A God-obsessed mother gone mad. A once-devout father turned cynical. The only thing as challenging as growing up in a faith-fractured home is carrying your devotion into adulthood. Especially if you happen to be Mormon.
The next 20 years would be a sometimes slow, most times harried westward migration. From New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and, finally, to Salt Lake City, Nathan's was the story of one mob after another. With the Saints, Nathan acquired and abandoned an estimated $20 million in land and property. He personally built and discarded two homes. Just before making the trek to the Salt Lake Valley, his wife, Eliza, wrote a final letter to her parents, who also disapproved of the Church:
"The last letter I received from you was dated January 25th . The general tenor of the letter was to have us return, but I have not the most distant idea, neither has Nathan of ever turning back. Our course is and must be onward... If you are indeed looking for this work to fail, you will look in vain."
Searchers found my mother's wristwatch, some personal papers, and the car keys, but they never found Mom. The theory was that she wandered around the flanks of King's Peak—Utah's tallest mountain, and a place of somewhat mystical longing for Mom—where she fell asleep and never woke up. At the time of Mom's disappearance, all I knew is that she left without an explanation, a goodbye, an expressed regret. I began to wonder if I had ever actually known her. What I thought was Mom might have simply been her schizophrenia, her obsession with God, or some combination of the two.
I recall, for example, a walk in the park one winter, just Mom and me. Snow bent branches on the trees. "The branches pointing up are God's," Mom said. Noting the downward-facing branches, she continued, "These others belong to the devil." Trees with branches sticking straight out were making up their minds. I prayed, hoping they'd decide soon. The snow was still falling. I felt kind and I felt important.
Such memories can disturb me. They tell me that my mother was central to my sense of the divine. They also indicate that madness was central to hers. Thus my faith, which has always come easy, has often frightened as much as it has filled. My choices have sometimes seemed binary and ominous. I could believe, and follow in my mother's doomed footsteps. Or, like my father, I could deny myself this weakness and save myself—and maybe others—from a world of hurt. The problem was that I didn't know how to stop believing. My faith offered a connection with Mom, a thing I was unwilling to give up.