Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mormons X: Beehive House

Sister Amador had promised details about plural marriage at the Beehive House, so I made my way east from Temple Square.

The Beehive House was one of Brigham Young’s two primary residences in Salt Lake, the home to his most prominent and senior wives. The house is named for the beehive sculpture that sits atop the roof, otherwise the white columned front porch and plantation shutters on the sandstone and adobe house resembled an antebellum mansion with a southwestern flair.

Inside an elderly man in a black suit gave me a hearty greeting, and by golly, I was just in time for tour! He directed me to a row of benches where the other visitors were waiting. The benches looked identical to the white pine pews from the tabernacle, though these, we would learn, had been made from the parts of broken down wagons and handcarts the first Mormon settlers pushed across the prairie.

The tour was a few minutes away as the greeter was trying to lure a couple of Brits who had walked in looking for the restaurant next door. No sale. A couple of 19th century city maps caught my eye from across the room and I got up to investigate. An older woman got up from the information desk came over to see what I was interested in. She also liked the old city plans. She wanted to know where I was from.

“Are you a member of the Church?” she asked.

“Well, my parents aren’t that religious.” I said.

Perhaps she mistook the way I stare at maps for a reverence for this city built by the Mormon pioneers. But it was just my love for maps, and my best strategy for evading unwelcome conversions project myself onto the wall and disappear for hours. A map of transitioning Eastern Europe in the back of my Marianna, Arkansas Special Education classroom was one my favorite places to wait out the bells once the kids stopped trying to run me out of the county every afternoon, or kill each other, and settled into the malaise that was our ship of the damned.

I could feel the eyes of docent were still on me, and without disengaging from my favorite of the old city plans, an ambitious grid that stretched out far beyond what the settlers of the time could have populated, I gave her a little more. “My grandmother was a saint. She died a long time ago.”

I hoped my grimace gave her rest of the story she was looking for. It’s not that I imagined my elliptical suggestions would give cause for my hosts to drop the official slant and pull me into a room where I could look at the real artifacts left behind by the Mormon Moses and his 55 wives. I wanted something other than what I was going to get from this tour. An invitation to the singles ward, a family story, something more than the friendliness that substitutes for any interesting conversation with these missionaries who are under the constant surveillance of their peers.

The greeter ushered me back to the pew and gave us his practiced introduction about Brigham Young and his (Young’s, though the guy seemed old enough) role in the Mormon exodus and the building of Salt Lake City. He asked us to imagine this front room as it might have been in the early days of the Utah settlement. A dozen secretaries would have worked here on the ground floor of the Prophet’s home. They crammed in back to back at desks squeezed into this waiting area, the official bureau of a burgeoning theocracy. They worked like the busy bees Young wanted to name his territory after.

Two young missionaries entered on cue from a back room and introduced themselves as our guides for the next half hour. Sister Sessions and Sister Slight were both Americans, from Michigan and Pennsylvania, respectively. Slight was built like her name, slender and with a mousy voice. Placed next to her, Sessions with her muscular frame looked like Slight’s bodyguard. Sessions did not have her partner’s sweet demeanor, what might have been intended as a smile came out closer to a scowl. I noticed Sessions suspicious eyes in my direction while Slight welcomed us to the tour.

From what little I know about the Mormon mission placements, it is a distinction for a young man to be placed for service overseas, the more exotic the higher esteemed the candidate. As for the second class part, all female missionaries seem to be a wrung below their male counterparts, their numbers are fewer, their expected service shorter, and their roles usually in the auxiliary. Men hunt for souls, women lead tours. Then again only women serve as guides at the Temple Square attractions, and as they hail from all over the world perhaps it is an honor to be a hostess of Zion.

I guessed Amador hadn’t seen that LDS commercial, “you tell one lie and leads to another,” that played everyday during the afternoon cartoons of my youth. Her claim that we could get some answers about polygamy at the Beehive House was full of shit. They admitted that polygamy took place, but in the same hokey way that fox of a kindergarten teacher explained it to me all those years ago. This was a shrine to Brigham Young, and anything that took away from his glory was not appropriate on a tour of his first Salt Lake City residence and his franchise of families.

Sessions and Slight worked in the same alternating paragraphs as my guides at Temple Square. They took turns showing us Brigham Young’s cloak and a cane that lay across his bed, with bits and pieces of the mythology built up about his founding of Salt Lake City. During their back and forth they peppered the spiel with anecdotes that impressed upon us Young’s great parenting skills.

As they led us through the house, they only identified the room of one wife, his first plural wife, surprising considering 50 more lived with him at some point in his Salt Lake City homes. All the other rooms along the corridors turned out to be for his many children. I kept a little back from the group since it was easier to take notes away from the crowd, but this drew attention from the sisters. Sister Slight dropped back to keep an eye on me, nervous with all my scribbling.

“Are you writing a research paper?” she asked.

“Something like that,” I said as I leaned in to take a look at the spines of the old books on a hallway shelf. Two books jumped out from the bland offerings of the 19th century canon, Darkest Africa by Henry Stanley and Livingstone’s Last Journals. For a man who preached that God had punished ancient heathens with the curse of black skin, these books must have read like pornography. When does a man with 55 wives find the energy to beat off? One of the many under examined downsides of plural marriage.

“You like books,” Sessions asked, just behind my back shoulder.

The bad cop of this duo wanted to know about my family history, this grandmother I had mentioned to the docent. It was more a challenge than a question, but I just mumbled that she had died when I was too young to understand. In an old reflex I was drifting away from her, the old titles after all were a map of the Prophet’s world, he had held these now dusty spines as he escaped for a time to a world outside the confines of Mormon theology.

Her scowl edged into frown as she directed me to keep closer to the group.

The sisters kept trading off, one leading the tour, the other trailing just behind me as if I were a black man browsing in a record shop. I looked up to find Sister Sessions next to me at the velvet rope separating us from one of the second floor bedrooms.

It was a modest room with a single bed and pine dresser with a dark varnish. A child’s dress was on display in front of the dresser.

“This was Clarrissa’s wedding dress” Sessions said.

“That’s a wedding dress?” I said.

I had guessed the white lace dress might have been for a baptism. Mormons baptize after a child’s eighth birthday. Sessions saw my thoughts.

“She was 21 years old when she married,” Sessions said.

“She was so tiny,” I said.

“21 years old,” she repeated.

Maybe Clarissa’s diminutive stature is so well known in Mormon lore that there is there is nothing remotely scandalous about her child sized wedding dress. I consider myself pretty well informed for an outsider, and I had never heard of Brigham’s midget bride. This was a tour for outsiders after all.

Accounts of modern polygamy repeatedly expose the institution as cover for predators who slake their desire for adolescent flesh under the cloak of religious sacrament. Judged by Sessions reaction to my reserved astonishment, and by Latter Day Saint’s universal hatred for their polygamy practicing backwoods cousins, one would think they’d just find a bigger dress to display to the world.

But the tiny dress fits the Temple Square’s presentation. This was the second tour where they provided an inquisitive person just enough to ask the uncomfortable questions right as the half hour time limit expires. Is this part of the Mormon missionary experience, galvanizing the believers through the skepticism of outsiders, however blatantly provoked?

Now I had provoked Sisters Sessions. She was on my right elbow for the remainder of the tour. She kept close to me as her partner handed out the honey candies. Slight explained would leave us sweet memories of our time in the Beehive House. Her words made me tingle with the memory of from my last mnemonic honey candy, the afternoon I touched the hand of that brunette storyteller all those years ago. Puppy love in a fourth grade classroom.

One of the other tourists approached me asked if I was here working on a project. His tone was sufficiently conspiratorial that I told him I was a freelance journalist. He handed me a card.

“I support independent research”, he said, then in a hushed tone he gave me the name of a website and a movie that I had to check out.

I told him I’d look for them on Netflix.

“You won’t find that in any video store,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder, then continued in a whisper. “Temple Rituals. I have a friend who spent over a year looking for this one.”

I could feel Sisters Sessions glare on me even though she had already left the room. I told him I’d look for the movie.

Maybe if I had more than a day in Salt Lake I’d have asked this guy for his story. But I am here for the stories of the believers. I decided to go back to a Temple Square tour, this time in Spanish.

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