I have a chapter in my book that includes the story of my mother's mother, Neola Gertrude Ellertson. I'd read the narrative included in the history compiled by my cousins who've been conscientious about documenting our genealogy, but the story seemed to have obvious omissions so I called my mother to see if she had any details to add. The conversation went something like this:
"Mom, did you know that your mother taught music at Brigham Young Academy for three years after she graduated?"
"No. I didn't know that. I know she sang in several productions while she went to school. They called her the girl with "the deep, dark tones."
"Your mom taught from the time she graduated in 1907 until 1910 when she left for her mission in Hawaii. All of her friends at the Academy went to Chicago to pursue their music. Your mother planned to go with them, but was called to serve instead. That seems weird."
"That's right. Not many women went on missions during that time."
"Could her family have arranged it with the church?"
"Her father wouldn't have wanted her to go back east. He was a tyrant. I imagine he could have had a hand in her being called away."
"What a shame for her. She wanted to sing."
"And she could have. She had a beautiful voice."
"I also noticed the history says she returned from her mission early due to an illness. It lasted for some time, but they don't say what it was."
"She had a nervous breakdown."
"That makes sense. Do you know what caused it? Did something happen?"
"Yes, I think so. The Mission President at the time used to flirt with the female missionaries and try to kiss them. He sent his wife back to Utah and married a Hawaiian woman."
"He could do that?"
"Well, you know, it wasn't that long after the church formally practiced polygamy and many of the "brethren" still believed in it."
"Do you think the President harassed your mother? She was a beautiful woman, and feisty."
"I can't say for sure. She used to say to me all the time, 'He (the Mission President) used to kiss all the sister missionaries, but he never kissed me!'"
"Do you think something actually happened and she had to hide it? It must have broken her heart to give up her dream of singing in order to serve a mission because she was "called by authority" and then have that authority sexually assault her. I think it broke her."
"You could be right. That could break a young woman. You know, though, Ardyn. I don't have any proof of what happened, only what my mother told me."
"It's O.K., Mom. You don't have to prove anything. Your word is more than enough."
My mother didn't know if her truth was valid. It's what happens in an authoritative patriarchy that claims to house the one and only "truth". In some communities the entire cultural foundation is based on stories passed down generation to generation, from mother to daughter. The soul of the family and community become organic living things, evolving with the events and stories of it's members.
Telling the truth, especially when it isn't a pretty truth, is a powerful thing. Because my mother was willing to share the less-than-perfect details of my grandmother's life, she made it possible for me to express my own truth more completely. My mother didn't need to justify herself to me, and I loved having the opportunity to say it. "Mom, your word is more than enough."
Neola, this one's for you.