thankfully, conviction from God also comes with the hope of help from Him. I’ve learned to beware of the spirit when the conviction leads only to despair. I’ve also learned I’m better able to receive and respond to God’s help when I’m honest, and therefore humble before His perfection; repentant, or seeking to be in agreement with God about what is “good” or “evil,” and therefore truly sorry for the wrong I’ve done and the hurt I’ve caused; and surrendered, therefore, with all my heart, seeking to do God’s will, with His help.


Letting go of idols is worth it. God is real, true, glorious, and far more worthy of pursuit than all this world has to offer. He is superior in every way to any other god—to anything or anyone we’ve mistaken Him for—always. He is love and justice and mercy, all that is good, personified.


“Those who pay regard to vain idols

forsake their hope of steadfast love.

...Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

(Jonah 2:8–9)


Comments


bottom of page