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April 8, 2008

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

Christmas with my polygamous family was usually chaotic — sometimes we were on the run from the Feds. But it was beautiful, too.

black and white photo of seven polygamous wives in the 1950s

The sister-wives (the author's mother is the twin in the front row on the right).

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dorothy Allred Solomon

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It was the night before Christmas. We children ate popcorn balls while two of the mothers strung a clothesline from the west wall by the front door through the parlor, living room, and dining room to the east wall. Then they gave each of us a clean white knee-high stocking to hang on the line with a clothespin. "In the morning it will be filled with goodies and presents," one mother said, her eyes sparkling. "If you've been good enough," another teased. "Yes," said another, smiling mischievously. "There have been times this year when you definitely deserved coal instead of candy!"

Earlier that night, we gathered in the parlor while the mothers, their arms laced around each other's waists, sang hymns. Then our tall, slender father, wavy platinum hair framing his high forehead, leaned forward and caught each of us with his intense blue eyes and spoke of his love for us. He also spoke of his devotion to the Gospel and the Principle of Plural Marriage to which we all — each of his 35 children — owed our lives. He spoke of treading in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, and of the first modern-day Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., keeping the same covenant God made with Abraham, to make his seed righteous and as numerous as the sands of the seashore.

Throughout his talk, my father's seven wives, dignity carved in their faces, stood sentry, reminding us to fold our arms and listen. All of them bounced babies and shushed toddlers. Even my father's legal wife, the one who could go out in public on his arm because she had a marriage license, had finally been blessed with children after 12 long years of waiting and praying. The other six mothers had married him in a spiritual ceremony, each of them eager to be with the promising young doctor slated to lead our fundamentalist group. To defend themselves and my father against the authorities, the plural wives hid when obviously pregnant, venturing out of their homes only in an emergency.

This Christmas Eve, the youngest of our father's wives had joined us for the first time in months, holding a newborn tightly swaddled so the baby couldn't kick. My mother explained in a whisper that swaddling made the baby feel safe and taught structure and discipline. The self-restraint would prepare him for the rigors of life in a fundamentalist world.

As the sun slipped low, we gathered near the woodpile where my father kindled broken stall slats, logs, and dead leaves, then wrestled a bushel of potatoes from the root cellar and tossed the tubers into the fire one by one. Turning to warm our backsides, the older children spoke of previous Christmases — the one spent in Mexico and the one spent without our father in 1945, almost a decade earlier, when he served eight months in the Utah State Prison for living the Principle of Plural Marriage. Around the fire, we expressed our love for each other, for the doctrine of eternal family, and the knowledge that we would be together beyond death. And then we pulled our potatoes from the coals, tossing them from hand to hand until we could bite them open and hold them out for salt and pepper.

In our absence, the mothers worked furtively, watching each other's babies as they put the finishing touches on the Christmas dinner and treats: My mother baked "crybaby cookies" (so named because they always made you cry for more) from a dough dotted with gumdrops, chocolate chips, and coconut. Then she helped her sister wives with their specialties: Aunt Sally's sticky pecan rolls, Aunt Rose's heavenly white bread, Aunt Emma's pine nut turkey stuffing, Aunt LaVerne's peanut butter fudge. Aunt Lisa stripped the pinfeathers from the turkey as Aunt Adah* took a paddle to the cream, churning fresh butter for the next day's feast.

Every night for weeks, the mothers had stayed up late to embroider doll faces and dish towels, to stuff sock monkeys and flannel bears. We had little money, but our father, who was a naturopath as well as a GP, had received a huge bolt of peculiarly patterned cloth in return for delivering someone's baby, so our mothers made the most of the barter. Sometimes they grew giddy from lack of sleep, and we would be awakened by riotous laughter.

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