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April 8, 2008

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

black and white photo of polygamous mormon family in 1958

The family in 1958. The author is standing, far left, second row.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dorothy Allred Solomon

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During the family's first exile to the Mexico desert in 1947, in a place called Las Parceles, they lived in tents that sheltered the occasional tarantula and rattlesnake on a parcel of land owned by one Dayer LeBaron. A megalomaniacal clan leader, LeBaron had written my father sympathetic letters when he was imprisoned, inviting him to bring his family to live the Principle without interference from the law. He didn't mention that there'd be no food beyond the yield of a small garden, no lodging, no utilities, only miles of sand and constant wind. The mothers couldn't keep the children's bellies from shrinking.

Still, at Christmas, they drew on wellsprings of creativity. From a broken broomstick my mother sawed 24 disks; half she colored with black crayon melted into the wood, the other half she dyed red with onion skins. Then she fashioned a checkerboard from a square of cardboard. This inspired my father to carve a set of chess pieces from mesquite for his older children and strings of tiny wooden beads with pendants for his wives. The mothers made dried apple dolls for the girls and tore an old sheet to make handkerchiefs with whipstitched hems for my father and the older boys. For the little boys, they made trucks and cars from chunks of two-by-four, with broomstick disks for wheels.

About 6 o'clock Christmas morning, someone saw headlights. This was our father's legal wife, the only one who could stay in Salt Lake City. She took time off from her job as a legal secretary and drove for three nights and two days with her infant son, rolling up to the cluster of tents with cornflakes and molasses and Christmas oranges. They rejoiced, as they'd been subsisting on a bumper crop of yams for two months.

We returned from Mexico a second time, in 1955, but the raids did not abate, and we were forced to live permanently in far-flung, separate homes. My father drove from Utah to Wyoming to Idaho to Oregon to Nevada and New Mexico, visiting each family once every two months. In the winter he braved snowstorms to deliver Christmas provisions: nuts, oranges, flour, and sugar. He'd also minister to our accumulated illnesses, and try to squeeze in a day of hunting or fishing with his sons and dispense some fatherly advice or discipline. If possible, he'd attend our athletic events and music recitals, sitting in the back, incognito. From the stage, when I'd see him clapping, it pained me not to be able to acknowledge our relationship for fear of risking our family's solidarity. During these visits, our father also managed to fulfill his conjugal duties, as evidenced by wives who subsequently grew big with child.

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