Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cherry-ty (Over Chocolate) Never Faileth

Of course, if its a birthday we're celebrating, I should bake a cake. Or should I? Its been twelve years since my last attempt. And it wasn’t even for me, it was for the Relief Society--only Heaven and Sister T know why. “Providing refreshments” was at the time rock bottom on my ‘favorite-things-you’re-blessed-to-do-in-the- Church’ list. (Ask four years of Seminary students who still hold a grudge.)

I protested Sister C’s reminder about my Homemaking Food Committee assignment with a squeaky: “I don’t remember signing up...”

“Well, you did!” she said with a vehement flair. And I knew if Sister C said I did, well then, there it is.

“And since you like to bake, you can make something really chocolate… drippy…gooooooey…something wonderful!”

Hm. Well...I could follow a recipe as well as the next sister. I determined then to peruse the recipe books in-between my responsibilities as Stake YW President that week, which were many: “Honoring Our Teacher’s” fireside, Stake Scripture Mastery, Youth Dance, Stake Youth Council, two ward visits, Stake Auxiliary Training, Stake Council, and a Laurel luncheon...all before the end of the month!

And now. I hafta bake a cake.

Instead of the Ensign at lunchtime, I poured over dessert magazines, but they all seemed too conservative in the drippy and gooey categories. As D-Day drew near and my list of rejected recipes grew, my little dream of wowing the Relief Society began to wane. At this point there was only a couple choices left me: hope for a tragedy which would excuse me from the assignment (it would have to be a bad one to elicit Sister C’s sympathies) or.... fake it.

Since my imagination was so entertained elsewhere in the execution of my "real" church responsibilities, I decided to forgo orchestrating a sudden adversity, which meant I’d have to pretend to be the culinary-genius-of-all-time.

Betty Crocker cake mix. Heinz “Homemade Style” Whipped Icing. Canned Cherry Pie filling. Cool Whip. As I tossed each ingredient into the grocery cart I wondered if I really was being deceptive and if I’d need to confess it at my next temple recommend interview.

It was 4:15 p.m. when I returned to the kitchen. Homemaking Meeting was less than 3 hours away with 8 people and a cat to feed between now and then and three different kids to pick up from two different schools. Resentment filled my otherwise Christian heart. It was at this point in my vulnerable physic that my mother-in-law, still ignorant of my illustrious contribution to the food committee, breezed through the kitchen.

“We’ve got Homemaking tonight, Mona.”

The open cupboard hid my expression.

I'd heard about the agenda for Homemaking Meeting that night... there was some kind of book review, and then they were making either door-stoppers that look like milk cows or bath oil bottles with dried weeds inside. WHY in the world was I even going?

The cake. Remember?

I crated out the bowls and beaters. Oh boy, I sighed...I don’t even know what I’m making.

It must have been a loud sigh because suddenly my husband, Dale, was perched beside me. As I cracked the eggs he was watching closer than I was and noticed a “large chunk” of shell disappearing into the chocolate swamp. He pointed it out. My finger dove in.

“No! No!” he protested. “Let me! I saw exactly where it went.”

With the delicacy of an archeologist he dredged the murky mass of powder, egg white, and oil. After several unsuccessful attempts to raise the unwanted shell--and amidst visions of Sister C biting into it--we gave up.

“The sisters need calcium,” I assured my husband.

“And it was just a tiny piece,” he agreed.

I’ll admit, my negative feelings had blossomed to the point now where the presence of the hidden shell in my “exquisite” dessert gave me more a touch of glee than remorse.

Dale took over. While he whipped up the cake mix, I stirred together the Cool Whip and chocolate pudding.

“Oh oh,” I breathed, “this doesn’t look right.”

“Did you make up the pudding first?”

“Was I supposed to?”

The bowl of white topping was overwhelmed by the dry grains of chocolate. It took a lot of muscle, paper towels, and fancy spooning but I finally had a frothy looking cream.

Dale was the first to taste it. “Kinda grainy,” he said carefully.

My taste buds confirmed his verdict. Oh well, I decided, I’d use it as a filling instead of a’ll go with the egg shell. I continued to froth, brow furrowed, as I was now forced to reinvent my masterpiece.

Suddenly my peripheral vision caught the whoosh of a wooden spoon going from mix to mouth and back again. I squealed.

Dale! What if the sisters knew?!”

Then I thought of Sister M, the member of the Primary presidency who was suffering strained relations with my Bishopric-counselor husband over a point of doctrine in the Primary handbook.

“I’ll wait till Sister M takes a bite and then tell her your “cooties” are in it!”

That little thought gave us both a good giggle and--for a moment--I felt optimistic. Perhaps this thing would work out after all.

Our joviality was interrupted however, as we both noticed the clock, and I hurried out the door to pick up the kids. Dale seemed to be enjoying frothing so much, I felt confident he could handle actually transferring the batter to cake pan to pre-heated oven by the time I got home.

And he did. Except there was one out of four cake pans left empty on the counter when I returned.

I plunked down my purse. “What’s this?”

“I don’t know -” (how do men look simultaneously guilty and innocent?) “the batter only filled three pans.”

“But I doubled the whole thing!”

“I know. It must be the mix?”


“You overfilled the pans!” I accused.

“No! No! I didn’t!” he cried in defense.

“You must have!”

“No! No!” he continued to plead, but it was too late. As Chief Baker, I had opened the oven door. And there they sat in all their golden glory: three rounded cakes pushing over pan edges, huge bloated mound in the center of each. It was too much to bear.

How?!” I whined full bore, “How will I make enough now to feed all the poor sisters? And how can I layer layers that are too round on the top? This -- is -- terrible! And I don’t even want to go!”

I dismissed myself to the bathroom for a long shower. By the time I was done, both I and the cakes had cooled, and my good mother-in-law was leaving for the stake center. I’d never get to the meeting on time now, so I sent Mom on her way with a promise to follow cake-in-hand. What kind of cake was anybody’s guess.

As I sat in a stupor, stumped by the sight of the cakes-turned-mole-hills, my tainted white knight offered to rescue me once more: "Why not slice each cake in half and fill it with the chocolate cream?” he said.

And then...

Methought I saw in my mind’s eye……..a three-layer cake...each layer filled with a somewhat grainy froth...finished on the outside with store-bought fudge icing...chocolate syrup swirled on the top, cascading down the sides, running into a mote of cherry pie filling at the base. Hmmm.

Personal revelation is a mysterious thing.

We began. No team of pastry chefs ever worked with such vision. Dale cut. I plopped and swirled. And something...some strange and wonderful something...began to rise from the yellow plastic plate.

It was -----

awful. Sagging on the sides, billowing with brown goo like a little volcano.

“The cherries on top are a nice touch.”

Dale’s fake compliment must have been an attempt to assuage his conscience, as this last stroke of culinary genius had been his.“Let me take it to the church,” he said.

I winced as he carefully maneuvered out the door, leaving a dribble of cherry juice in his path. There was nothing to do but don my jammies and sulk in bed. They were sure to revoke my D.U.P. membership. I was so UNworthy!

Dale wisely avoided me post-mission-accomplished, but my mother-in-law did not. She burst in with that “I’ve-just-been-to-a-historically-glorious meeting-and-you-missed it!” look. I endured her happy report, waiting gloomily for the punch line about Sister C choking on an egg shell.

“And honey!” her voice run up the scale with excitement. “The sisters LOOOVED Mona’s Chocolate Cherry Cake! EVERYONE wants your recipe!”

My mouth was agape. They’d given it a TITLE.

It may be true that our standards are higher than some others, but it is also true that no one judges more hopefully of our weaknesses, and no one is more patient while charity does its perfecting work, than the chocolate-loving women of the Relief Society.

1 Cor. 12:26, D&C 25:9 )

Check this out! Stephanie, in addition to being a fabulous "Nephi's Wife" in With Mine Own Hand, makes fabulous cakes and all things sweet! AND! I just discovered we have the SAME BIRTHDAY!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Leave It There

My idea of nirvana would be to sit at the feet of very brilliant people and discuss very big ideas without interruption for…oh… just about forever. That is why I look so forward to Tuesdays. From the ranks of America’s academia, the church’s general authorities, or global leaders in government, business, or social causes, BYU pulls the best to address its student body. And I’m there. Well, not there-there, but devotional/forums are broadcast live on BYUTV, so I sort of feel like I’m there. I am transported mentally to the Marriott Center and wonder what my kids are thinking -- while they sit in those stadium seats thinking, “What’s Mom thinking?”

At the rostrum this week was my “favorite” apostle (is it okay to have a favorite?): Elder Holland. My youngest, in our post-"game" analysis, tried to describe his passionate delivery: “Mom,” she said, “he was almost shouting he got so excited!” I wish I could quote him directly, but the talk was too recent; BYUTV doesn’t have a transcript or recording of it yet. You will have to take my word for it that this was one of his most moving ever. And the gist of it all?

“Don’t look back!”

That’s it; a very big idea in three little words.

Lot’s wife made the fatal choice of “looking back” (Genesis 19) and Elder Holland was pleading with us not to make the same mistake by (the highlights):

1) not forgiving ourselves for the past when we’ve repented and grown past it all

2) not letting others grow past the past when they have made intentional change

3) not giving up on a hard, worthy challenge

He emphasized that each of these grieves the Lord.

I was grieving, in acute pain, when I once sought refuge in the temple. I was hoping to keep my troubles private, but a bleeding heart leaves a trail. Sister C, a temple matron and Relief Society friend, sniffed me out. Her kind inquiry was all I needed to burst into tears.

“My dear!” she cried in alarm, “have you laid this at the Lord’s feet?”

Remembering all my prayers, I said that I had.

“But dear,” she continued as she looked into my wet face, “you didn’t leave it there!”

I was stunned. She was so right.

After hearing the truth from Sister C, I felt suddenly tired of the pains which had plagued me too long. It took a few more days of introspection, and then I finally cast my burden on the Lord, gushing out my angst in torrents of sorrow, with a passion and abandon I’d not given into during previous prayers: “This is too big and too complex for me, dear Lord,” I begged, and then, echoing Alma, I cried within my heart: "O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me....” (Alma 36:18) What followed was one of the most profound experiences of my entire life. Like a wild, raging river that suddenly, gently ebbs into a bubbling brook, my pain just melted away. I sat very still, hesitant to breathe. It was over. I felt it deep in my bones.

That was many years ago. I do remain sorry about parts of the past. I do regret those things still and some of the consequences live on. But I am free of self-recrimination (Alma 36:17-19). That was part of the peace package: the assurance that the Lord Himself would eventually bind up loose ends; the unraveling which was beyond my ability to sew up. He is the Master and will make something coherent out of raggedy, mismatched remnants.

Elder Holland has spoken on this theme before. In April 2006 Conference he said:

“…we must change anything we can change that may be part of the problem. In short we must repent, perhaps the most hopeful and encouraging word in the Christian vocabulary. We thank our Father in Heaven we are allowed to change, we thank Jesus we can change, and ultimately we do so only with Their divine assistance. Certainly not everything we struggle with is a result of our actions. Often it is the result of the actions of others or just the mortal events of life. But anything we can change we should change, and we must forgive the rest. In this way our access to the Savior's Atonement becomes as unimpeded as we, with our imperfections, can make it.
He will take it from there.

At the beginning of a new year, I am glad Elder Holland reminded me to look forward, to let myself and others change…for “there is hope in thine end…” (Jeremiah 31:17). My armistice with the past is holding strong.

And the future is brighter for it.

(Elder Holland's talk will be rebroadcast on Sunday, January 25th at 4:00 and 9:00 p.m. MST. Watch it on BYUTV or at

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Whose Body Is It Anyway?

I have lost weight my whole life. I have also gained weight my whole life. Yes. I am a professional. As a Weight Watcher Leader for several years, I nailed down the calories, verses fiber, verses fat. I probably know way more than you want to know including why you’re eating while you read this even though your tummy is plenty full of supper. If Weight Watchers printed membership cards like Costco, mine would say “since 1976”. I am one of the Enlightened Ones (no pun intended) who have attained the status called “Lifetime”, which has, periodically, felt less like an achievement and more like a prison sentence; chained forever -- not to Weight Watchers -- but to my BODY. I used to start classes with: “I’m Mona and I have lost 150 pounds!” After the collective gasp I added, “Thirty pounds five times.” If “Lifetime” is a sentence, then it’s because I’m a repeat offender. Ah January: time again to back up, gird up my loins (that means ‘let out your belt’) and make a run for the summit again. Sigh. It’s so much work and discipline – who am I doing this for? Whose body is it anyway?

Many years ago, I was alone with my beloved mother-in-law for several hours, her last hours. I took the chair beside her hospital bed and held her hand. The minutes passed to the hum and rhythm of the respirator and heart monitor. I analyzed her left hand in a way that you would never do with a person were they aware. I tried to memorize every wrinkle, every fingernail, every blood vessel. I couldn’t help wondering about all the things those hands had held, all the people they had touched, all the work they had done in mortality. Most of all, I thought on how those fingers, now a little aged, had caressed my husband, as an infant, as a little boy, as a man, and how they had been nearly the first to wrap around my babies the moment they entered their second estate. In those timeless hours, feeling her history through her hand, I developed a spiritual comprehension about the wonder and glory of our mortal tabernacle.

It was a sacred experience two days later to dress her body. My sisters and I were filled with reverence, as if in a holy act. Though her spirit animated that physical tabernacle, we knew it was the body which actually did all the important things: rocking a baby, wiping a tear, stroking a forehead, tying a shoe, feeding a family, kissing a cheek, supporting an elbow, packing a bag, waving good-bye. Mother was known as the consummate “lady” – always pretty, fit, well-groomed, strong, and ready to serve, so we painted her nails, styled her hair and brushed pink on her very still cheeks. We did it because we revered her soul: the spirit we loved AND the body who loved us. (D&C 88:15)

From the personal revelation that poured out on me after that experience, I learned that I had put too much emphasis on “mastering” my body, instead of figuring out how to work in harmony with it. I found “harmony” comes from becoming aware of, and then frequently reminding myself, of the authentic reasons for having a body: primarily to build the Kingdom of God on earth by freely sharing what my body can do for family and others. (Think of it! Stretch marks, grandma jelly-bellies, dishpan hands, and dark circles under the eyes have a glorious aspect!) In this paradigm, caring for and respecting the body is not only an advantage in this life, but will be “so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19-20). Who, I reasoned, will have the greatest satisfaction on resurrection morning – she who revered, honored, and shared that part of her soul called “body”, or she who misused, ill-fed, hoarded, complained about, or degraded it? My beautiful mother-in-law will certainly be resplendent when celestial-ized, having glorified God in spirit and body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

I was thinking about all these heady things in the dead of night, when, and at the chilly crack of dawn, I found myself shivering, even under the electric blanket. My honey, who self-generates heat like a grizzly in hibernation, was two feet away. I closed the gap. He moaned, just conscious enough of the freeloader on his back to protest. I suddenly felt defiant: “Whose body is it anyway?” I whispered, “If I give you my body, you have to give me yours!” I knew it was unfair to hurdle this school-yard sort of logic at him in his state of mushy-brain, but he must have got the point, because he actually rolled over, put his arm around me, and drew me in tight before promptly falling back to sleep. At that blissful moment, sharing my body was alright with me.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Old Beginnings

You know, it doesn't matter how great the talk is, how important the speaker, or how poignant the testimony, when there's a baby around - I am totally distracted in church meetings. It's like, "Sorry -- there's a baby here!" Today, I couldn't help observing a young mother and her infant. The baby girl is her first, and just the sweetest thing; petite, bright-eyed, tiny rosebud lips. I watched with tenderness how mother and child interacted. You could feel the mother's great hopes and dreams for that little one every time she held her up to her face and cooed at her. I remember all of that so well. Of course I could not comprehend at that stage, as my young mother friend certainly does not, how precious - and painful - the ensuing years would be; those years when your dreams either become their dreams too, or are replaced with completely different dreams of their own making.

It is the beginning of a new year and my grown children are off on their end-of-Christmas-break pilgrimage back to their lives away from mine. This letting-go-and-grow has been a process for me as a mother, as it is for all mothers. I've found mine has been documented in my January journal entries for the past 8 years:

January 2000
I can hardly believe the year is over. Mortality is such a paradox; an irony, and a wonder. We anticipated so much in the past year, and now it is all a memory. It makes me joyful while fighting melancholy and the urge to curse TIME. It seems wicked for marching on without mercy and for limiting us to consecutive experiences: one horizon after another. No sooner do I climb and then descend the hill; but there's another one before me. My children are growing up.

January 2001
I looked at my "baby" and realized that my child princess is no longer a child. At 13, we are on a whole new era/adventure. I also begin another year of raising young adults. No more Primary, no more kissing "owies" better, no more breaking up their disagreements, no more scrubbing their faces, admiring their freckles, or teaching them to ride a bike, write the alphabet, or to "ooo" over a dinosaur. I left diapers behind a long time ago with playpens, car seats, and cribs. But the intervening years have been a delight - especially the moments with the girl with the ringlets cascading down her back.

January 2002
The kids and I finished reading the Book of Mormon TOGETHER. The project has taken well over a year's time, but through it I've taught them and "discovered" them; even as they "discovered" the riches inside that Book of Books...morning after morning, sitting about the living room or gathered round the kitchen table, reading aloud two verses each. Discussions and digressions frequently intervened -- that's why it took so long! We went to one of our favorite restaurants last night to celebrate our accomplishment. But dinner out couldn't compare to the joy and relief I felt flood my entire being as I read aloud Moroni's last verse. I put my head down and sobbed. If I should die tomorrow, my children will have our hours together, reading the Book of Mormon.

January 2004
Thinking about this new I see it, my mission right now, at least for the next several years, is to center my energies on raising my teens and young adults; supporting, encouraging, teaching -- as they stretch their wings and discover who they really are.

January 2006
My heart has been broken over and over during the past year. Yet Charity wins! Christ the victor! My hurt and anxieties have melted into a peaceful acceptance of my children's agency. But what sorrow I have had to pass through! Losing my children from under my constant care is the hardest stage of motherhood! Oh Father! Why wasn't I warned at the beginning?!

January 2007
I'm learning to love this phase of my life: young adults, the struggles and glories of growth, the heady fantasies and the sometimes painful realities, my lifelong dreams and wishes and works and prayers coming to a head, their ultimate fulfillment still an open question, still just around the corner. As my children make the transition into adulthood, I am holding their hands, but with a light touch. As little people, I clung to them and they clung to me, hands clasped tight...mine the bigger. Now, every one of them, except my delicate Ashley, has much larger hands than mine. And instead of walking in front of them, pulling them behind, I can hardly keep up with the ambitious strides that come from their own very long legs. They are still holding my hand for moral support, but with my free hand I alternate between pointing out what's ahead and applying a little encouraging push from beside, or a little behind. Someday very soon, of course, they will be far in front. I will still keep my eye on them, but only to observe their lives and to give an occasional nod of approval, a wave of "I'm go ahead", and to cry a little when they think to turn around and blow a kiss.

January 2008
I've chosen to like getting old. Wrinkles are beautiful. Silver hair is a crown of achievement, a symbol of endurance, a reminder that, as Elder Nelson once said, "We're not stuck on this earth forever." Righteousness, held to consistently throughout our lives, produces the fruits of peace and satisfaction in old age, so that we do not fear it. I am over half way through my mortality, and have experienced the miracle of my first grandbaby, and look forward to all the others who are waiting in the wings. My hand is ready to take theirs -- as they lead me.