Pioneer Day special: compiling a heritage to be proud of

For those of you not familiar with Utah, Utahns, or their unique State holidays, today is Pioneer Day. What is Pioneer Day and what does one do with oneself on Pioneer Day?

To the first question, the day celebrates the prophet Brigham Young and members of The Church being driven out of Missouri by pitchfork-wielding, tar ‘n feather-happy Gentiles. When they arrived at the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1849, Brigham Young said, “This is the place,” and the Mormons finally had a home. To the second question, you do all the same things today as you already did on Independence Day a couple weeks ago. Go ahead and use those leftover hot dogs from your 4th of July barbecue because it’s Pioneer Day. Got some fireworks you didn’t get a chance to use? Go ahead and light ’em up because it’s Pioneer Day. Or, if you’d like get some pizza and [root]beer. It’s Pie ‘n Beer day. Say it out loud, you’ll get it. Woot woot.

But it does kind of get me thinking about my heritage, so to speak. Growing up LDS, you hear lots of incredible stories about super kickass pioneers who did crazy amazing things as they trekked across the plains and settled in the lawless Utah territory. Lots of Mormon members take great pride in that ancestry. They’ll say thinks like, “I’m a direct descendant of Lucy Mack Smith” and people here understand that they came from someone who was very brave, strong and faithful.

As a child, I remember yearning to brag about my ancestry, so I asked my dad if our ancestors came across the plains with Brigham Young too. My dad, a convert to The Church, gave his scratchy, whispered laugh and with a big smile said, “No, our ancestors would have been the ones carrying the tar and feathers.” I thought it was a funny let-down then and I still think it is. But what’s a kid to do? I was a child trying to build an identity and I wanted some inspiration to draw from. I wanted to draw from Lucy Mack Smith like my friends.

So, I did. It wasn’t difficult at all. A lot of The Church’s material has an us-versus-them quality (understandable considering their genesis) and being a member of it made me feel like an outsider in my secular pursuits. I went to high school in Oklahoma where the primary religion of the region is Baptist. After someone found out you were Mormon, you got used to waiting for them to follow up with, “My youth minister told me…”, followed by something about polygamy or completely taken out of context OR something that had nothing to do with anything I’d ever heard about. I still don’t know where “My youth minister told me you worship an almighty egg,” came from.* It wasn’t a stretch to say, if the pioneers could walk across the plains pushing handcarts, I could deal with a few misunderstandings.

As I got older, I started to realize that I had a spiritual giant in my own ancestry. It was my dad. Listening to his mission stories feels akin to listening to the tales of Paul Bunyan. He made unreal sacrifices to go to the mountains of Bolivia for two years. He had no financial help for his mission from my grandmother who thought he had joined a cult. So, he had his electricity completely turned off to save money, he grew wheat that he made tortillas out of which he ate with honey. He went to soup kitchens for a free daily meal instead of going to the grocery store. When he had finally saved up enough and got his call to the Bolivia, Aymara-speaking mission (one they shut down shortly after my dad’s time there – he said because too many of the missionaries came home with parasites) my grandmother begged him not to go. He went anyway. Members would feed them mostly rotten potatoes and other root vegetables. I actually came across an episode of Bizarre Foods that talks about the cuisine. Check out this video of it…the potatoes start at about 17:45. The altitude there is punishing and my dad would sometimes walk 8 miles to the next village to find people to teach. But they weren’t alone! They had packs of menacing wild dogs to keep them company on their journeys. He and his companion had to keep large rocks in their pockets to pelt at them if they got too close. He joked with his companions that even if they didn’t get to teach many of the people, at least they taught the dogs a lesson. He also got a visit from my grandmother and aunt when they came to take him home. Dad politely refused and finished out his two years. It’s an incredible story. It was an incredible sacrifice.

Later, when my parents got married they wanted to do it right. Instead of foregoing a civil marriage in San Antonio that their families could attend (my mom was also a convert and the only member of her family at the time) they hopped a plane to LA all by themselves and booked two hotel rooms for the first night, one for the second. They had a stranger snap a photo of them in front of another couple’s decorated car. That was a big sacrifice as well.

However, when I was younger those stories were more black and white in my mind. I used to think how crazy it was that my grandmother flew all the way out to Bolivia to rescue my dad from the clutches of a cult. In her defense, he had joined a cult**. I’m grateful for the moments of council she gave me as a kid. Her oft-repeated advice to me was, “God helps those who help themselves,” which I took to mean something along the same lines as, “by grace ye are saved after all you can do.” She wanted me to work hard to be successful, not just pray for it. I also grew up with a small extended family that didn’t treat us too much differently because we were Mormon. When my parents got home from their elopement, the family threw them a party. I’m sure they were upset not to be included in something so important, but it wasn’t something that they allowed to get in the way of loving and including my parents in their lives. When I started looking for inspiring people with a broader umbrella of criteria I found that I was surrounded by really amazing people that I could look up to. I had pioneers of all sorts in my own family. I found plenty of people that I’ve never met and have no relation to whatsoever that I draw inspiration from. The list is too big to even begin writing here.

So for Pioneer Day, I’m drinking grapefruit beer, eating pizza, and thinking about the many members of the village that raised me.

*Yes, that was a real thing that someone actually said to me. Side note: I think that’s part of the reason it was so easy for me to dismiss outside information I received about The Church for so long. The legitimate issues were mixed in with the legitimately crazy stuff. I just stopped listening to anything about the church that wasn’t from a trusted leader or general authority.

**I consider Mormonism to be more of a diet cult. Cult lite. I don’t feel like going into the distinction of the why I say it’s a cult here. Whole books have been written about this and I’m just composing a blog post. Here’s a link that may help someone understand. Don’t read it if you’re a happy member of The Church. Just don’t. You won’t prove anything to me or yourself by reading it. Just take a deep breath and be content in the fact that someone in the world has different opinions and experiences than you do. There. That was easy.

 

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