By Lia Hadley
Lia Hadley lives with her husband in the Pacific Northwest where she writes and teaches, always finding new ways to recycle the past.
The other day, I was at the grocery store here in the Pacific Northwest with my husband. As we came out of the soup and pasta aisle, I saw two young women in conservative dress, long skirts, and black nametags. The recognition was instant.
“Sister missionaries!” I exclaimed. “I want to go say hi.”
My husband put his hand on my arm. “Wait,” he said. “What are you planning to say?”
I paused and looked at him. “Um. Hi,” I shrugged. “I remember what it was like to be a sister missionary, and . . .” I trailed off, not sure what the problem was.
“And when they ask if you’re a member?”
“Especially because you’re happy,” he said—kind of joking, kind of not. “You’re not supposed to be happy if you’re not in the Church.”
I stood there feeling indecisive, because I really did want to go say hello. As I thought about it, I brushed my fingertips against my recently buzzed head. Cutting off my long hair had been a move toward simplifying my life, and I loved it—but now I realized it also made me officially look not like a Mormon. Which was fine, because I wasn’t, but . . . I was still me. And I still remembered what it was like to be a sister missionary.
I glanced over at the pair making their way through the frozen food section, reaching into the glass cases for meals that could be prepared quickly because their lives were bursting with being missionaries—even if they had lots of empty, aching spaces, too. There was a carefulness about their movements that brought it all back to me: the desire to have a moment of not being a missionary while doing some necessary task but still feeling the weight of needing to offer a chance at salvation to every soul in their path.
It evoked a time near the end of my mission when I was out with my companion trying to find yard-sale Christmas presents for some kids in our area. Like these two sister missionaries in the grocery store, we were trying to be open and friendly, but not too open and friendly in case it got us kicked out.
As we made our rounds through some of the richer, English-speaking neighborhoods, we came to a garage sale set out neatly on someone’s driveway.
“No toys,” said my companion. “Let’s hit the next one.”
It was true.
There were books.
“Give me just a minute. Maybe we’ll find something for the kids’ moms,” I said as I descended on the book table, touching the spines and covers of each volume. I knew there was nothing here for the Latinos in our area. Yes, I knew this. I wasn’t looking at the books for them. It was all for me. I’d been starved for nearly a year and a half of anything but the missionary library. Oh, how I had missed good prose. And poetry! I craved real literature I could sink my mind into. There was only so much I could eke out of the words of general authorities before I began to feel parched. For heaven’s sake, I’d reread anything from Neal A. Maxwell just for the alliteration.
At the end of the table was yet another box of books. Sitting on top was a blue zippered case that, from its dimensions, obviously held someone’s triple combination and Bible.
I opened the case and looked inside. The scriptures were soft from use, a faded name embossed in gold across the bottom of their front covers. I blinked at the lettering with a flicker of apprehension as I set them aside and peered into the box.
The books were Mormon. All of them.
The woman running the sale made a beeline for me as I picked up the biography of Parley P. Pratt. Her intense gaze dropped to my nametag and then met my eyes. Something like challenge, something like anger, something like opportunity.
“How much for this?” I asked.
“I’ll give you the whole box for five bucks,” she replied without missing a beat.
“Um . . .” I swallowed, trying to gather my thoughts away from the instant image of myself awkwardly lugging the box down the sidewalk. The idea made me both giddy and nauseated. “How much for these two?” I held up the Pratt along with The Life of Heber C. Kimball. The sun was suddenly too warm, my armpits damp with nervous sweat.
I pointed to the box, an edge of pleading in my tone. “Don’t you want to keep any of them?”
“I’m having a going-out-of-religion sale,” she said.
Tucking the two books under my arm, I handed her a couple of wrinkled dollars, feeling a tight urge to get away, away. I didn’t know what to do with this woman and the eager emotions pouring off her. In desperation, I gestured at my companion who was lingering at the end of the driveway, trying not to get involved.
“I need to go. But thanks for the books.” My throat was tight and my knees weak as I followed unsteadily after my companion, the hot sun pressing on my shoulders.
“You can take it for free!” she called.
I gave a half-hearted wave.
“Just take it with you!” she persisted, her voice pursuing me in my retreat.
Give the box of discarded religion to the missionaries. They’ll take care of it. Let them clean up the mess of the departed member.
But I hadn’t signed up for that. I was supposed to be helping people come to the Church.
Even though I couldn’t help but read them, the two books I bought that day felt tainted, and I eventually gave them both away, trying to distance myself from the encounter.
A dozen years later, things had changed, and I was boxing up the Mormonism from my own bookshelves. As I filled the boxes, I suddenly understood that woman: I wanted a good place to dump it all, too. I didn’t want to send it off to the wrong place.
- Goodwill? Not enough Mormons in my part of the country. It would all just sit there.
- Local members? Definitely not. Then they’d know I was here and maybe want to “help” me.
- Library donation? Same issue as Goodwill: not enough Mormons.
- Dumpster? Nope. Even if I was done with my Mormon books, they still carried that weight of former value. If only I knew where the sister missionaries lived. I could leave them an anonymous offering.
After a few weeks of watching the two big boxes collect dust, I had an idea. I sat down with a sharpie and wrote “Take To Utah” on the top of each box. I could even bring that case of temple clothes that had been sitting in the top of my closet for so many years. Maybe my mom could pass them along to her Relief Society president so someone else could use them. The thought made me wonder what the garage sale woman had done with her temple clothes. I half-wished I could ask her. I wondered if she remembered me as vividly as I remembered her.
Going out of religion had left me with many once-cherished items that now had no clear exit. I felt as if those pieces were still connected to my root system, and if I pulled them up too roughly, I might dislodge something I wanted to keep.
A year or two later, I was between drafts on a book and needed something to keep my momentum going while giving my wrists a typing break. So I decided to attack the office closet and its pile of old boxes.
When I slit the tape and pulled back the cardboard flap of one box, I saw two zippered scriptures sets: one in my native English and one in my mission Spanish. Beneath them were my mission journals, and my mission letters, and my notebooks, and . . . the weight of them was amazing.
The boxes of Mormon books were long gone, but here was another layer of my Mormon past. Would there always be another layer to sift through? Even if I didn’t want to? Even if I wanted to just be done?
I stared for a moment before I tentatively cracked open one of the journals, flipping through the pages, watching my untidy scrawl and drawings flicker past. I stopped on a series of comic-style stick figures, the first depicting the time I fell off a bunk bed in the middle of the night, the next of me bent over, walking crookedly. Below it was a sketched self-portrait of a hunch-postured me: one eye popped open and the other swollen half shut. “Sister Igor,” the doodle proclaimed in ragged letters. With a laugh, I remembered finally going to a doctor to find out why my eyelids were so itchy and inflamed.
It was hilarious. And gruesome. And awesome. And oh, how it reminded me of all those missionary days and how hard things were and how amazing things were—and how hard, hard, hard things were.
It’s the one thing I willingly tell people I am glad I did for the Church: serving a mission. It was a pressure cooker, turning my bones to jelly and my heart to tender, savory meat. I emerged transformed. I’ve never stopped finding ways that my mission affected me.
I closed the journal and set it back in the stack.
I couldn’t just throw it all out.
It meant too much.
It meant so much.
The stories, the faces, the people, the blood-and-sweat-and-tears of it all.
After thinking about it for a few days, I set up the industrial paper cutter and went about slicing the bindings off my journals. Then I fed the pages in groups through our document scanner and into my computer. Journal by journal, notebook by notebook, letter by letter. As the days passed, I unpacked more and more boxes, took apart more and more of the past until the air was filled with fine dust and my fingers were raw from handling paper and nicked with dozens of paper cuts.
Hundreds of pages. And hundreds more.
Now that I was in the flow, I sliced the spines off the journals I had kept as a faithful teenager when I had used extreme obedience to expiate the guilt I carried from childhood traumas. Next came the journals from my college years. I could always tell when I got to the notes for each general conference because there were more doodles in the margins. I even found a whole notebook containing nothing but my ideas about faith, complete with gobs of scripture references.
It was like an archeological dig, each layer revealing more and more of my deeply Mormon past. There seemed to be no end to the journals and notebooks-posing-as-journals that I had filled over the years.
As I flipped back the magnetic flap of an unassuming tan book, I found a journal of angry prayers, where I had pulled out all the stops, telling God exactly what I thought about a variety of topics from patriarchy to sexism to polygamy to an emotionally manipulative bishop. My breath left me as I read that furious book of psalms, all those raw, bleeding supplications.
I positioned the journal’s spine under the blade of the paper cutter and dropped the guillotine, slicing off the binding. I felt like I was feeding the prayers to a sin-eater as the scanner pulled page after page through itself, creating a digital image, releasing the spirit from the body.
The boxes were empty at last, an enormous heap of paper slumped against the far wall of the office. It had fallen a few times and been righted in various formations, each more sprawling than the last. While the spirits had been safely ferried to a simple folder on my computer, I found I now needed to deal with the corpses.
But there were so many. A battlefield filled with the casualties of war? A genocide of the past? How could I lay so many to rest? I could not do it alone.
I soon had a companion: a shredder with a powerful motor. Over the next few days, I reenacted the scanning as I fed each page through once more, filling bag after bag with my past, punching the fragments down and down with my fist, the sliced ribbons of paper gritting against my knuckles, rubbing the skin raw. The air filled with paper-ash; my hair grew white with the dust; every surface was hushed beneath the gritty powder from the eruption of those journals, letters, and notebooks.
For a couple of weeks, our garage was occupied by a neat wall of stapled paper grocery sacks waiting their turn for our Pacific Northwest-style recycling bin: three times as large as our garbage bin—big enough to hold several people. I filled it three and a half times.
A few weeks later, I watched from my office window as the recycling truck gorged the last batch of sacks and drove away.
It was done.
A psychic weight lifted. The next time we moved house, I wouldn’t have to haul those boxes full of past with me. But they were not lost. I still had them in a kind of seer stone in case I ever wanted to look back.
Months passed before I came upon the next layer: My two scripture sets with all their highlighted passages and margin notes.
I let out a long breath as I hefted them, their familiarity filling me as I unzipped their cases and thumbed through the worn pages.
But it was time.
With a utility razor, I sliced my name off the fake leather covers of each volume. The books soon sat nameless in my lap, no longer attached to the little pile of gold lettering I was holding.
As I’m sitting here at the computer, my fingers are twitching on the keyboard, waiting for permission to type out what happened next. But I find that this part of the tale is to be kept for myself.
Afterward, I sat holding the empty scripture case I had bought for my mission. As my fingers moved over the woven pattern, I realized that I didn’t want to let it go.
There is always a piece. Somewhere. There will always be a piece.
Even that woman at the garage sale: I’m sure she’s still finding pieces.
I didn’t say hello to the sister missionaries at the grocery store. I let them gather their food in peace. But sometimes I want to greet them. Because I still remember.