The following is a continuation of the script I wrote for a performance piece that explores the practice of proxy baptisms for the dead. This is the beginning of the second scene. For Scene 1, click here.
II. The Fall
[With lights out, projection reads: “The Fall”. Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA” begins to play. Lights rise on female figure]
F: As my sister and I drive along the Trail of Tears, the most happiness I find is when we're in the car and I can blare the Chuck Berry tape I brought. We drive the trail where thousands died, and I listen to the music and think what are we supposed to do with the grisly past? I feel a righteous anger and bitterness about every historical fact of what the American nation did to the Cherokee. But, at the same time, I'm an entirely American creature. I'm in love with this song and the country that gave birth to it.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "BACK IN THE USA" BY CHUCK BERRY]
F: Listening to "Back in the USA" while driving the Trail of Tears, I turn it over and over in my head. It's a good country. It's a bad country. Good country, bad country. And, of course, it's both. When I think about my relationship with America, I feel like a battered wife. Yeah, he knocks me around a lot, but boy he sure can dance.
[Projection reads: “What are we supposed to do with the grisly past? […] I turn it over and over in my head. […] When I think about my relationship with America, I feel like a battered wife. Yeah, knocks me around a lot, but boy he sure can dance.” –Sarah Vowell, 1998”]
F: Sarah Vowell, 1998.
[Lights fade on F. F exits. Lights up on Allan as he enters.]
Allan: I’m not going to lie: as a historian, I kinda wish everyone was Mormon. As a people we are meticulous when it comes to record keeping. Basically, we take the notion of the book of life written about in the Book of Revelations pretty literally. The Book of Mormon is not just a record whose entire narrative posits that the book is one extended family journal stretched across generations, but begins with the specific trials and tribulations of one family as they try to obtain scriptures and records that pertain to their family. In addition to keeping track of the dead that are baptized or provided other forms of proxy work in temples around the world, journal keeping has been admonished heavily as a cultural practice, as a way to produce a legacy and personal family scripture to subsequent generations. Every quotidian action of a person’s everyday life has the potential to be consecrated to the building up of the kingdom of God, so even the seemingly most mundane activities can carry a level of sacredness in their otherwise earthly triviality. The point is to raise up the earthly and to make it wholly. And documents like journals or even ledgers for business transactions can be akin to holy writ—so that which is written on earth might also be recorded in Heaven. This perspective and paradigm translates into some wonderfully exhaustive archives. And as an historian, I really miss the presence of this guiding impulse when I venture into some other archives.
And you know what, it’s a trait ingrained really well into me. I keep track of so many records. I kept a journal every day of my mission. And I have large binders at home filled not only with letters I received from family and friends, but also copies of the letters I wrote to people. Because after I would write a letter by hand, I would photocopy it before sending it. I wanted a record of my time and service in Oregon; didn’t want to forget a thing.
Allan: When I was home recently, I looked through the folder with letters to and from family members—since that was organized separately from the friends binder—and I found a letter from my maternal grandmother. In the summer of 2005, I sent her a letter:
A: Dear Grandmother Crews, I’m going to make my request of the past. I’d like to know about you, where you came from, what you’ve done in life. At this time I request the story of you. This is pretty vague I suppose, but basically I just want to know as much about my grandparents as I can because I’m realizing in the grand scheme of things at this time I know nothing of them. Right now, I’d be really interested in hearing anything and everything about your conversion story: missionaries involved, how you were introduced to the Church, who baptized you, what things were like with you (what you felt about the whole experience) and Grandpa Crews. In ways I feel quite connected to the man in ways that don’t always make that much sense to me. In other ways, I don’t really know anything about him. I know in a way it isn’t fair, but I guess I’m asking for both the story of your life and the story of His. So there’s my request. I hope it makes sense. Just write what you feel inspired to record. That’s what I usually do.
Allan: Because I grew up where my mom grew up, there were many people around at church who knew my grandfather. While I was a teenager I heard about how much I looked like and sounded like their friend Chuck. But my maternal grandpa died when I was nine. His was the first death that held any proximity. I knew snippets of the man—he played the banjo, he hosted a morning radio show in Jacksonville long before I was born, and a lot of people admired him—but to me there was little more than a thin sense of who he was. Thankfully, in my little orange binder of an archive I found my grandmother’s response:
F: Dear Elder Davis, what an awesome letter from a grandson to his grandmother. It warmed my heart to hear you wanted to know me better and learn of events that helped shape my life.
Most important is the fact that I relied on Heavenly Father and the Holy Ghost to guide me in decisions form an early age.
I should tell you, my sisters married very young. Most likely trying to escape the hardships after our family home burned down in a fire. Just over-night they went from having plenty to being very poor. Dad had his money in the attic, that’s where the fire started.
The three older sisters married men that drank and beat them. Once I had to take a second look to recognize my sister; she had to drink out of a straw for two weeks.
I can remember when I was in the second grade walking to school praying for a good husband when I grew up.
I continued this prayer for 19 years. Never dated anyone that drank, smoked, or used bad language. When I saw Coleman across the room a thought came to me: “there is your husband.” I scolded myself, “Betty, when do you go around picking out husbands?”
A year later when we had been married about three months I was saying my 1:00 prayer and that thought came back to me: then I knew it was the Holy Ghost that had prompted that thought. I always treasured the fact that Heavenly Father answered my prayer. Coleman was the best husband any one could ever have.
I will stop here and continue my novel later. It is so much to write or leave out! Much love, Grandmother Crews. I pray for your success! I won’t proof read, afraid I won’t get it in the mail.
Allan: She never did end up writing another letter, though I would have loved to receive it. However, she did give me a surprise gift of open memory and experience one day at church. When I came home from my mission, I was asked to speak a few times. With a lay ministry rather than a paid clergy, the responsibility of preparing and delivering weekly sermons rests upon most every member of the congregation through a regular rotation. It’s great for participatory engagement but down right awful in terms of there ever being either rich theological or educational presentation. The speakers are just not trained to do that. Within the pool of congregants most frequently asked to provide some form of sermon are the missionaries—men and women that are about to go, that are currently serving, or that have just returned. And I will not lie, as you have probably been able to tell by this point, I like to talk, so I often enjoyed the opportunity.
But after I spoke at a stake conference—a larger regional meeting—my grandmother found me afterwards in the hallway. I can still see the enthusiasm and light in her eyes. I don’t know that I ever saw her with such energy and excitement. I think her pride in me fell away in the presence of something far more powerful and commanding: in me she could catch a glimpse of her Coleman. She stopped me to congratulate me on a good talk, but she opened up and told me the types of things I asked her about in that letter two years prior.
F: That’s my handsome grandson. Such a strong missionary. Reminds me of all the sets of missionaries your grandfather went through. One summer when he was working, I went up to North Carolina to visit my sisters. I didn’t know it at the time but my sister Beulah had joined the church. So I was sitting in her living room and while she was in the kitchen I noticed that she was making dinner for more than just the two of us. I asked her about it and she just said that we’d be having company join us. And an hour or so later, there were the missionaries. At the time your grandfather and I were looking for a church to go to, but he just knew his Bible so well, because for a while he was thinking of being a minister. But then whenever we went to a church, eventually Chuck would hear something that he knew didn’t agree with what he had been reading in the Bible. So pretty soon we’d stop going to that one. And I told him, honey, eventually you’re just going to have to pick. So I went up to my sister’s a few more times and met with the missionaries there. And then one time I asked your grandfather if he wanted to go up to see her with me. And while we were there, he noticed Beulah and I were making more food than would feed the three of us; and when he asked about it, we just said that we’d be having company join us. And then soon enough, there were the missionaries. And your grandfather just laid into them. He kept asking them questions and they kept showing him scriptures. It went on for hours. Eventually they gave us a Book of Mormon and a phone number for missionaries in Jacksonville. When your grandfather actually called them, I tried not to get my hopes up. But he invited them over and they talked. And he’d ask them questions; they’d answer and leave him with something to read. Now he must have gone through at least six or eight sets of missionaries. But that was Chuck; he was so determined to prove that they taught something wrong just like the other churches we had gone to. But you know, one night, he came into our room, he sat next to me on the bed and said, “Betty, I think it might be true.” And all I said was, “Well, it’s about time.”
Part 2 for this scene is forthcoming.