A Name and a Blessing
If dad, of all people, was going to let embarrassment stop him from blessing his only daughter’s only daughters, mother would give him something to be embarrassed about. Mother said she would get up in front of God and everyone and she herself would give the girls a name and a blessing. He, at least, knew the twins’ names in advance and had time to get used to them. Mother was made to sit on the sidelines and wait for dad to reveal the strange names given to my siblings and me.
My parents struck a deal on their honeymoon night. At the reception, dad made a speech about how lucky he was to have my mother for time and all eternity because she was an experienced teacher and that meant their children would get the best education from the safety of home. That night in the honeymoon suite, mother said no way. She told my dad that home schools and private schools were part of the undoing of America’s already tenuous social fabric, and that her kids would go to local public schools and be the better for it.
Mother told me that the look on dad’s face was the same look Adam must have had when he realized that while he had been naming animals and eating berries, Eve had been solving the logic problem God set when he placed them in the garden. Mother saw flash in dad’s face the recognition that she was smart in ways his love for her had yet to plumb. Behind the recognition, mother saw that he feared the depths. In that flash, Mother understood what Eve understood. If mother didn’t accentuate dad’s abilities and calculate the exertion of hers, their relationship would be imbalanced on earth and of questionable value in eternity. She offered dad a compromise. If he let her have ultimate say in where the children went to school, she would let him have the same with their names.
Dad bemoaned the milquetoast blandness of his own name, Robert Paul Tanner, and called out possible names for kids on dates with mother. “Tiger” for a girl. “Jet” for a boy. “Blue” for either one. After dad was made supreme nomenclator, he stopped airing his ideas, and he guarded our names like state secrets when we were born. They called my oldest brother, “Baby Boy,” until blessing day. When mother heard dad say “Adam,” from the back of the circle of men surrounding her baby, she was relieved. When he finished with, “Ondi-Ahman Tanner,” she was aggrieved. In the testimony meeting that followed, dad went back up to the pulpit and said that Adam Ondi-Ahman’s name would help him remember to be a blessing to his posterity.
He bore his testimony after Joseph Joseph was blessed and said that there were too many exemplary younger brother Josephs in the scriptures to use the name just once. Mother was pregnant with I. Nephi when she found herself and the rest of the congregation sustaining dad as bishop. After the meeting, the stake president told mother that he was sure she understood the need for confidentiality before the new bishopric was announced. He said it was time for mother to cleave together with dad as one flesh so that he could feel her unending support in his new calling. Mother asked the stake president if he knew that cleave also meant to sever and that was exactly what would happen if the church kept whispering secrets in dad’s ear.
As bishop, dad had the pulpit at his disposal. Liking tradition, he waited until testimony meeting to bless I. Nephi and let mother and the rest of the ward know that the “I.” was a freestanding initial. He thought the Book of Mormon had the best beginning of any book he’d ever read even better than Shogun. Dad said he was proud to have a third son to name after the third son who wrote those unforgettable first words. He told the congregation not to bother pointing out that Nephi was a fourth son. Sam was overlooked by his own family. Why shouldn’t dad overlook him?
Mother knew about being overlooked. After her language lesson with the stake president, he avoided her. Mother got down to the business of fulfilling her unnamed calling as bishop’s wife. Dad listed our home number in the phone book as the contact for the LDS church because he wanted to be available to those in need, but he didn’t think about the fact that between the work office and the bishop’s office he was rarely home. Mother noticed the tell-tale hardening in her breasts and belly while she was putting fresh sheets on the bed in the spare room in the basement. She knew she was pregnant as she loaded the three boys into the car and drove out to the overpass to pick up a family of out-of-state members whose van broke down on the highway.
As bishop’s wife, mother learned that saints had difficulty discerning between living within their means and being cheapskates. The stranded family came and went for three days, eating at our table and sleeping downstairs and thanking dad for his generosity whenever their paths happened to cross all while mother cooked and laundered and made fundraising phone calls for the PTA and endured the first few days of what would be her most nauseating pregnancy. Based on the vomit, my parents were sure it was a girl. For that reason, Dad explained on blessing day, he named my fourth brother, Smith Beverly. Smith for the prophet. Beverly for his own mother because he was beginning to doubt he would have daughters for namesakes.
I was a surprise in every way, a girl born six years after the fourth son and three short weeks before my dad was called as stake president. I was ten when dad was released as stake president and called as mission president. I was eleven when I walked in on my mother crying in one of the flowered armchairs that came with the house in Mexico. When I asked, she said she wasn’t crying because she missed Adam and Joseph at BYU or I. Nephi on his mission. She wasn’t crying because one of the elders wanted to go home or one of the sisters had been harassed in the street. She was crying because she worried about the example being set for me.
Mother told me that the tears were a continuation of the tears she cried at the MTC. She meant when she was twenty-one and serving her own mission, not one of my dad’s. A general authority gave a devotional that began with “Elders, make no mistake. You are doing the Lord’s work.” He spoke for forty-five minutes and did not correct course. Sisters were unmentioned from start to finish. Mother said she cried herself to sleep and awoke resolved to accept the namelessness of female service in the church. That resolve prepared her for what was to come: bishop’s wife, stake president’s wife, mission president’s wife. What brought her to tears was the thought that I would go from being the only girl, the adored daughter, a jewel in God’s jewelry box to an addendum. Someone’s wife.
We didn’t know dad was listening from the doorway.
“With five children, surely you don’t feel that your service goes unnamed,” dad said.
“How many spirits do you think have been on earth?” mother asked.
“Billions, I suppose,” he said.
“And yet Heavenly Mother goes unnamed most of the time,” mother said.
I’ve called her mother since then.
Dad’s cancer sent us home six months before his three-year presidency finished. I, Liahona NMN Tanner, had a bachelor’s degree and a husband before he beat the cancer into a deep enough remission that headquarters let him serve again. Dad chose my name after he read a story about a female metallurgist crafting the Liahona. He believed that giving me no middle name was his cleverest homage. Instead of being lopped off by marriage, my maiden name would become my middle name and dad’s reign as the giver of names would remain unsevered.
When I got engaged, I joked to my parents that were it not for my moral compunctions against coverture, I could be a Bishop for the rest of my life. I’m certain the look on dad’s face was the same look mother saw on her honeymoon night. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to take my husband’s name and become Sister Bishop, it was that I had the choice. It was that while dad was naming children and serving in leadership callings, I was undoing the logic that his power as nomenclator depended upon.
Dad put his surprise and disappointment behind him before the wedding. With mother’s help, he did the same before blessing day. There, in front of the congregation and many of his missionaries, he gave a name and a blessing to my twin daughters, Prophet Bishop and President Bishop.
About the Author
Terrie Petree & Hollands lives in Pacific Beach, California, with her husband and three children. Ms. Petree is currently working with agent Susan Golomb at Writers House to bring out her first novel, "Gods of This World." The book tells the story of five generations of an LDS ranching family and examines what lies in the space between believing and belonging. On Sundays, she can be found teaching Gospel Doctrine in the San Diego 7th Ward. Read her previous piece, "Liahona, Girl of Curious Workmanship."