My second full day on the ranch was a Sunday. My family honored the Sabbath by doing only necessary work on Sundays, such as milking the cows, gathering eggs, and irrigating the fields if our water turn happened to come on Sunday. Grandma woke me early and informed me over breakfast that church started at 10:00, so I must be finished with my chores, washed, and dressed for church by 9:15.
“I’m going to have you feed the lambs, since you already know how to do it,” she said.
“How am I supposed to know how much water and milk powder to mix?” I said, a little concerned.
“It tells you right on the bag. I’ve already got some water heating on the stove for you.”
I slowly carried the hot pan of water into the washroom and mixed it with some cold water in a can someone had set out for me. Grandma had said you could tell it was the right temperature if you could stick your finger into it and feel it was pretty close to your body temperature.
It took a little trial and error, but eventually I got the temperature right. I spilled too much of the mix on the floor, but eventually I got it to where it looked (and smelled) about right.
It was another beautiful morning, and even though it was June, I see my breath as I carried the wooden crate of bottles out to the lamb enclosure, traces of frost still clinging to some of the grass that was growing outside the fence line.
Once again, the lambs came running as soon as I approached. For a moment I thought how good it felt to be wanted and needed, but then I realized it was more about the milk. They had it easy, I thought: just show up and be fed. Of course, they had no idea their destiny was to end up supplying wool for sweaters or, worse, a nice Easter dinner with Grandma’s mint jelly on the side. But then it was their duty to fill the role they were born for, and I knew it was mine, too.
I got back to the house just as Grandma came in with a basket of fresh eggs. “Go wash up and put on your Sunday clothes,” she said. “I’ll fix some breakfast.”
I was hungry, so I washed quickly, combed my hair and put on a white shirt, a tie my dad had given me when I was ordained a deacon a couple of years earlier, and my Sunday slacks. I gave my shoes a light rub with my dirty shirt, and headed into the kitchen, where Grandma was putting two “eggs in a basket” on my plate. She knew this was one of my favorites: a slice of white bread with a hole cut in the center, an egg dropped in, and the whole thing fried in butter.
“Let me get a look at you,” Grandma said, suspiciously. “No, that won’t do.”
She went to the sink and retrieved a dishcloth and some soap. By the time she finished scrubbing my face, neck, ears, arms, and hands, my skin felt raw and tingled.
“Didn’t your mother teach you how to wash up?” she said, knowing full well the answer.
“Sorry, Grandma,” I said as I dug into the eggs.
“Things will be different for you here,” she said. “This is my place, and you do what I say.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said sheepishly, taking a sip of milk.
After breakfast, I put the dishes in the sink to soak, and Grandma and I walked out to the truck.
“Any of you fellas coming?” she shouted towards the bunkhouse, where some of the hands were sitting on the stoop, looking like they were just barely awake.
I was surprised when Lyme walked out, dressed in a clean white shirt, tie, and slacks.
“Since it’s just the three of us, we can all sit in the cab,” Grandma said. “You drive, Lyme.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, taking the keys.
We drove for what seemed a long time until we reached a collection of houses bordered by a gas pump and store, and a small clapboard church. “Burr Ridge Ward” read the words over a stylized beehive carved in a sandstone frame over the church door. Dad had showed me when I was a boy the remnants of a square and compass that had once adorned either side of the beehive but had for some mysterious reason been sanded off. I never knew why, but Dad had just said, “I guess it’s considered too sacred now, but they used to be on every church building you’d see.” I wasn’t sure why those carvings were supposed to be sacred, but he said I’d understand someday.
We arrived too late for priesthood meeting, but Grandma said she’d let me drive the truck in once she was sure she could trust me. So, we started out with sacrament meeting, where we would partake of the emblems of the body and blood of Christ–bread and water, because wine was forbidden to Mormons.
Church was pretty much like it was at home. Because I was a visitor, I was asked to stand and introduce myself. I’ve always been uncomfortable in front of people, so I stammered a little and could feel my face going red.
Grandma stood. “This is my grandson, William, who is spending the summer here from Utah.” she said smiling and patting me on the shoulder. “Oh, but he likes to be called Will.” My face went even redder.
“Well, welcome!” said Bishop Carver, a large, red-faced man with unruly brown hair that he had unsuccessfully tried to comb into something presentable. “We’re glad you’re here.”
In those days, particularly in small congregations, meetings would have only one speaker. Today’s speaker was Lazarus Menlove, a spindly looking man with a long, sloping nose and ears that poked out perpendicular to his head.
“Brothers and sisters,” he began, louder than I had imagined someone so physically unimposing could be. “I want you to know that we live in a day of miracles! I reckon most of us think those days are gone by, that miracles happened in Jesus’ time or with the Prophet Joseph Smith, but I’m here to tell you we have the same privilege of receiving miraculous answers to our prayers in the present, even today.”
This sounded promising, as I’d never heard of anyone speaking of miracles in our midst, especially not in a tiny hamlet like Burr Ridge. Looking around the congregation, I got the distinct impression that no one else in the chapel was buying any of it. A couple of attractive girls who looked to be roughly my age were whispering and giggling, until they saw I was looking. The one turned away, embarrassed, her face as red as her hair. The other girl, who had hair as black as obsidian, stared right back at me with blue eyes that looked like she could see right through me. For a moment I thought she had smiled at me, but I couldn’t be sure. Then she looked down and pretended to find something interesting about the hymnbook.
“I thought I was going to lose both the ewe and the lamb!” Lazarus was nearly shouting. “But it weren’t no use. The lamb was coming feet first, and it was all I could do not to tear the mama apart getting it out.”
Well, that was something you didn’t hear often in church.
“I reached my arm inside the ewe, and there was blood ever’where,” Lazarus continued, as I stared, spellbound.
“The pore little lamb was all blue and still, and the mama was just wailin’ in that way you’ve all heard, as if she was going through the fires of hell.”
I for one hadn’t heard anything like that before.
“Then all on a sudden, I knew what I had to do,” he said, his face looking rapturous. “I laid my blood-soaked hands on that mama ewe and called down the blessings of heaven by the authority of the priesthood I hold.”
Grandma was shaking her head in disapproval, but I couldn’t look away. He had me, as if a light were shining in his countenance.
“I’d no sooner said ‘Amen’ when the spirit told me to reach my hands inside the mama ewe one more time. She’d lost a lot of blood, but like Nephi of old, I knew better than to question the workings of the spirit.”
I would have given anything to feel the workings of the spirit, but I would have to rely on people like Lazarus for the time being.
“I shoved both my arms into the mama, up to my elbows, and tugged hard as I could. Suddenly, the lamb shifted and, verily, it came sliding on out.”
That was a heck of a story, I thought. But he wasn’t done yet.
“I knew I’d saved that ewe, but the lamb was dead. Beyond hope,” he said almost in a whisper, looking directly at me. “But the Lord wasn’t going to let me lose that lamb, too. I laid my hands on that lamb and commanded it to live.”
He paused for what seemed like an hour. I had to know. What had happened?
“Why, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’a been there, but that lamb started jerking, coughed out a bit of blood, and stood on its feet jus’ like it was a prize-winner at the fair. I think it might be the best-looking lamb of the spring.”
Grandma sighed, and as I turned, I saw her roll her eyes a bit.
After the meeting, she went directly to the bishop and said, “Well, I am quite sure the Lord isn’t pleased to hear such–well, indelicate–talk in his house on his day.”
“Now, Sister Murdock,” he said, patting her hand and chuckling. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
“Well, that man needs a good talking to,” she said.
Grandma looked annoyed, but she took my arm and said, “It’s time for lunch.”
Back in Utah, we would walk home after sacrament meeting and have lunch before returning in the afternoon for Sunday School. But there wasn’t time to drive all the way back to the ranch, so she had packed some sandwiches and lemonade in a basket, which she had me retrieve from the back of the truck.
She spread out a blanket, and she handed me a sandwich wrapped in waxed paper–liverwurst, Grandma’s favorite. Not mine, but it wasn’t bad. Grandma noticed Lyme sitting alone under a poplar tree, so she called out, “Get on over here! We can’t have you starving, now, can we?”
Lyme looked a little embarrassed but took a sandwich.
“Come on!” Grandma said, patting the blanket. “Sit down and eat with us! My goodness, you needn’t fear us, young man.”
Lyme looked quite flustered now, but he sat down obediently, and Grandma poured lemonade into two paper cups for us.
“What did you think of the meeting?” she asked me.
“Well,” I said hesitantly, trying to chew my sandwich. “Is it always like that? I mean, with all the gory details and blood and that?”
Lyme laughed, a little bit of sandwich escaping his lips.
“Oh, no,” Grandma said. “I’m afraid you got we here call the baptism by Menlove. I do not know what goes through that man’s head. Just wait until Fast Sunday! Hardly anyone gets a word in edgewise once old Brother Menlove gets a-going.”
Fast Sunday, of course, was the first Sunday of the month, when we would fast for two meals–usually supper the night before and then breakfast. There were no speakers scheduled on Fast Sunday, but the bishop would get the meeting started by “bearing testimony,” which is a Mormon tradition of sharing one’s faith, but no one ever said, “I believe.” It was always, “I know.”
“I know God lives.”
“I know Jesus is the Christ, who died for my sins.”
“I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.”
“I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God.”
“I know David O. McKay is a prophet of God on earth today.”
I always wanted to know, but so far, I couldn’t say I knew any of that for certain. Fortunately, bearing testimony also involved giving thanks for the blessings in our lives.
“I’m thankful for my parents.”
“I’m thankful for my sister.”
“I’m thankful for the bishop.”
These things I could do. It was the knowing part that threw me off.
But every congregation had at least one person who would deviate from the script, and you never knew what was going to happen. Clearly, Lazarus Menlove was this ward’s wild card.
Sunday School was uneventful. Once again, I had to introduce myself, but no one seemed particularly interested in me. A couple of boys my age sat in the back while the teacher, a stout, middle-aged woman, struggled to maintain control while teaching us about Helaman leading his 2,000 “stripling warriors” into battle. I had always thought this was one of the most exciting parts of the Book of Mormon, but no one else appeared to be listening. The teacher seemed surprised and grateful that I was paying attention.
The dark-haired girl I had seen earlier sat in front of me, and I really wanted to see her eyes again. There was something about them. But she never even glanced in my direction.
After church, Grandma served us a supper of pot roast, which had been cooking in a dutch oven over the fire all day. After supper, we sat on wooden chairs on the porch, both of us holding either side of Grandma’s Book of Mormon. I started reading, while she sat quietly, eyes closed and smiling.
I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.
Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.
And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.
I’d never read the Book of Mormon all the way through, cover to cover, but I knew a lot of the stories. I knew with Grandma’s help, we’d get through it together.
At the end of the first chapter, Grandma closed the book, and we knelt again to pray.
“Your turn,” she said, smiling.
I don’t know what it was, but the words just poured out of me, and I pleaded with Heavenly Father to help me know like Grandma knew, like the people in church knew, like Joseph Smith had known.
As I helped Grandma to her feet, she hugged me and said, “Oh, my boy, you too are highly favored of the Lord. Like everyone else in this world, you’ll pass through afflictions, but you will know. You will.”