by Scarlet A
The dirty little secret of the women of my mother’s bloodline is that Patriarchal Blessings were viewed with deep suspicion and to be taken with a grain of salt. We kept this fact secret by either not receiving them, as my grandmother had opted, or simply refusing to discuss something “so sacred” in a light-hearted matter. It was spin. It was a smokescreen. There is a story behind it.
My great, great grandfather, Warren Barnes Smith, was a patriarch and a well-known one at that, being the son of Amanda Barnes Smith—survivor of Haun’s Mill, who splinted her son’s hip with an alder branch, secretary of the First Board of the Relief Society and a woman who was sealed with her children to Joseph Smith.
In church lore, church history, and the two-and-a-half-minute talk circuit, Warren was a saint, a generous man who turned no one away and whose divorced wife still laundered his shirts from a sense of devotion to her temple sealing despite a civil divorce. But Warren had a dirty, little secret: He broke his wife’s heart, abandoned his children and contributed precious little to their daily needs after his uppity wife left him.
My great, great grandmother, Elizabeth Echo Mercer, his first wife, divorced him. The stories handed down from my grandmother say that she loved him deeply, sacrificed for him, waited for him while he went on a mission and bore him seven children. She endured the second wife—even grew to love her and her children—but was heartbroken when he began courting a third. Such behavior has made three generations of women in my mother’s line question where the line lay between adultery and a covenant even in the murky and nebulous boundaries of plural marriage. Her heart couldn’t bear sharing him anymore. She had a revelation of her own: Polygamy was hell on a woman in love.
She divorced him—and yes, a true civil divorce—and she remarried. She did his laundry not out of a sense of devotion—as the revisionists insist—but because she was desperately trying to survive and raise her children. So she took in laundry, delivered by the dutiful children of the other wives, to rub in her poverty and divine punishment for divorcing a holy man.
I named my youngest daughter after Elizabeth Echo Mercer because she lived by the courage of her own conviction and stood against the wrongs she believed inherent in her society and managed to live life on her own terms in the Mormon-dominated corner of the American West of the mid-1800s.
Warren’s daughter, Florence, was my grandmother’s mother, needed shoes for her daughter, my grandmother, Helen. Together they went to the General Store in American Fork, owned by Warren Barnes Smith. When my grandmother told the story, she said she was looking forward to seeing her grandfather, a respected citizen and renowned member of the church. His reputation loomed larger than life and he would help her get new shoes, without holes and without having them handed down from her two older sisters. Upon arriving, grandma—who was no older than eight—and her mother approached the counter. Her mother said, “Hello father, I needed some new shoes for Helen and I was hoping you could help.”
“Who are you?” he replied.
“Dad, don’t you recognize me?”
“Who are you?”
“Dad, it’s me, Florence! This is my daughter, Helen.”
“Oh. You’re Elizabeth’s.”
Grandma didn’t get new shoes that day.
Years later, in the late 1920s, Warren Barnes Smith came to my grandmother’s high school in Lehi, Utah to give Patriarchal Blessings. The teacher knew that Helen was the granddaughter of Warren Barnes Smith, and announced it. Not that he needed to, everyone seemed to know it anyway—everyone but Warren Barnes Smith himself.
As the day of the blessings approached, Grandma would remember thinking, “maybe he would drop by and mention how special it would be to bless his own granddaughter.” Surely, if he didn’t recognize her when he was working his secular job, being in communion with the Holy Ghost to give such vaunted blessings would prompt his heart to know who she was, recognize her, and greet her. When the day came, it was obvious he didn’t know who she was. He hadn’t acknowledged her, her mother or said anything at all. “I was angry and hurt,” she told us. “I felt humiliated that he wouldn’t even acknowledge us or even be kind to us, and yet I was so special because I was his granddaughter. A granddaughter he wouldn’t acknowledge or even recognize.” She refused a Patriarchal Blessing from her own grandfather and went home instead of attending seminary.
The snub was noticed although it had to be brought to the attention of Patriarch Smith. She wasn’t punished at home. Not by her mother and not by her father. In fact, they supported her decision. It was the gutsiest damn thing my meek grandmother did in her entire man-serving, Mormon-fearing, keep-the-social-order-together-at–all-costs life! I remember her saying, near the end of her life: “If he didn’t recognize me, if the Spirit didn’t move him to know his own granddaughter, why would I believe he was inspired to tell me anything?” She queried. “I thought to hell with him.”
She never regretted it. She was proud that she had, in a small way, exposed his cruelty, injustice, insensitivity and charlatanism. I heard the story from her own lips, the excitement and the disappointment—the heartache still present half a century later. I heard her discuss it with her sisters, my sisters and my own mother, who held him in equal contempt. In fact, my grandmother never spoke ill of anyone and didn’t allow it of her children or grandchildren. We were reminded of what Thumper’s mother told the mouthy bunny in Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Her favorite hymn was “Let Us All Speak Kind Words to Each Other,” nonetheless; I still remember her referring to her grandfather unabashedly as “that old son of a bitch,” not as a curse, but as a mere description of his character.
Google Warren Barnes Smith and you’ll hear that his granddaughter who refused his Patriarchal Blessing later regretted the decision. Sit in Sacrament Meeting and Primary long enough his name will be mentioned vis-à-vis Patriarchal Blessings and the power of prayer—you might just hear how my grandmother, on her deathbed prayed for forgiveness and spoke of regret about not having her Patirarchal Blessing bestowed upon her by her own grandfather.
For the record: My grandmother died calling out for my grandfather, an apostate who drank to soothe his own pain growing up a sensitive child in a mind-controlling cult. Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet and hold with great suspicion and skepticism any inspirational talk ending with the phrase: “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”