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April 8, 2008

The Very Big Love: 47 Siblings, 7 Mothers, and 1 Father

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The Saturday before Christmas, my father had crowded six of us at a time into the cavernous backseat of his Hudson, driving across the valley to the polygamist-owned co-op where each of us selected a pair of Christmas shoes. Then we piled back into the car, holding our shoeboxes tight so my father could take us home and get a new load of children. The last trip was with his wives — all eight of our parents crowded into the Hudson, waving good-bye as they cautioned the older children to watch out for the toddlers and babies.

We did our best to convince our neighbors, as well as the school principal and teachers, that we were good citizens, despite our peculiar way of life. But often we were ridiculed, the word plyg spoken like the slur it was. (I will never forget the pain of hearing from my best friend that her parents would not let her play with me anymore because I was a "plygie kid.") Still, some people accepted us without judgment, which encouraged us to strive for excellence in the dangerous world beyond our home, a compound of three modest houses in Salt Lake City.

Life inside was governed by secrets held by seven women who shared a husband. Secrets protected us from the police raids that could put our parents in prison and from social workers who could send me and my siblings to live with strangers. Secrets also banked the fires of jealousy within the family — kept us from comparing ourselves with one another, suspending us in a luminous innocence. But sometimes my curiosity drove me to sneak into the other mothers' rooms and riffle through drawers and closets. I wanted to know more about these women who claimed one night a week with my father. Were they like my mother? Living with secrets every day, I'd hunger for a place where everything lay open to the sun.

On Christmas morning, as the 35 of us stood patiently, my father drew back the floral drape separating the kitchen from the parlor with a flourish. The big fir tree my brothers had brought down from the mountain stood in the corner, glittering with glass ornaments. Mario Lanza sang "O Holy Night" on the Victrola. The gifts beneath our bulging stockings stretched the length of the clothesline.

We rushed into the room. Beneath the stockings, my favorite doll was sitting with other dolls in matching dresses at a child-size table — actually the top of a wooden spool the mothers had affixed to a leaky metal garbage can and painted red. And there was a doll house with a pitched roof, crafted by our father, while each room had been decorated by our mothers with furniture fashioned from matchsticks, bits of cloth, and medicine jars. "You must share everything," the mothers chided when we wrestled for this doll or that bed. We knew about sharing, and so we moved into an easy, practiced harmony. But when our mothers swept the dolls into a canister so that we could help prepare breakfast, we protested with tears.

Christmas had not always been so sumptuous. Twice we fled to Mexico under the threat of government raids — "polygamist roundups," the journalists called them. On a night before I was born, to avoid a raid, the children crowded beside their mothers in the back of a delivery van stacked with household goods, which left gigantic bruises as the items slid into soft flesh during the three-day trip along bumpy highways and muddy roads to the deserts of Chihuahua, Mexico. Our father had been born in Colonia Dublan, where his parents had emigrated in order to enter plural marriage after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) abolished polygamy in 1890. So our escape to Mexico meant our father's return to his birthplace.

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