MY NEIGHBORS LIVE IN A MESS. Not a literal mess, because their home is repainted every year to ensure cleanliness. Their mess is more emotional; they are playing parents to their three granddaughters whose mother burned their house down—on purpose. Somehow I have become a mother figure to these girls as well. I don’t know firsthand about being a real mother yet, but surrogating can’t be much easier. They want my attention whenever I am either in my front yard or back. They knock on my door, and if I don’t answer they will knock on all my windows. I can’t get into my car without having to hug or kiss them, twice, each. They love to come over, eat Popsicles, and be loud. Whispering is not something they do.
Even at church.
Ten months ago, eight-year-old Katie (the middle child) decided to start coming to church with us. None of the girls had any idea about the Church, much less Jesus Christ. I have never seen a conversion like Katie’s. Fortunately, I became her Primary teacher in January, and we spent hours talking about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. She was obsessed. It didn’t take long before she was asking about baptism. She recruited her three-year-old sister Shannon, and now she comes too. Shannon has yet to accomplish the feat of staying in Sunbeams without throwing a tantrum and making me take her home, but she gets closer every week. One night during one of their regularly scheduled phone calls, Katie talked with her mom about getting baptized. The mess-making mother was outraged. Katie hasn’t talked about baptism since, but she still comes to church.
Becky, the eldest, an amazing know-it-all twelve-year-old, has never showed interest in anything spiritual. She squirms when we invite her over for FHE. But she loves our dogs and will baby-sit them upon request (when we go on a vacation, not just to the movies or something). Recently she has ventured out to Mutual with me on Tuesday nights. She swears she will come to church every week but never makes good on that promise.
In truth, the girls drive me batty.
Last night Becky insisted on walking the dogs with me. I walk the dogs alone. It is the reason I have dogs—my protection for the one thing I request in life: to always exercise alone. I love talking to myself, and I need to do it regularly. When a partner wants to come along I begrudge it. I don’t want to be friends anymore. It’s complicated. I explained all these points to her, but she wouldn’t listen to me.
So I let her come with me out on the dirt road by the airport. As we start walking she complains of asthma, but I’m thinking it’s her weight. Her grandmother told me that Becky has gained forty pounds in the past year because of all the stress, including the mess of her parents’ divorce. Becky is the one daughter who refuses to believe that her mother is crazy. Her dad has tried to explain the situation—why the judge has refused to allow any contact between the mother and her daughters. Still, Becky refuses to believe that it was her mother who started the fire that burned all of her clothes, pictures, creations. Even the memories of her childhood are now tainted by her mother’s strange manipulations. For instance, she thinks her dad was abusive, but can’t really remember when.
I continue my pace even as she falls fifty yards behind. Occasionally, she complains and yells, “Slow up!”
Whatever that means.
I just shrug.
“You’re the one telling me that you could walk way faster than me,” I yell back.
“You’re the one that insisted on coming to show me how to take my dogs for a walk.”
It’s hot and mosquitoes are feasting. Suddenly I remember how she likes to call the police whenever she thinks her father isn’t doing enough. I can see her making a phone call when I take her home. “She refused to help me when I was having an asthma attack on the dirt road!”
I slow down. I wait . . . and wait and wait. Finally, she catches up.
On the way back to the car her complaints are more frequent.
“My feet hurt!”
“I can’t breathe!”
“Stay where you are,” I yell back. The mosquitoes are atrocious now. I am running and angry. I get to the car, load the dogs in the back, and drive down the road a hundred yards to pick her up.
“Thanks,” she says. “That was so fun.” My eyes roll at her in the rearview mirror.
We get home after dark. I tell her to run inside her front door so that I can unload the dogs out of my car. If allowed, the dogs would follow Becky home, knowing well that at her house they are rewarded with bits of bacon and doggie prizes from the dollar store.
She refuses to get out of my car. The straw breaks. I am unleashed. “You need to go home now, Becky. I’m not letting the dogs out of this car until you are in your house. I don’t want them following you inside your grandma’s front room with her new couches.” I say with finality.
She walks to her door and pretends to shut it. I open my back door to let the dogs out of the car. Before they jump out, Becky opens her front door again. I keep the dogs in the car, waiting for her to shut the door again. She shuts it. Opens it again. Shuts it. She’s teasing me. Finally I hear her front door slam shut behind her and I let the dogs out.
As I am leading them to the backyard Katie comes bouncing out of the same front door. She yells my name loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, a common practice. The dogs turn and run full speed at her and her bright pink pajamas. She yells again, this time scolding me.
“Your dogs are attacking me!”
Can’t she see that it’s her fault, not mine?
“I know!” I yell back as I scramble for the dogs, tackling the puppy and wrangling the other. When the animals are safe in my backyard, I turn around to see Katie still standing there waiting for my attention.
“Good night!” I say to her, feeling annoyed and incapable of kindness.
“But . . . but . . . I . . . want to show you something,” Katie says quietly. I have embarrassed her. She shows me a miniature Book of Mormon. Perfect for an eight-year-old to love. I finger the pages and listen to her tell me how her inactive grandmother found it when they were starting to paint. Katie asked if she could have it, and her grandmother obliged. The first person she wanted to tell about her new book was me, and I had yelled at her before she could show me.
“Katie, go home and look up my favorite verse, 2 Nephi 32:9,” I instruct, hoping she would run right home and leave me alone. But with these girls it’s never that easy, so we spend some time on my front porch until finally she leaves, promising to look up my scripture.
I walk in my front door. My husband is cleaning the kitchen. I thank him first, then collapse on the floor in a dramatic motion.
“I can’t be nice anymore,” I say bitterly. My husband doesn’t say anything. “You don’t understand,” I accuse. “You don’t even try with the girls. They don’t barricade you when you are trying to get into your car, they don’t leave three consecutive five-minute messages when you don’t answer your phone, they don’t interrupt your exercise!”
I feel angry and decide to take another walk to cool off.
This time alone.
Outside, I wander around the neighborhood crying. The phone in my pocket starts ringing. It is the girls. I ignore the call and minutes later they call again. I ignore it again. Two messages appear on my phone. I listen to the first one.
“I found your scripture!” Katie yells into the phone. She starts to read, tripping over the words.
“But behold . . . ye must pray always . . . that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.”
I think of my performance that evening as I listen to the remaining four minutes of her message. I had forgotten that my morning prayer needed to be backed up by an 8:15 a.m. prayer, an 8:22 a.m. prayer, a 9:32 a.m. prayer, and so on. One prayer at the beginning of the day and one at the end wasn’t going to cut it—especially with visitations from my neighbors.
I walk down the street slowly and skip to the second message. “Hi, Courtney! This is Katie again. I love you a lot. I mean a whole lot. I will love you today, and the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that . . .”