By Joanie Tidwell
I dread going to a new ward, and you know why? Because I'm the person you probably don't want to sit next to. And who can blame you, really. I am that woman with the restless, rowdy boys. And even though I can assure you we've made great strides over the past few years, I mean, no one has been impaled from behind with a book in several months, and I've stopped bringing fruit rolls to church even though Alex explained he thought only gum stuck to hair, and honestly, Sister Phelp does look alot better after the haircut. Not to mention, we've invested in color Wonder Markers, so obviously, no more pictures of dinosaurs on white shirts, and have redefined "inside voice" to be "inside church voice" since the boys were confused by our reverent hissing, saying they were speaking the way they did at home; anyway, as I was saying, even with all the improvement, we are still at times I confess, a mess.
Yes, I am the mother of 3 boys. Three boys in three years. And honestly, the only reason we go to church at all is because we want to be obedient. Russ and I haven't actually heard one word uttered over the pulpit in over two years. We are too busy distracting, separating, glaring, un-clenching, picking up, and whispering the words to "I want to be reverent" books, to even recognize there's an adult speaking, let alone a human. No, pondering intimate points of the gospel during church is not a stage we are currently in.
Our last ward was good-natured about our children. If one of our boys (hypothetically speaking, of course) was to, say, bolt to the pulpit during fast and testimony meeting, and announce in a loud two-year-old voice, "I'm a chameleon lizard, I have a long sticky tongue", everyone would just chuckle and look at each other knowingly. They might whisper to a visitor, "One of the Tidwell boys", as if that would explain everything. I, of course hypothetically, would want to do some damage control and explain from the pulpit, while trying to wrestle the mike from my plump cherub's hands, that Spencer was being a "reverent lizard", since lizards don't actually make any sounds. I might also helpfully point out that seated on our pew was also a rabbit and a turtle. We were understood in our ward, or at least tolerated.
Then we moved. Moving alone is enough to put anyone in a frenzied state, however with me, meeting new people and exposing our family for who we truly are, is enough to send me right into the psych ward. I so longed to be that mother I always thought I would be, sitting reverently on the pew, looking of course like a super model with every strand of hair perfectly in place, my little angelic, well-behaved children lined up in a Norman Rockwell pose. Of course, these children would never want to draw pictures of sharks devouring humans, no, no, only temples and prophets for them, thank-you very much. And these children would never think of uttering a contemptuous sound, and they would sing three part harmony during the hymns. In Primary, our only conflict would be that ward members were getting annoyed that only our children were being picked to be the reverent children every week.
Ha. In reality, what I am at church is sweaty, spilled on, mauled, and exhausted. I'm lucky if my hair is even done. Thus, you can imagine, I have become an expert at avoiding eye contact. During the first week in our new ward, I ran my kids around the outside of the church four times before sacrament meeting started, brought a 72-hour-titanium-kit-diaper-bag built to withstand any natural disaster, sat on the back row, and nervously scanned the room for all possible exits. This, of course, was done while pretending to be an anxiously-engaged woman filled with the quiet reflection befitting a young LDS mother. Even with all the precautions taken, we still managed to make a spectacle of ourselves. Who knew zip-lock bags could actually explode? And I had no idea Logan had sneaked his dinosaur into the building. You know, the one who might hypothetically let out a vicious roar during the opening prayer. And, of course, Alex would have to yell, "Why are you always trying to ruin my life" when I gently reminded him not to gargle the sacrament water.
It was over, I thought. We were finished. I was just beginning to embrace our fate, mentally preparing myself for the inevitable talk on reverence from the pulpit next week, and a visit from a well-meaning sister offering some parenting tapes she found especially helpful with little Thor, when something else happened other than what I expected, taking me by complete surprise. Instead of loudly sighing and whispering something to the effect of, "How can anybody feel the spirit with all that noise?", the nice couple behind me handed my boys a new book on dinosaurs. The book was so tempting that Alex stopped choking Logan to look at the pictures of diplosaurus. Then, periodically through the meeting when the volume level in our pew raised from a low hum to a decibel above a roar, the nice brother behind us would slip our boys a few Swedish fish. Manna from heaven, I thought. I even heard Spencer whisper thank-you.
By the time the closing prayer was offered, my boys had a stack of coloring books and small toys next to them. "Is it time to go already?" I mumbled to Russ. "Yes," he answered numbly. I was all set for the fall-out, the whispered stares, the awkward avoidance. What I felt instead was embraced by kindness, giddy with relief. When I turned to thank the couple behind me, they smiled a warm smile of understanding, the soft unspoken message of hope reflected in their kind eyes. Five-hundred miles away from my mom and the house I grew up in, I knew I was home.
With time, I learned that every Sunday this kind man, whose children were grown, stuffed his pockets, to the point of exploding, with succulent Swedish fish. And every week after the meeting (minus, of course, Fast Sunday), all the children, and truthfully, a few adults, myself included, looked eagerly for him in the foyer, giggling as they searched. When they found him, he'd fill their outstretched hands one by one with the sweet fish until they'd have so many they'd have to clutch them to their hearts to keep from spilling.
I know that it may be politically incorrect to offer a non-organic, sugar filled, red dye #40 snack at church. Some mothers would balk at the gesture. I know, too, there is wisdom in hard glares, and talks on reverence, and knowing there is a time and a place for quiet, reflective behavior. I know Jesus cleansed the temple. But mostly, when I see Brother Delmar standing at the door, with a smile on his face, just waiting to share, I think of the Savior in another setting, one where He told the apostles, "Come, and I will make you fishers of men."
We're getting better, all of us. Last Sunday in church, with my boys clutching their sweaty treats, I even caught a few words of a talk on gratitude. And you know, it's stayed with me all week.