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April 8, 2008

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

family with four children posing in snow

The author (second from right) in 1983, with her husband and children.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dorothy Allred Solomon

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By 1958, my father had been in hiding for three years — he couldn't keep his office open, so each of the mothers had to work. My mother gave piano lessons; her twin sister, Emma, who lived with us and was also married to our father, worked as a waitress in a casino coffee shop. One day a goodwill sack arrived from my father containing a black velvet skirt and vest and a white satin blouse. Aunt Emma wore these to a Christmas party with friends from work. Beforehand, she'd put on bright red lipstick while my mother styled her hair in a shiny braid. And as I looked from her to my mother, in her faded housedress — eczema splotching her hands and arms from cleaning with harsh soaps — I felt that my mother was Cinderella, made to stay home from the ball.

Thus began the Christmases of comparisons, of wondering whether we got more or less — time with my father, gifts, money — than the other families. When we had all lived together under our father's blanket of love, we shared everything. But separated, we became frightened and calculating. Christmas didn't feel right without our father.

We never again lived together on our family compound in Utah. Although my father was able to reestablish his medical practice, his attempt to bring his families home drew threats from law enforcement, so he established four of his seven wives in single-family dwellings across the Salt Lake Valley, while two of the families lived with fellow fundamentalists on a ranch in Montana. His sixth plural wife, discouraged by life on the run, returned to her brother, Rulon Jeffs (father of the recently convicted polygamist Warren Jeffs), who was in line to become the leader of the burgeoning fundamentalist group in Colorado City. Her children had been some of my favorite playmates, but after they merged with the "Crickers" (from Short Creek, pronounced "Crick," before the town's name was changed to Colorado City), they were not allowed to speak to us. We also felt the pain of divorce when Aunt Adah chose to leave all of us, taking her three children with her.

And then, in 1974, my father's youngest wife proclaimed that Christmas was a pagan holiday. She stopped putting up a tree and forbade the exchange of gifts. Two days before Christmas, she held a grand supper to celebrate the birthday of the LDS church founder, Joseph Smith Jr. Under considerable pressure, my father asked his other wives to follow suit but was met with cold shoulders at every household.

Ultimately, I did not choose to follow in my parents' footsteps. My mother's battle with depression, combined with a claustrophobic sense that I couldn't be myself in the fundamentalist group, encouraged me to find my own way. I hated to disappoint my father, but I felt I'd make a poor plural wife, and I refused to subject my own children to the terror I had experienced. At 18, I married monogamously. My husband and I had three girls and a boy, whom we raised mostly in Utah.

But I always stayed in touch with my paternal family. My father showed up for my daughter's first Christmases, having acted as father figure to her while my husband served in Vietnam. My father sang the same songs, told the same stories, and played the same games with her as he had with his own children — 48 at final count. Then in 1977, when my father was 71, two women barged into his office and emptied a .25 caliber pistol into his neck and chest, killing him instantly. They'd acted on orders from Ervil LeBaron, the son of Dayer, from Las Parceles, Mexico. Ervil had decided he should be the supreme religious leader in the world, topping the Pope and the LDS church president. My father was high on a long list of people, including John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley, that LeBaron had marked for death.

When my father died, everyone grieved desperately, despite the injunction that there should be no tears at the passing of a good man. My daughter dreamed about him for years. From these dreams, she says, she received the guidance to get an education that would allow her to carry on his work of healing the sick and birthing babies.

A few years after my father died, a couple in my neighborhood, aware of my relationship to a polygamous family and suspecting how desperate their lives had become (given that the patriarch had died and that the community did not believe in welfare), asked me to receive some donations on behalf of those in need. So on Christmas Eve, they filled my van with frozen turkeys and hams, fruit, nuts, and candy. Then I began my visits, thinking of those Christmas Eves of long ago when my father delivered food to his scattered families. I stocked bare refrigerators for my sisters, who made a living by cleaning other people's homes. And in so doing, I celebrated the legacies of my family: commitment, faith, tradition.

By then I knew that, despite the pain and confusion of growing up as I did, my childhood had been happier than most. And I am still grateful to be part of this huge, peculiar, loving family, especially at Christmas.

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