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Things Fall Apart

By Maralise Petersen

“Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.”—-Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart”

I have spent many years running away from the abnormalities of my family. Let’s just say that we didn’t fit the mold of our suburban Utah, wealthy, and only-Mormon neighborhood. My eldest brother began using drugs at age 14, my dad was the local pharmacist and he decorated his store with the carcasses of the dead animals that he had hunted, my sister’s daily attire consisted of three inch heels and mini skirts. And my just older brother was a big-mouthed jokster whose material was often hilariously off-color (still is, don’t tell his Stake President, he’s in the High Council now). My mom couldn’t stand to enter the cultural hall during Homemaking meeting let alone have the patience to put together a craft (or talk “the talk” of Mormon women…she cared very little about little Jessie’s science project or hubby’s latest home teaching assignment). Her favorite quote that she framed and hung on the wall in our home was, “Martha Stewart doesn’t live here.”

Indeed, Martha Stewart did not live at our house. And to me, very little normalcy was found there either. I loved my family. I was proud of their strengths but found it hard to not be embarrassed by their (and my own) weaknesses. And I hated being different by association. So, I made up for it by being perfect. I played multiple sports, was an honor student, earned all of my young womanhood awards and painfully tried to be without flaw. I wanted to be the example. And I felt an extreme amount of self-imposed guilt, not just for my own sins but for the weight of our family’s “difference.”

Last summer, a wise friend of mine mentioned that in building their own home after having rented for a number of years, they had in mind how to make it perfect. But instead of making the mistakes of the former homebuilders, they just made new ones.

And I’ve done the same thing. I haven’t hung dead animal heads in my home, I haven’t filled my closets with minis (although I would like to. And my sister, BTW, now has a lovely and eclectic wardrobe full of longer minis, different sizes of heels, and her temple bag). I haven’t shunned the culture of Mormonism however much I’ve been tempted to, but I have made my own gloriously humbling and individual mistakes.

My biggest mistake has been not realizing that Christ’s atonement makes up for our sins and allows for our differences. I haven’t yet learned how (like my mother) to unconditionally love my children. I haven’t yet learned (like my father) to be the eye of the storm, calm and assuring to all. I haven’t yet learned (like my oldest brother) to take off on Saturday morning and not come back until having ridden at least two hundred miles or gotten sunburned, I haven’t yet learned (like my sister) to successfully juggle work and kids, hubby and family, love and loss and do it with grace. And I haven’t yet learned like my older brother how to laugh at life.

But I’m trying. Perfection long ago left in the dust, I now feel ready to begin. Kate Croy in Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove” says, “It was the name, above all, she would take in hand–the precious name she so liked and that, in spite of the harm her wretched father had done it, wasn’t yet past praying for. She loved it in fact the more tenderly for that bleeding wound.”

I should have known that I should love my family because of their bleeding wounds. You see, they match so perfectly with my own.

About Maralise Petersen

(Emerita)

5 thoughts on “Things Fall Apart”

  1. I was recently at a church event, listening to someone speak, and almost sitting mouth agape at how different her view of the world was from my own. I couldn't shake off the strangeness of her comments and the wholly different view of life than mine. and yet, as she finished speaking and bore her testimony, she spoke a powerful testimony of the Gospel. That much we had in common.

    It was a truly eye opening experience for me. I spent the entire rest of the day thinking about this woman who was so strange looking and stounding and different from me. But she still had a testimony. She still bore witness of the Savior.

    I guess it's probably a good thing we're all so different. So boring would be the world if we weren't all colorful and unique. It's given me great emotional release to come to understand that I don't have to be a 'perfect mormon woman' to feel the love of the Lord. And the Lord is not American, or anglo-saxon, or urban, or hippie, or republican, or cowboy, or any of those things. He's all of them. I can fit in where I choose.

    Easy to say… heh?

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  2. I love that last line, Mara. I feel like that's how I'm always to explain the way I feel about the people I love– that I love them because of their imperfections. Their oddities and past trials endear them to me.

    I hope they can say the same for me, full as I am of past mistakes as well.

    Wouldn't the world be so boring if we were all alike?

    Reply
  3. A few weeks ago I was talking with some sisters from my ward and suddenly they all started sharing how much they love visiting their mothers because they feel so loved and nurtured and they get to be "kids" again. I felt horrible because my mother is not the nurturing type and even as a child I don't think I had the same type of treatment as they did. But, later, I realized that I love my mother, even if it's for different reasons. I've been working on loving her for who she is, rather than being disappointed because she doesn't live up to the ideal I would like her to be. She hasn't changed, but my attitude towards her has and I really do love her. Even if she doesn't bake me cookies or do my laundry.

    Reply
  4. Excellent post!

    “Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.”—-Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart”

    Interesting for me to read this at a time in my life in which I am second guessing my deliberate efforts to not resemble my parents while at the same time noticing the same determination on the part of my own children growing into adulthood (essentially to be better than I am). I have tried not to be hurt by this, but rather to embrace it by explaining that that is the duty of each generation–to start from whence they came and progress a little bit further. I guess that is the most hopeful approach.

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  5. Beautifully written.

    And so fascinating to me — regardless of where the tumultuous river of familial discomfort begins, eventually, by the grace of God, we all end up in the calm sea of understanding.

    Reply

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