TAIT JENSEN

Reflections on the
Passing of a Patriarch

NON-FICTION

Nobody ever tells you just how heavy a casket can be. Certainly, it makes intuitive sense that a hollowed-out tree, once vibrant and living, would make for a weighty resting place as the new home for a dead man. I suppose that’s tragically ironic, isn’t it? We cut down living organisms, appendages to our organic earth, to construct ornate boxes worthy of our dead. No wonder the casket is heavy; the tree has every right to object to its fallen state as a vessel laden with a formaldehyde-infused corpse. Wouldn’t you object to such treatment?

As I grip the handle, seven other men surrounding me, I glance down at my feet, being careful not to trip absentmindedly over the uneven ground. For a few moments, all I hear is the heavy breathing of my cousins, punctuated by the soft cry of a child in the background. My entire family, a legion of Mormon faithful (myself the one exception), stand in long coats and scarves, gazing wistfully at the casket bearing our fallen patriarch. The wind rips through my body, leaving me feeling bare and naked. Why am I here? What great honor did I perform to be a pall bearer at my Grandfather’s funeral? I can’t look up from my feet. To my family, perhaps I appear dejected or crestfallen, an air of melancholy trailing behind me. But I feel no such thing, although perhaps I should. Every physical sensation in this moment is heightened, leaving no room for my mind to process emotion. Wordsworth once wrote of a “blank confusion” to describe the writhing masses which inhabit London. To borrow his term, the sheer conglomeration of sensation seemed to render sense without form, instead producing an emptiness which permeated the furthest reaches of my mental capacity. It was a blankness, punctuated by the desolate winter landscape which surrounded me.

Back in fourth grade, one of my greatest fears had been accidentally wiping clean a white board filled with multiplication tables. I was so terrified of math, that the thought of laboring twice over the same problem elicited absolute horror. In this moment, staring at my feet in the filthy snow, my whiteboard was clean. The only evidence of erasure being a crumpled-up tissue, stained with that distinct chemical dust that accrues in the air of classrooms, lying menacingly on the ground at my foot. Did I wipe my own board of emotions clean, leaving only a blankness stained over with the slightest evidence of marking? If so, what had caused it?

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I am the oldest son of the sixth oldest daughter of Ferrol and Karen Tait. In a sort of homage to my mother’s family, or perhaps out of residual devotion to patriarchal submission, I was given my mother’s maiden name at my birth, placing me in a special category of grandchildren: a tribute, although not of the “I-offermy-firstborn-child” variety. I sometimes wonder if this was done to set me apart among a crowded posterity, my Grandparents having been made grandparents many times over before I ever came along in the mid-90s. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed a special attention from my Grandfather as I grew older, earning me a special diminutive – “Taiter-Potater” -- either reminiscent of our agricultural roots or an indication of a severe creativity deficit on his part.

As a child, whenever I read a novel that employed the oft-used descriptor “barrel-chested” to describe a pirate or mobster, my mind generated an image of my Grandfather. His broad body, paired with an olive complexion, was the resulting concoction of Indian blood (as in the subcontinent, not the racist mistake) and engagement with hard labor beneath a merciless Utah summer sun. He could have played the menacing role of a gangster or maybe even a convincing gorilla, had he been equipped with the suit. He was never a terribly tall man, but his masculine demeanor, softened by a quick wit and near universal concern for others, made up for any shortcomings in height. Photographs from when he was young reveal a chiseled jaw, soft eyes, aquiline nose, and a slight smile that would make a 10th grade girl squirm in her seat. As the story goes, though, it was not his looks that won my Grandmother over, but his persistence. I’ve concluded that women in the 1950s apparently knew precisely what they wanted in a man if they had it within their power to turn away specimens of Olympian appearance without batting an eye. As a gay man living in the 20-teens, I can only say that I wish they had written a guide for posterity, complete with patterns for aprons and wellguarded dip recipes.

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One of my earliest memories of my Grandfather is a Christmas story, which is uniquely apropos given that he and my Grandmother adored the Yuletide with an enthusiasm reserved for the Santa in Coca-Cola wintertime commercials. He loved the holiday for the same reason that led that ancient Nicholas to sainthood: he loved making children smile. The ancestral home in Enterprise, Utah, bedecked in the very best Christmas décor, captured the spirit of the sublime, or at least it did for us children. On Christmas Eve, the grandchildren, donned in freshly opened Christmas pajamas, would be stuffed into a bedroom upstairs furnished with enough blankets for our little bodies to sleep shoulder to shoulder. As unwilling cellmates in our locked room, our excitement cascaded into a seething pool of joy which sought to keep us up all night. Eventually, our captors would knock at the door, threatening the seizure of presents should we fail to quiet down. Suppressed giggles soon evolved into loud snores. To the best of my knowledge, I can recall no sugar plum fairies dancing in my dreams.

In the morning, released from our cell, we congregated at the top of the stairs, the sleepy ones rubbing eyes and doing their best to wake up. From below, we heard the voice of our Grandfather hemming and hawing over the presents which had been left in the sitting room, exclaiming repeatedly, “Well it certainly looks like Santa found us!” My Grandparents’ home was perfect for this sort of ploy. Corralled at the top of a staircase, we had no view of the sitting room where our goodies awaited. Indeed, we sat in suspense awaiting the permission of our Grandfather to trip, skip, and hop down to meet him. There is a distinct possibility I nearly died of exasperation every single Christmas, yelling down with my compatriots at five second intervals the plea, “Can we come down yet?” The answer was always, “We have to make sure everything got here!” Did I ever believe them? I may have been a gullible child, but not that gullible.

The permission eventually came and we would rush to join the adults, bursting forth like horses out of the gate. When I close my eyes, I can still see the smiles from my Grandfather and Grandmother as they watched, their posterity electrified with the satisfaction reserved for opening gifts. Amidst the cries of joy and laughter, I know he felt tremendous tranquility. A room full of children and torn wrapping paper could only mean one thing: the family was together. Sipping Pepsi and munching on peanuts, he couldn’t be happier.

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Given that my childhood was spent in the greater Salt Lake area, the bastion of Mormonism, my mother had enough of an excuse to make the tri-annual pilgrimage down to Enterprise, Utah, the ancestral home of the Tait family. My childhood is filled with memories of fresh corn on the cob from my Grandparents’ garden, watermelon juice staining my shirts, and pulling sticker burrs out of my not-yet-calloused feet (the damn things seeming to pop up anywhere we rambled). The Enterprise home was the center of the Tait family universe, offering love, sanctuary, and adventure. It was here that William Tait had chosen to settle almost two centuries prior, and it was here that we gathered to revel in one another’s company. In my Grandfather’s rendition of Maslow’s hierarchy, family sat directly below his Mormon faith. Family unity was, indeed, the cornerstone of his personal philosophy, with tradition acting as that binding agent which never seemed to fail.

If the family home, representing the importance of family unity, sat at the center of my Grandfather’s universe, then the Mormon faith was the Newtonian laws governing celestial motion. My Grandfather’s devotion to his religion is without parallel in my current memory, manifesting in a fiery testimony and unwavering commitment. I always had a sense that the Mormon Church was capable of producing zealots, as are all religions, I just didn’t realize until later in life that Ferrol Tait was one of them. His prayers dripped with expressions of gratitude reserved for monastics, and his humility before God hung between his eyes. If he had been born several centuries earlier, he would have made a phenomenal Quaker. In a twist reserved for the most detailed of character studies, however, what he emulated in the faith of Abraham he lacked in the way of Solomon-like wisdom.

When I was 16, I made the decision to break free from the Mormon Church. After an intellectual and theological pilgrimage of several years, I abandoned the faith of my heritage because I could no longer pretend I believed. This left my family shocked and terrified. For in the Mormon paradigm, when you depart from doctrine and belief, you demote yourself to a status carefully reserved for those who deny the truth. The Mormon faithful have little room in their theology for Prodigal Sons, especially if those sons have determined, unequivocally, that they will never be returning. Much like falling out of love, removal from faith is something that creeps up on your conscious mind and is, similarly, incredibly difficult to revive. You wake up one morning and fail to glance at your phone to see if your boyfriend has texted you. What takes place one morning turns into a habit. Later, when you realize what’s been going on, what would perhaps otherwise be guilt is instead a moment of elucidation, a sense of awareness. When rituals between lovers come to an end, they dissolve into memory. They become, much like hearts inscribed into trees along highways, artifacts to a bygone era. So it was that one day, I woke up to find that the culmination of my study had reached a critical mass. I had fallen out of love with the Church.

Very quickly, I became a black sheep in every meaning of the term. My mother, blinded with grief, lashed out. Friends whom I had known for years turned their back. “I can’t trust you anymore,” said one friend over the phone before he hung up, ripping open a chasm of silence that would never be repaired. I cried for hours that night.

Just eight years prior to my departure from Mormonism, my Grandfather had personally immersed me in a pool of warm water, inviting me to make a covenant with God and initiating me into the ranks of faithful Mormons. I took it upon myself to stand among the faithful. I studied with scholarly fervor, convinced that if I simply read enough, the mysteries of God -- magnum mysterium -- would be unveiled. My thirst was insatiable and my insistence on being correct insufferable. But the nature of study, especially that of a spiritual nature is both omnidirectional and amoral. Indeed, the pursuit of truth is an act divorced from a guiding intention. Thus, my Grandfather’s judgment, rendered during my week-long visit to his home one summer, was that I had studied too much. “There is no room for the intellectual in the Kingdom of God. You don’t have the faith it takes.” It would seem so.

From that point on, interactions between my grandfather and me began and ended with a rebuke. Assuming his rightful position as exhorter of righteousness, he harangued me for my youthful foolishness and poisonous lack of faith. The last time I saw him before he died, he whispered in my ear as I hugged him goodbye, “Come back, son. You’re on the wrong path. Come back.” His embrace suddenly reeked of condescension. In that moment, I felt as though a knife had been pierced into my side. I had been sacrificed on an altar inscribed with the name of a god I no longer worshipped.

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Any behavior by old white men is easily diminished or rationalized by the words, “He came from a different time.” Age, it would seem, bestows upon you an eternal “reprint privilege.” Everything you say is “taken out of context” because, after all, contemporary times fail to reflect the context which imbued your formative years with the rules, values, standards, and beliefs now acting as a paradigmatic lens through which you see the world. If this is, in fact, true, then there is an obvious reason I never told my Grandfather that I’m gay. To leave a Church by choice is one thing; to seemingly abandon the traditional model upon which rested his entire moral worldview is entirely different.

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A cough from the familial crowd brings me back. My cold hands are no longer straining with the weight of the casket. I’m standing next to my step-father, my coat gripped tightly around my body as protection against the vigorous wind so distinct to this region of southern Utah (I was once told there’s a folk song which speaks of the winds down here, although I’ve yet to hear it played). Somewhere beyond the heads which obscure my view, a prayer is being offered. Mormons, quite like Catholics, seem to believe that there is a public prayer for every occasion; God never seems to tire of the voice of His Chosen. Yet every culture has its rites and practices when dealing with death. It seems to be one of those characteristic peculiarities which bind together certain species, placing humans in the same category as elephants in their respect for the dead. As the prayer concludes, I hear a whisper somewhere from inside the recesses of my mind, “Grandpa would have wanted a longer prayer.” I chuckle to myself, and turn my face up to the cloudless sky, squinting from lack of sunglasses. Seeing no need to end on a bad note, I instead say the only thing left to say.

Sorry about the short prayer, Grandpa.