by Annie Wiederhold
The black roof and spires disappeared into the ashy night sky, giving the impression that the bright gold Angel Moroni was floating unassisted as I walked the Provo City Center Temple perimeter for the first time. The distinctive bronze fountain looked greener than it had in pictures, and its dramatic illumination from underwater spotlights mesmerized me. Several young college students talked and laughed loudly over the sound of rushing water. They grouped together to take a photo with one of their phones.
“Scoot over! I’m only halfway in the picture.”
“Squeeze in tighter!”
Once situated, their picture-smiles momentarily silenced their chatter. I blinked my eyes against the shocking flash and saw grey and white ghosts like x-ray images of the temple, fountain, and picture takers floating against my closed eyelids.
Four hours earlier, our pilot and perfect weather gave us a smooth descent into the Salt Lake City International Airport. As wheels touched down I glanced over at Curtis, whose incredulous eyebrows were as high as my own. We hadn’t needed a single baby wipe for the duration of the flight, and our three-year-old fell asleep in one of her parents’ arms for the first time since her infancy. She slept while the baby nursed through the landing, unperturbed by altitude readjustment, noise, or the harsh braking that comes with even the best of descents.
It’s been six years since I first moved away from the Wasatch Front, and still every time I visit home and catch my first glimpse of Mount Olympus, I relax the tension I didn’t know I was harboring and breathe a little deeper.
We lugged our suitcases into my in-laws’ home, embraced, and thanked them countless times for their hosting preparations. Once the children were asleep for the night, I took my mother-in-law’s car to the grocery store for some diapers and baby food. I went alone, as my husband had begun working his way through the large, happy pile of duties that come with being the oldest sibling, out-of-towner, and family computer guru. With my shopping spoils deposited on the floor behind the driver’s seat, I decided to visit the new tabernacle-turned-temple on the way back to my in-laws’ house. I turned the radio off and mentally pressed play. The tabernacle’s organ piped through my memory as I hummed the alto part of the 121st Psalm arrangement I sang there a decade before. My dear memories of singing with BYU choirs in that beautiful space morphed into the sad December morning seven years ago.
“Can you hand me a new bar of soap?” Curtis asked from behind the shower curtain. I pulled one out and passed it to him. I wiped condensation off the mirror so I could see my reflection as I applied black eyeliner.
We were six months married and living in an apartment two blocks east of the tabernacle. We rose earlier than normal that morning to get ready for a family wedding at the Salt Lake Temple. After sprinting down three cold flights of stairs to our car, we were glad to see we didn’t need to scrape the windows. Curtis turned west out of our parking lot, and tragedy filled our windshield.
Flames raged within the tabernacle and released thick billows of smoke into the overcast morning. Fire fighters hosed great gushes of water into the building, and a helicopter circled overhead like a dizzy honeybee. The impenetrable grayness concealed what splinters of roof might remain. A few patches of blackened brick above shattered windows looked like mascara smudges from gravity-defying tears not wet enough to extinguish the inner turmoil.
I wanted to stop and weep over the destruction, but we had to keep driving. We hadn’t budgeted tabernacle mourning into our commute time. When we returned home after a long day of wedding festivities, wisps of smoke still emanated from the brick skeleton.
Over my last months as a BYU student I’d drive by daily and fixate on a partially crumbled spire, unaware that I was staring at pre-temple ruins. I’d imagine myself a giant who could close my palm and fingers around the spire and pry it off the building without causing further cracks. I’d turn it upside down and stuff two large scoops of blackberry ice cream in, allowing the melted purple cream to drip through the damaged cone tip and onto my lap.
But here in the dark years later – a temple! A structure with original brick, a modern foundation, and five perfect spires that wouldn’t leak a single drop of ice cream. Visiting the transformed building was a strange melding of familiarity and newness, like trying on my favorite pair of pre-pregnancy jeans for the first time since birthing a baby. Same clothes, same body, but a different fit. Same brick, same location, but it all felt new.
I left the picture-taking crowd and fountain noise in search of quiet, which I found on the north side. A lone bespectacled man sat frozen on a bench with his eyes on the temple. We ignored each other, both preferring God-watching to people-watching. I had a reflex to pray, but the traditional salutation lodged itself like a lump in my throat and impeded original words from slipping past. I decided to pause and feel instead. My lungs expanded slow and deep with air saturated in…something. Something that invited me to a deeper realm. I looked around the immaculate garden for a blossom to pair with the perfume.
I found the fragrant, unfamiliar flower. Its blossom shape, coloring, and scent were reminiscent of a lilac, but I knew that wasn’t it. Thanks to my father and the time we spent in woods and gardens, I know my fair share of domestic and wildflower names. I felt I ought to have known the name of this flower since I was familiar with all its neighbors.
I placed a knee and both palms on the concrete wall of a raised bed to inspect the flowers and breathe again. The mysterious pink and white and purple stalks captivated me amid the delightful, though less fragrant, typical Utah spring garden fare. My body devoured the scent until I felt it pool within my hips and fingers. It stilled and filled the something inside of me that starves. If I had been familiar with it, perhaps it wouldn’t have healed me.
I haven’t undergone such enormous personal reconstruction as the Provo Tabernacle, but my twenties left significant wear and tear on my soul, many cracks in my ice cream cone. Wading alone in celestial perfume sealed up some of my leaky spots. What a welcome surprise to receive olfactory revelation from a heavenly parent.
As always, the sublime eventually yielded to the prosaic. I imagined the frozen peas I bought for my teething baby thawing on the back seat of the car. Back to my in-laws’ house, but not without one more detour. I drove to the apartment complex on University Avenue where I spent my first two years of college. My wonderful roommate was a close friend from middle and high school. She was many things I was not: tall, athletic, dark-haired, and graceful throughout her adolescence.
She had haunted my thoughts for the last month, and each time she flitted through my mind I grieved for her and berated myself. I had learned on social media that she lost both of her twins in utero. First one, then a couple months later, the other. I hadn’t even known about her long walk through infertility prior to her pregnancy. I wept for her and despised myself for letting my dear friend become a stranger. Sorry. For your loss and for the years I didn’t call.
I drove by our old apartment because I wanted to see if the number 52 on the door was still skiwampus. We had nailed the numbers askew near the end of our stay there, and I know they remained so for at least a year afterward. I drove my car up close to the building and saw the apartment door was open, making it impossible to see if the numbers were level. I thrilled at the sight of the hollow rectangle of yellow light. Maybe I could get inside the place! I parked my car and walked up to the first landing – how many times had I climbed those stairs? As I got closer to the apartment, I considered reaching in to knock on the open door and explain that I’d moved into that apartment ten years ago. I contemplated what I might say. What are your names? Has management bothered to change the dark green carpet in the last decade? Would it be creepy if I peeked into my old bedroom to reminisce for a second?
I paused and saw four girls in sweats and ponytails sitting on the counter and at the kitchen table. It felt like looking through a telescope at my past self and roommates for just a few seconds. I wanted to study each of their faces, their nail polish and t shirt logos, and guess at their futures. Would one of them get married in two years and graduate magna cum laude? Which one would land her dream job? Would one of them grow angry with God and hurl prayers like rocks at heavenly windows? Which ones would long for babies, and which ones would get them? Would any of them stay in touch?
I chose not to knock on their door – my door. It didn’t seem right to impose my past on their present. When I moved out of the apartment, I turned around and looked one last time at the space that used to be mine, surprised by its emptiness and echoes. I could almost see outlines of where my pictures used to hang. I shrugged my shoulders at the stubborn grease stain on the carpet, remembered a kiss in the living room that kicked off a short, ill-fated relationship, closed the door, and walked away.
When these new girls moved into that apartment years later, they didn’t see the furniture outlines or kiss scenes. They noticed the grease stain but didn’t know it came from Indonesian food. All they saw were bare walls and empty rooms that, despite being old and dingy, felt like they sprang into being only when they got the code to the keypad. They pushed their hand-me-down desks against the walls, unpacked their toiletries, and started living.
I walked back to the parked car in silence and buckled my seat belt. Nostalgia shaped my reluctant mouth into a soft smile. I blinked back down the tide that rises in my eyes when I contemplate the inevitability of growing up and how it hurts.
“Mommy! What’s that?”
“A fountain. Let’s race to it!”
The morning after my post meridiem detours, I put my baby down for a morning nap and returned to the Provo City Center Temple with my daughter Robyn. Perhaps my favorite part of visiting family is my freedom to move about the country while my children sleep. With a houseful of grandparents and aunts who could pluck a child from her crib and run if the place caught fire, I get to breathe life into my whims.
The early hour, morning light, and skipping toddler created a vastly different mood from my visit the night before. The day was still an hour away from short sleeve weather; we were a little too warm in our light jackets and almost cold without them. Like the night before, I shared the grounds with picture takers. A young woman was posing with a Book of Mormon, and her friend took pictures to commemorate her mission call. I had to pick Robyn up and move her out of their frame a couple of times.
I found a groundsman and asked him, “What are the fragrant ones called – the ones that remind me of lilacs?”
“That would be hyacinth,” he responded.
Robyn climbed onto a raised concrete bed to inspect the gardens just as I had done twelve hours earlier. I perched next to her and taught her the names of the flowers. Daffodil, tulip, pansy, and my new favorite, hyacinth.
“Did it rain last night?” she asked when she saw drops of water on the vegetation.
“No.” I explained, “That water is called dew. Sometimes on cool nights it forms on the grass and flowers. It doesn’t go away until the sun warms everything back up.”
We zeroed in on a sloped leaf dotted with condensation. I prodded a large droplet from its repose so we could watch it slide down the center vein and off the leaf tip, taking a smaller bead down with it. We began experimenting with the moisture. I combined several small beads into a large one with surface tension so taut it looked like it should burst into a minuscule puddle. She accidentally bumped the leaf it rested on, and the water dropped into the mulch.
The earthward facing hyacinth blossoms cradled tiny spheres of water in the napes of their backward bending petals. Those that looked to the heavens were like little fairy goblets brimming with half a teaspoon of dew. Come, they beckoned, and drink while we sing the untranslatable song.
The misted gardens were not as fragrant as they had been the previous night. Perhaps the flowers were still half asleep or drunk on dew. They did not part with their scent freely; I had to get down close to steal it into my nose and lungs.
Most of the time God is quiet with me, but occasionally something divine drops into my lap. My aromatic night in the garden was one of those times. I went back in search of a bit more heaven the next morning but didn’t get any. Instead, I stroked the peaceful memory while I taught my daughter about things that grow in temples and earth.
As my daughters grow, my certainty tapers. Though to be clear, the former has not caused the latter. They just happen to be simultaneous processes. As a teenager, my religious convictions were both strong and simple. Sometimes when I’m feeling a little dizzy from the nuance and complexity that color my adult faith I start to miss the way things used to be. I don’t talk as much as I used to because I want to be sure I believe something before I say it. But I wouldn’t go back to the painless simplicity even if I could, just like the Provo City Center Temple will never be converted back into a tabernacle. We just go forward. And hopefully upward.
My efforts to avoid misspeaking have backed me into a silent corner. Often my bottom lip pulls down from the top and makes a slit just wide enough to admit a horizontal coin into my mouth – a penny for my thoughts. I separate my lips entirely and inhale as though to speak, but then I inevitably close them around a wordless exhale.
Sometimes my loss of words frustrates me and I feel as though I’ve fallen from a window high in Babel. The wind’s been knocked out of me, and I can’t communicate with my neighbor about my experience because we’re speaking different languages. But if going blind enhances hearing, my muteness has unpacked my other sensibilities from their cramped quarters and set them up to flap in the sunshine. I feel and hope and believe with greater acuity. I seek peace, and I seek radiance. In God, in temples, in my children, in me, in a hyacinth.
Annie, a stay-at-home mother of two delightful daughters, recently relocated from the Bay Area to Austin, TX for her husband’s educational pursuits. She is a latent librarian and a new guacamole convert who dreams of an MFA in creative writing.