Neighbors Across the River: Legacy of an Uprising
Supper with a Helping of Plural Marriage
November 29, 1896
The next Sunday evening, Frank knelt beside the kitchen table in his mother’s house and tried to ignore the rumbling in his belly. Did his mother have to thank Heavenly Father for everyone and everything every time she prayed? Her “Amen” came an eternity later. The family echoed the word before scraping their chairs across the floor and sitting around the kitchen table. Father sat at one end, Mother at the other, and Aunt Eliza sat on the side opposite Frank, halfway between them, with the baby on her lap. The children sat in assigned seats, so the littlest sat with someone on both sides big enough to help them.
“Guess what I found out at church today?” Mother said while Father dished food on the first of many plates to pass around the table. “Sarah Townsend and Nephi Brown are getting married. Isn’t that—”
Milk spewed from Junior’s mouth.
“Junior!” Alice used her napkin to mop the white Sunday tablecloth in front of her.
“Are you all right?” Mother peered at her oldest son like she wanted to see into his eyes.
“Yeah,” he said between coughing fits. His voice sounded funny and high-pitched.
While Frank kept an eye on Father’s progress serving supper, he took a loaded plate from Fred and handed it to Myrtle. His mouth watered.
Mother’s fingers fluttered on the edge of the tablecloth until the worst of Junior’s crisis passed. “Isn’t it exciting to have another wedding here? Oh, I’m not surprised at all. Sarah is such a sweet girl, and I’ve always thought she’d make someone such a perfect wife. And watching Brother Brown at the dances the last few weeks, I’ve suspected he was courting. Anyway, Sarah and her mother want me to—”
“Why’s she doing that?” Junior’s voice still sounded strange.
“Where are your manners?” Aunt Eliza scowled at him. “You know better than to interrupt.”
Mother frowned. “You’re wondering why Sarah is asking me to sew her wedding dress?”
Junior rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mother. I meant, why is Sarah marrying ol’ Nephi? He’s old enough to be her father.”
Bernard grinned. “More like her grandfather, you mean.”
Many at the table laughed. Not Pearl. She sat ramrod straight. “What do you mean, ‘Why is she marrying him?’ Because she loves him, of course. For all you know, she proposed to him instead of the other way around.”
Junior spluttered more and grabbed his napkin.
Frank rubbed his forehead. “Isn’t the man supposed to do the proposing?”
Alice shrugged. “Sarah could have. You know it happens.” She passed along another plate.
Mother shifted in her chair. “If Sarah did, perhaps she wants to marry someone very spiritual. It’s rare to find Brother Brown’s kind of spirituality in younger men.”
The corners of Bernard’s mouth reached for his ears. “Or maybe Sarah enjoys being a nursemaid to feeble and addled old men.”
Mother scolded Bernard again during the resulting laughter.
With Junior still struggling, Aunt Eliza reached over John and banged him on the back. “Oh, honey. You’re sweet on Sarah, aren’t you?” Her voice oozed sympathy.
His face turned beet red, and he shook his head. “She’s—Alice’s age.”
Mother sat back and smiled. “Methinks, my son, thou doth protest too much.”
“Mother, I am not sweet on Sarah.” Junior sucked in air. “It’s—it’s just the idea of a girl her age and an old man together.” His face puckered like he’d gulped a pint of vinegar. “It’s—it’s plain disgusting.”
“Careful.” Father’s voice held an edge. “I wasn’t an old man, but I was eighteen years older than Eliza when we got married.”
“Uh-huh.” Aunt Eliza spooned mashed carrot into the baby’s mouth. “He was twice my age.”
Junior slapped the table. “This is different. Ol’ Nephi’s got to be more like thirty or forty years older than Sarah.”
Father glared at Junior. “If you’re not sweet on Sarah, maybe you don’t like boys having to compete with men for the affection of a girl.”
Junior attacked his food with a vengeance.
Frank scrunched his forehead. Would some man try to win over Gracie someday?
For several minutes, utensils scraped the dishes.
“Um, Aunt Eliza.” Alice moved her food around with her fork. “I’ve always wondered—ah—how long of a courtship did you and Father have?”
Aunt Eliza smiled. “How long did you come calling, Charles? Was it three weeks before you asked me to marry you?”
He pursed his lips. “I don’t think it was over two. I had already decided I wanted to marry you. It was about another month before we got married.”
She nodded, eyes on the spoon she was coaxing into the baby’s mouth. “You’re probably right.”
Five-year-old Myrtle piped up. “How come you knew you wanted to marry Mama?”
Father beamed at her. “After your Aunt Verona suggested your mama was one of the girls I should consider, I heard your mama singing. I decided if she sounded like an angel, she must be an angel. That’s why.” The little kids giggled.
Alice dabbed her lips with her napkin. “Father, how long did you court Aunt Amy?”
John dropped his fork on his plate. “Who’s Aunt Amy?”
“That’s who I’m named after,” Frank’s sister, Amy, said in her irritating know-it-all voice. “Aunt Amy died before I was born and was Father’s second wife.”
Father put his glass down and gazed at the other end of the table with a sober expression. “I didn’t court Amy. Your mother picked her out. Even after my bishop called me to take a second wife, I had no intention of looking at another woman unless your mother gave me the go-ahead, and that took a while.”
Recalling the conversation on the ride back from Señor Holguín’s, Frank switched his gaze to his mother. “How did you decide Aunt Amy was the one you wanted to pick?”
“It wasn’t easy.” Mother took a loud breath and exhaled. “The idea of sharing my man made me wretched. But one morning, I woke knowing if your father married Amy Porter, things would work out fine.” She scooped mashed potatoes on her fork. “And they did, for the most part.”
Father drank from his glass. “That day, the two of us visited Amy. By the time we left, it was all decided. She married me two months later.”
Junior’s knife hit the table with a thump. “Were you twice as old as her, too?
Father’s nostrils flared while his fork hovered in the air. “I’ve had enough of your attitude, and that question is ridiculous. I was twenty-eight, and she was twenty-three, two years older than your mother.”
Bernard turned in his chair. “Why do ya suppose your bishop wanted you to have two wives?” For once, he didn’t look like he was trying to be funny.
Mother put a hand to her throat and shook her head. “If you’d seen what most of the bachelors around there were like.” She shuddered. “I wouldn’t have wanted any proper lady to marry one of them.”
Aunt Eliza reached her hand across the table to Mother. “Thank you for letting me share Charles. I doubt you found it much easier when he married me than when he married Amy.”
Mother clasped the out-stretched hand. “Oh, Eliza. I love you dearly.”
“And the feeling is mutual.” Aunt Eliza smiled and leaned closer. “But we both know loving someone doesn’t mean you always like them.”
“Huh?” John exclaimed.
Frank paused while buttering his roll to puzzle out Aunt Eliza’s meaning.
A smile played on Father’s face. “I think your mother means loving your neighbor as yourself is hardest when your neighbor is your sister-wife.” He scratched the side of his face. “At least that’s what I’ve been told more than once.”
“Father, how long did you court Mother?” Alice looked up from cutting bites for Mae.
Father’s eyes sparkled. “How long was it, Verona?”
Mother beamed at him. “That all depends on when you start counting.”
Amy’s face lit. “Tell us everything from the very beginning. Please.”
“The question is where to begin.” Father leaned back and stroked his beard. “All right. The theatrical group in our town was performing Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. As you all know, your mother’s father was an accomplished actor. Everyone was talking about how wonderful he was in the title role. He was a talented actor, but the girl who played King Lear’s youngest daughter was the one I noticed.” Father appeared to be looking at something only he could see. “Whenever she was on stage, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was magnificent—and she was beautiful.”
He glanced around the table. “Imagine my surprise when I realized she was none other than Verona Snow, someone I’d known all my life. She’d grown up when I wasn’t looking.”
The family laughed.
“I couldn’t quit thinking about her. Not long after that, I saw her at a dance and asked her to dance with me. She must have given me some encouragement. A few days later, I asked your grandmother for permission to call on your mother. Guess what she told me?”
“Yes!” the children chorused.
The corners of Father’s eyes crinkled, but he shook his head. “She told me her daughter was too young for the likes of me.”
“How old were you then?” Amy asked Mother.
Amy turned to the other end of the table. “And how old were you?”
“So, what did you do?” Frank leaned forward to better look at his father’s face.
“Got on with life. I tried not to think about your mother, which was hard. I still saw her from time to time. We would say, ‘Hello,’ and possibly talk a bit, but that was it.”
“But you’re married.” Amy looked back and forth between Mother and Father. “That couldn’t have been it.”
Father grinned at them. “At least, I thought that was it. I tried to get interested in other girls. None of them came close to your mother. After about a year and a half, I went to a dance and your mother was there. That’s when I decided I didn’t care what her mother had said. I was going to ask her to dance. And I did, several times. I found out your mother might be a little interested in me. She told me if I asked again for permission, there was a good chance her mother would allow me to come calling.”
“How long after that did you get married?” Alice asked.
“Ten months,” Mother said.
“That’s what I suspected.” Alice fell back in her chair. “I’m sorry, Aunt Eliza. I don’t think plural wives get much of a courtship, and what they do get isn’t terribly romantic.” She looked at Father. “Your courtship of Mother sounds very romantic, your courtship of Aunt Eliza, sort of romantic, and the courtship of your second wife—how romantic can it be if you’re picked out by the other wife?”
Father stroked his beard and nodded slowly. “Practical, but not romantic.”
“Considering how excited Sarah was today,” Mother said, putting her knife on her plate. “I imagine Brother Brown has swept her right off her feet.”
“No way.” Bernard kept his face solemn, though his eyes glowed. “He’s too feeble.”
“Bernard. Be kind.” The laughter was loud, despite Mother’s stern expression.
Pearl frowned at the other end of the table. “Alice, romance isn’t all that important. It has nothing to do with how good the marriage turns out.” She fingered her utensils. “In my opinion, being a plural wife would be an advantage. You could see how he treats his wives and children before you’re committed to him for eternity. And an older man has probably figured out how to make a living. That way you’ll be certain he can support you and your children.”
Junior glared at her. “I heard nothing about love in there. It could be Sarah doesn’t love ol’ Nephi after all. Maybe she just calculated he’d do.”
He got disapproving looks while Alice stretched her neck to see her older sister. “You could know the same things if you married a widower.”
Pearl put her fists on the table and scowled back at her. “If you can find one.”
“And what if you’re the first wife?” Alice retorted, her voice rising. “Don’t first wives get some advantage out of all of this?”
“Of course they do.” Pearl’s volume and tone matched her sister’s. “They— they”— she shrank back into her chair. “They, um—”
Mother put her hand on Pearl’s wrist. “Would you like help answering that question?”
Pearl sighed. “Please.”
Mother gave Pearl’s hand a pat before drawing back and shifting her gaze to the entire family. “I want you all to know, I support your father as the head of our family and always try to follow his lead. But when he’s not here, I have to decide things on my own. Even when he’s at Eliza’s, I try to manage because it’s their time together.” She glanced sideways at Aunt Eliza and the color in Mother’s cheeks increased. “That’s something I appreciate when it’s my week.” She sat taller. “Because of that, I’ve learned to better stand on my own two feet.”
“I feel the same way,” Aunt Eliza said. “I didn’t grow up in a plural household, and when I compare myself to my own mother, it’s obvious I’m more independent than she was.”
Frank reached in front of Fred to hook one finger over the lip of the green butter dish and pull it closer to him. When he didn’t get a reprimand for not asking his brother to pass it, he checked to see why. Father was busy smiling at Mother.
She poured milk for Myrtle. “I have a special bond with Eliza that’s different from the connection I’ve felt with any other woman I’ve known except for your father’s second wife.” She pushed back her plate. “Sometimes Eliza’s the only one who’ll understand how I feel.”
Amy’s forehead wrinkled. “How come?”
Aunt Eliza tilted her head. “Because we’re wives of the same man and mothers of the same children.”
Father wiped his mouth. “This doesn’t apply only to first wives, but I’ve observed how wives in the same household can organize their chores and responsibilities, so one or more of them has an easier time pursuing other projects. That’s how my mother could teach school most of her married life. It’s also how your mother Verona can complete so quickly the beautiful dresses she sews.”
Mother smiled. “Thank you for the compliment, dear. I couldn’t do it without Eliza’s help and also Pearl's and Alice’s. And when they help with the sewing, I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll have to take the stitches out or start all over, like I would if they were some girl I hired, because finishing it on time and doing quality work benefits our whole family.”
Alice put her knife and fork on her plate. “That reminds me of this woman I read about in the Deseret Weekly. She left her children with her sister wives while she went out east to medical school. She became one of Utah’s first female doctors.”
Frank scratched his head. “I thought women could only be midwives.”
Bernard snorted. “Guess you thought wrong.”
Amy stuck her nose in the air. “Women can be whatever they want to be.”
Frank gave them both dirty looks.
“I wish a doctor lived near here.” Aunt Eliza frowned at the baby and took the squished peach slice out of her hand.
Pearl laid down her fork. “I read something that made me wonder if President Woodruff regrets issuing the Manifesto.”
“Pearl!” Mother recoiled like someone slapped her. “The Manifesto came through revelation. He had to issue it, no matter what the consequences were.”
“What’s the Manifesto, Mama?” John asked, looking at Aunt Eliza.
She repositioned the baby. “The Manifesto we’re talking about is something the President of our Church gave us the year you were born. It says we will follow the law of the land regarding plural marriages. That means for people living in the United States, a man can’t get married again, if he already has a wife who’s living.”
Father placed his napkin on his plate. “Pearl, what did you read that gave you that impression?”
She put her glass down “Since the Manifesto, many more mothers are struggling to provide for their children since they can’t count on the help of their husbands. It might be because they divorced, or they’re afraid the federal marshals will assume any financial support means they’re still cohabiting.”
Mother cut Fred off with a glare. “Never mind.”
Father crossed his arms and scowled. “Those seem like rather flimsy excuses for a man not to live up to his obligations to the children he fathered.”
Alice sighed. Her fork rattled against her plate. “I guess there’s only so much laundry for women to do and houses they can clean.”
Junior pursed his lips together and glared at Father. “I suppose you want all of us to have plural marriages.”
Mother’s eyebrows arched. “Oh, no.”
Aunt Eliza shook her head.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” Father scowled at him. “What I want from every one of you is obedience to God’s commandments.” He pointed around the table at each child. “I’m sure that’s what your mothers want, too. And I mean all the commandments, not just your favorite ones. Never think God will approve a plural marriage the President of the Church hasn’t authorized. If the Prophet ever says no to more plural marriages wherever they’re performed—which is not impossible even here in Mexico—then no matter what, you’ll be sorry if you don’t follow his direction.”
Frank wiggled in his chair. “Didn’t you tell me God only wants men to have more than one wife sometimes?”
“Yes, and those rare occasions may end.” Father opened his pocket watch. “And so should this discussion, even though it’s been beneficial.” He snapped the time piece closed and pushed back his chair. “It’s time to clear the dishes and move into the other room. We still have a lot to discuss.”