Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Crazy Mormon Family: Mr. and Mrs. P

I come from a family of six children, and my father also came from a family of six children. Six might strike the average American today as a large number of children, but when I was growing up six was a fairly average number in our community. A few of my classmates in school came from families with ten children, and one boy was somewhere in the middle of twelve. Twelve seemed large, even to us. But then, some of our parents had come from even larger families. The matriarch of one epic family that had homesteaded a lot of property in that rural area had given birth twenty times. People often pointed out that there was a set of twins in there. I guess the thinking was that nineteen pregnancies sounded more reasonable (or at least less noteworthy) than twenty. However you counted them, a lot of the children turned out to be trouble, and the children's children (who were my age) were generally feared at school. The patriarch and matriarch of this brood, which I'll call the P's, were thought by most people there to be crazy. And they were, as I learned personally.

The old couple, Mr. and Mrs. P, must have been in their sixties when I was a child, but they looked more like centenarians. They were nominally Mormon (they were members, and they made sure to have all of their children and grandchildren baptized at age eight), but they never attended church, and nobody went out of the way to try to encourage them to attend. They had built a tiny house on the opposite side of the valley from my parents' house, and I and all of the children in the area knew who they were even without seeing them at church. We knew because the family raised vast numbers of sheep, and they'd run their sheep on the road through town twice a year when they moved them up to the mountains for the summer and down to the river bottoms for the the winter. We also knew about Mr. P specifically because he would often drive around with a horse in the back of his pickup truck.

In case you aren't familiar with the regular transporting of horses, you should know that horses are pretty much never hauled in anything except horse trailers. You can ride a horse a decent distance if you need to get it from one place to the other. If you need to transport one a truly long distance, a horse trailer is large, safe, and not too high off the ground. It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone might try to move a horse in the back of a full-size pickup truck if there were no other options for a long-distance transport and if the pickup had a high cattle rack surrounding the truck bed to ensure that the horse couldn't fall out. Horses are smarter than cattle, so how you'd convince the horse to walk up into the bed of the truck is an interesting riddle to solve, but, assuming you could, the scenario is conceivable. Even then, horses are larger than cattle (bulls aside), so it would be cramped for the horse. But Mr. P regularly hauled a horse in the back of his truck, and what made it especially memorable for everyone, but for children most of all, was that his truck was a tiny, beat-up Japanese 2x4 that couldn't offer the protection of a cattle rack for the horse because the bed was far too small to fit a cattle rack. The only benefit for the horse to this crazy set-up was that 2x4s were, as a rule, lower to the ground, so the poor horse didn't have far to step up when Mr. P prodded it to get in. You might think that this would also mean the horse wouldn't have as far to fall when Mr. P took a sharp turn or hit the brakes. But I can honestly say we never heard of a horse falling out of the back of his truck. We also never heard a good reason for why he hauled a horse around in the first place.

At some point when I was a boy, my father was assigned to be the "home teacher" of Mr. and Mrs. P, who now lived alone. "Home teaching" is a church-sponsored program whereby priesthood holders (that is, active members of the male sex over age 12) are paired up and assigned a few families to visit once a month. During their visits to their families, home teachers are supposed to give mini lessons about Mormon values and beliefs (there is even a yearly manual, with lessons outlined for the home teachers). Home teachers are also encouraged to get to know their families and to help them with whatever the families might need. The program ensures that Mormons stay connected, and that less active members (or at least those less active members who will receive home teachers) are visited and encouraged to reconnect with the church. In our rural setting, there weren't too many inactive members, but somehow or another my father was always assigned to them. This was probably because he managed to get inactive members to allow him to visit. His visits tended to be light on the lesson and heavy on the help, which probably explained his success. But he did always manage to work in a little talk about church.

Long before I was twelve I was my father's de facto home teaching companion. I'm not sure whether this was because the boys or men he was paired with were not reliable or because it seemed less odd to the inactive families he visited if he just brought his own young son. Whatever the reason, as a young boy of seven or eight I suddenly had up-close contact with the strange Mr. and Mrs. P. My father was assigned to the P's for over a year. We visited every month. At the end of each month, my father would have to give an accounting of his home teaching visits to the priesthood leader over his quorum (quorums are priesthood groups separated by rank, which largely corresponds to age). My father never missed a month or a family. So, once a month for over a year I got to visit that strange and infamous couple.

Their tiny house was perched on the side of a hill that was covered with sage brush. There were no trees planted near the house, as was usually done, although down on the flat to the side of the hill there were some old cottonwoods and pines. The house was far too small for twenty children, but that was because it had been built when at least half of the children had moved on. Still, you had to wonder where the other half had slept - and on what, as the place was sparsely and poorly furnished. Mr. and Mrs. P both smoked a lot, and so the house and its inhabitants reeked of cigarettes. That alone would have made them the wickedest people I'd met up to that point in my life (Mormonism forbids tobacco). But even more damning was the one thing that hung on their whitewashed walls: a certificate of divorce, which they had framed. I asked about it during one of our visits, and Mrs. P proudly explained what it was. I don't think my father realized before my asking about their single piece of art that the P's were divorced, and it must have made him wonder whether it was o.k. that they were living together if they weren't in fact still married. When I asked why they still lived together if they were divorced, my father apologized, but he didn't say that an answer was none of our business. Anyway, we didn't get much of one. Mr. P smiled but said nothing. Mrs. P just laughed loudly and said they got along better that way. I remember that she threw back her head when she laughed, and her long, grey, coarse hair shook like a horse's tail twitching to keep flies away. And I also remember that I could see that her teeth were brown when she laughed, and that she was missing a few.

My father spent a lot more time talking with them about hay crops and lambing and the weather than he did talking about Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon. The P's didn't ever seem to need temporal help (spiritual help was another matter, but they weren't asking), so my father often brought them vegetables from his garden or eggs or milk. They genuinely seemed to like our visits, which were probably the only social calls they had outside their vast and sometimes violent family. Up close, I discovered that the old couple were even more eccentric than any of us had imagined, but that they were also hardworking and generous with what they had (my sisters and I got to raise bum lambs, courtesy of this family).

My father's and my home teaching assignment to the P's ended because the old couple split up. She moved in with a son near their old homestead, while he moved up somewhere north of town (where he lived exactly was unclear, although it may have been in a sheep herder trailer on another tract of land he owned). People sometimes spotted her walking on the side of the highway, and the rumors in town were that she'd gotten seriously involved with drugs of one kind or another. We'd see him driving around town from time to time, occasionally with an uncomfortable-looking horse in the back of his tiny pickup. Their house sat vacant for a few years, until one of their younger, calmer sons moved in. He wasn't as wicked - or as interesting - as his parents. He even became somewhat active at church. And my father wasn't assigned to be his home teacher.