By Kevin Rex
Or, right-click to download the audio file here: I See the Moon
My mom named and blessed all of our cars, christening Ruby, a 1968 Chevy, as our first van. Mom had the priesthood back then, even before those damn liberal Christian sects gave women the priesthood. Ruby’s interior was a color that Chevy called Fawn, but it was really just an ugly gray vinyl—cold in the winter and hotter than hell in the summer—and Ruby had no air conditioning. We were the first Mormon family ever to own a van, I think. Now it’s passé. Heck, we’ve even joined mainstream society with the soccer-mom trend and all.
Ruby carried us for thousands of miles between Mormon-occupied territory near Holbrook, Arizona and northern Utah to visit grandparents and our gi-normous extended family. We had many fabulous family reunions with lots of green Jell-O salads. (Grating carrots or adding canned pineapple chunks changes Jell-O from a dessert to a healthy salad, ya know!)
When we relocated to Elko, Nevada, Ruby got us there safely and then took a turn for the worse. Near her end-of-life care, we moved her into hospice—dad’s garage—where she passed peacefully. After a while, Mom demanded Ruby be removed for lack of embalming. Where else would we store all the powdered milk and wheat food storage while Ruby decomposed?
Then came Azurette, a real drag queen compared to Ruby. Custom ordered from our local Chevy dealership in 1975, Azurette was fully loaded with all the bells and whistles, including an interior and exterior of a slightly deeper blue than a bright, high-altitude sky. I wanted to be a professional paint-color name-er-er when I grew up, and I thought Azurette’s should be called Hawaiian Ocean Blue. I could dream of Hawaii, couldn’t I, though I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford to go anywhere so exotic. I had to force myself to be content in the Intermountain West the same way I had forced myself to be content completely hiding that I was gay. The thought of being permanently stuck inside that high-altitude world with the “straight” and narrow ways of Mormonism spawned an insatiable wanderlust in me. Our long road trips helped satiate it, a bit.
Azurette died of complications attendant to a rollover she had in a white-out snowstorm just east of the Ruby Mountains—no relation to our dear first van—where the infamous Donner/Reed Party took the Hastings Cutoff (and very near their point of no return, I imagined). As Queen Azurette slid off the highway, rolled over once, and landed back upright, I was thrown out the back doors like Jonah being coughed up out of the mouth of Moby Dick. Wait, that’s the wrong whale, wrong era, wrong opening in the wrong end of the analogy. Did Jonah even name his whale?
My dad had to go to Salt Lake City to buy our next van as no car dealerships in Elko had any, in spite of the many large Catholic and LDS families living there. But in Utah, under the tutelage of multi-level marketing schemes—MLM’s—the dealerships were catching on to this fast-growing market segment.
When dad drove up to our house with the new van, I wanted to say, “That’s uglier than sin!” But, I didn’t have to; Mom had already uttered it like a curse. The van’s front hood had an angled cut down (making me wonder if their sheet metal workers had gone on strike during the pre-production design) topped off with an ever-so-boring cream and plain brown two-tone exterior and a tan, cheap-looking vinyl interior almost as bad as Ruby’s Fawn. Ford designers just didn’t have the queer eye for the straight car; General Motors, especially Chevrolet, did. Just look at the 1959 Chevy BelAir and the competition Ford Fairlane. Ford missed the mark, kind of like we Mormons lovingly say the Jews missed the mark, so we have to baptize them ex post facto.
Mom didn’t name and bless this van. We just called the new Ford, Ford. I think he was a straight male, definitely Republican, possibly even Libertarian. I don’t know whether Mom was mad at God for the rollover accident or at my dad for picking out an ugly van. I think she was actually mad at dad for trying to pass a semi-truck in the middle of a snowstorm in the middle of nowhere in our brand new van. She was pregnant (her sixth time around), and I suppose it’s a miracle that my little sister survived in the womb. Praise Allah. Oops, wrong religion, wrong deity. Sorry.
No-Name Ford lasted another ten years, carrying our family of eleven kids from Nevada to Utah too many times to count. No-Name also moved us back to permanent resettlement in Utah where we could join Zion again instead of living out “in the mission field.” The move from Nevada to Utah when I was a teenager was one of the most difficult transitions of my life; I covenanted in my mind to not be at all gay as we moved back to the Promised Land, with a firm conviction born of my allegiance to McConkie, Packer, and Kimball. (They sound like a notorious law firm. Either that or a gay threesome wrestling in heaven.)
Maybe Mom didn’t name and bless No-Name Ford because she finally gave in to her husband’s patriarchal family tradition of hearkening to the words of her husband as he hearkens to the Lord, quieting her rebellious nature. She was the first feminist I knew, but gradually, like my own ex-wife, she was brought down into submission—picture Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew. Actually, the opposite is true. Neither my mom nor my ex-wife ever submitted; they just grew internally discontented. Truth is not linear or black-and-white; it’s spherical and goes ‘round and ‘round. It’s my turn on earth. (Thanks, Brother DeAzevedo and Sister Pearson.) Wait, I think “spherical” is a Mormon temple teaching, too! “All truth may be circumscribed into one great whole.” Or is it “hole”? Unhappiness. A black hole.
Mom also kept up her husband’s family tradition of having oyster stew for Christmas breakfast. It helped that Mom loved oysters, but the tradition was part of my father’s side of the family: practical, conservative, conformist. Stalwart Swedes they were. The ranch where my father grew up, and where I spent summers helping my grandpa, was simply called The Ranch. The process of cutting, raking, and stacking the meadow hay was called haying. The dog that helped herd both sheep and cattle was named Dog. My mom laughed at that one over and over again. Grandma would call out, “Dog!” and the collie would come running for her leftovers. The horses had real names, though. They were special. Jim was grandpa’s horse. Trigger was the horse I first learned to ride. Ruby and No-Name Ford, our modern horses, got to travel to The Ranch many times, but Azurette got to visit there only once, and she got fender-bender-ed by my grandma. Oops. How do you handle that kind of insurance claim? Embarrassed. Cheeky Pink.
I first remember Mom singing “I See the Moon” while we drove Ruby to The Ranch. Eventually it became almost a ritual. We’d pass first through Evanston, Wyoming, where my great-grandma lived, and we’d stop to visit her for a short while. Then we’d continue on towards the little town of Woodruff, Utah—named for that famous end-of-polygamy prophet, Wilford Woodruff. The Ranch was just beyond there. It seemed like it was often at dusk or nighttime when we’d finally reach The Ranch, so Mom would point out the moon to us and sing:
I see the moon,
The moon sees me,
Under the shade of the old oak tree,
Please let the light that shines on me,
Shine on the ones I love.
I got to see the moon Sunday morning before sunrise while walking on Hukilau Beach, my very first time to Hawaii. I was fifty, but I sang the song to myself and thought of my feminist, nurturing mother. It was only a sliver of a moon that week. The crescent moon; Praise Allah. Maybe I should join another religion? Nope. That thought quickly fades. The moon came up again while I was at church later that day—as in, “came up in conversation,” not over the horizon inside the chapel. That would’ve been a miracle, and I might’ve changed my mind about Mormonism right then and there.
While attending BYU-Hawaii, my daughter Sariah had met and married Isaiah—a tall, muscular Tongan man who danced at the Polynesian Cultural Center—and I was going to church with them. Why couldn’t I have a tall, muscular Tongan man? Jealousy. Deep-sea Green. “Calmate,” I say to my mind in my native Spanish. Just kidding! I speak a bit of Spanish, left over from when I went on a mission to Peru. I gladly would’ve, should’ve, could’ve, fallen for a short, twink-ee-y Peruvian young man. Regret. What color is that?
Sariah and Isaiah (actually to be true to doctrine, I must say Isaiah and Sariah—patriarchy reigns supreme, you know) had just had their first child, but had already named and blessed him without me, as I can’t name and bless anything at this point in my life. They had given him the name Hagoth, recorded thusly upon the records of the Church, to honor Isaiah’s Lamanite heritage—which is now just “among” his ancestors and not his “principal” ones. Confused. Indian Paintbrush Brown.
Mormon Church church buildings—does that sound too churchy?—on Mormon college campuses such as BYU-Hawaii have double the sanctuaries. Because if you’re building a church, why not build it with two sanctuaries so two congregations can meet at once? Sariah and Isaiah’s ward met at the far end of the building, in the couples-and-families chapel—and by couples I mean strictly heterosexual couples, not the other kind: the kind I wanted. At the other end of the building, nearest the campus entrance, is the singles ward chapel. The whole thing’s called Apartheid. Just kidding. But, when you think about it, it sort-of is a segregation of sorts. Try sorting that out someday when you’re in the psych ward. I’d been there recently trying to figure out why I couldn’t just be a paint-color name-er-er instead of a gay grandpa.
Let me explain. No, not about the psych ward—about the two chapels in one building. If you’re gay and Mormon, then you’re expected always to be single, so you’d always be segregated in that singles end of the building with the other singles, at least until you graduated from college; then you could join a regular singles ward in many of the large cities of the world. If you’re gay, single, and in a small town outside of the Morridor (Mordor for short—that’s the new vernacular term for the Intermountain West where I grew up) then you just attend with the married couples and their families while you pretend you don’t feel ashamed to be gay, single, and childless. Can a gay, single man adopt kids and still be Mormon? No. Now, back to where we were.
A ward is a congregation, did I mention that? You’re going to need a Mormon-to-English translation dictionary pretty quick here. If you’re same-sex attracted—gay in Mormonese—but married to someone of the opposite sex, that’s a mixed-sexual orientation marriage, or MOM for short. As a MOM couple you could be allowed into the couples-and-families chapel to worship, just don’t act too gay if you’re the gay spouse, and have kids as quickly as you can so that you can fit in. If you’re gay and married to someone of the same gender, well then you’re apostate and excommunicated. If you’re transgender, you’re so far out there that you don’t even get to be part of any of the Apartheid chapels. I think that covers the chapel situation and probably gets you halfway to understanding my psych ward visit, too. Self-loathing. Eggplant Purple.
I was disappointed that the double-chapel building looked just like any other LDS chapel in the U.S. This BYU-Hawaii chapel was just double the size—a double-the-pleasure meetinghouse, like the Doublemint girls in the advertisements years ago. That dates me, doesn’t it? My great-grandma in Evanston, Wyoming always carried Doublemint gum in her purse, which she shared with us. That’s the green-packaged gum, which reminds me how envious I was of the Doublemint girls because they got cute boys in the commercial. Envy. Doublemint Green.
The highlight of the sacrament meeting wasn’t the sacrament but the most newly-wed newlyweds speaking to us—we speak, you see, we don’t preach, at least we don’t call it preaching, though it really is—both of whom had naturally highlighted blonde hair from being beach bums in Hawaii. Sister Newlywed gave us their love story, how they met (surfing) and married (surf-board themed), and then a few words on applying the Atonement in our lives using surfing analogies. Applying the Atonement in your life: is that like putting on make-up? Ponderize peculiar Mormon words for a minute here. Brother Newlywed finished the final sermon recounting stories from his mission. Wow, what I wouldn’t’ve given up for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed surfer boy when I was twenty-one! Lust. Fire-engine Red.
After sacrament meeting, I waited for the chapel to empty out so I could play the nicely appointed organ and grand piano. But it took a while because the couples wanted to visit, and given that they are all very busy with school and work, it’s nice that they can socialize a little, even though Elder Packer was rolling over in his grave. A couple of his stodgy admirers amongst the current general authorities preach reverence in the chapel. “It’s a grave sin to visit, or even converse quietly in the chapel,” they sermonize as they pound the pulpit. Oops, wrong era. They only passive-aggressively sermonize now, no pulpit-pounding. “Why a grave sin?” you might ask. Because, “The chapel doors seem to say to me, ‘Shhh, be still.’” There, I got to use double quotation marks, double chapels, and Doublemint gum in one page.
There are many things you can do outside,
We laugh and play and we romp and slide.
But when we go through the chapel doors,
“Shhh, be still.”
The lyrics of the Primary song run through my head. I never drew-out the “Shhhhhh” mockingly loud like some boisterous kids did, my Sariah included. I was practically perfect “Mary Poppins” trying to hide the gay even as a kid. My mom was the Primary chorister for years, dedicating many hours to weekday Primary. Weekday Primary. That was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Primary was held on a weekday after school, and you still had to go to another church class—Junior Sunday School—on Sunday. All I Really Need to Know About Mormonism I Learned in Primary is the title of my new book. I’m going to sell it in the Morridor via an MLM. LOL. Mom had advocated wearing pants in 1974 inside the chapel when girls had to change from their school clothes into a dress just to attend opening exercises for weekday Primary. That was her subtle way of supporting the ERA. Acronyms abound. LGBTQIA. Rainbow colors my world now.
I decided to walk down to the other chapel, where the singles ward had already disbanded, and I played their piano and organ. See? Double-the-pleasure chapels in one building: that’s what I mean! I must’ve been playing fairly loudly because after a while, Isaiah found me. He asked me to join him and Sariah in elder’s quorum meeting so we could watch him be sustained and then set apart as the secretary to the elder’s quorum presidency in the BYU-Hawaii Married Student 6th Ward of the BYU-Hawaii Married Student Second Stake, which is segregated from the rest of the LDS Hawaiian population for reasons known only to God.
“It is proposed that we sustain Isaiah Fifita Fa’onelua as secretary to the . . .” droned the stake high councilman who had been assigned to do the whole calling, sustaining, and setting-apart. “All in favor, please show by the uplifted hand.” I raised my hand. Sariah didn’t.
“Any opposed, by the same sign.”
The voting was unanimous in the affirmative, as it always is, because . . . well, we just follow along and the doctrine of “by common consent” doesn’t really mean anything at all. Sariah didn’t vote for or against in this instance because it was only elders who were supposed to vote, and she was female, so even when she’s old, no one is going to call her elder.
I’ve only seen once or twice anyone actually voting “opposed.” One of those was Sonia Johnson, the famous Mormon feminist, who yelled a firm “No!” in the hear-a-pin-drop Tabernacle during general conference, 1978. We all heard it. That “vote” was whether to sustain Spencer W. Kimball as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator. That was the same year Black men were allowed to become voting priesthood members. We weren’t racist, mind you. It was just an old policy, and we just hate to change things around too quickly. Call us conservative and color us Bleach-your-sheets-White.
Setting apart came next. This is when the stake high councilman authorizes the elder’s quorum president to lay his hands on Isaiah—not punch him, mind you—along with the hands of a couple of other important men in the ward, like the bishop and his counselors. You get a headache, in more ways than one, after this. The president set Isaiah apart from everyone else to do this secretary job and pronounced blessings on Isaiah and his family, like health and strength and daily bread, and please, Lord, more time to take care of this screaming newborn. Hagoth wasn’t being quiet during this lengthy process. The Church is a house of order, hierarchical. Orderliness is next to Godliness. Peachy keen, hunky-dory. That’s the fruit Eve ate.
After all the orderliness was finished, Sariah with baby Hagoth, and the few other women present for the settings-apart were excused so they could have their lesson from the same Joseph Fielding Smith manual just in a different room. Separate but equal, right? I left, too, pretending to be a drag queen and thus part of the gender that was leaving. I went straight to the soft couch and chairs in the foyer to rest my weary mind. Which is where the moon came up.
Epalahame Hopoate Fuifui was bishop in one of the other student wards, a singles ward. My mood brightened a bit when this kindly old bishop started chatting me up, because he talked to me like I was one of the college kids. In that nonchalant voice and character of so many Polynesian cultures, he told me he loved surfing. I chatted with him, he asking me where I was from, and me doing the same. That’s how I learned his name. I had him write it out. It sounded intriguing, and language, like naming paint colors, was a bit of a hobby for me. He was from Tonga originally. It is too much fun to say the word Tonga, and when I think of my mom’s cousin, Tonga Tolman Tyler, whose father went to Tonga on his mission, and how funny it sounds, it almost makes my belly laugh all by itself.
Ruby, Azurette, and No-Name Ford came back to mind. On those long trips, we kids did anything to relieve the boredom. We’d pretend to speak in tongues, blurting out funny sounds in long sentences, with different intonations like we knew what we were saying. I think Mom’s ears were tired of hearing eleven kids chatter, so she tried to guilt us into silence, telling us that by pretending to talk in another language, we might be saying something really naughty and not even know it. “Tonga, tonga, tonga!” we yelled one last time, and then laughed loudly. Was it a swear word? Languages are a uniquely Mormon thing, you realize, what with “Deseret,” the honeybee, and “pe le-El,” the pure Adamic language. Will that pure language be lost now that we don’t say it in the temple anymore?
“My father was the first religion teacher at BYU-Hawaii,” Epalahame explained in answer to my question about what brought him from Tonga. “I’ve lived in Hawaii since I was twelve. We came from Tonga in 1960. I raised my family of five boys here in Hawaii.”
“Five boys,” I exclaimed. “I raised five girls, and my second girl married a Tongan man here while going to BYU-Hawaii.”
“I know him,” Epalahame said as if he’d known who I was all along. “Isaiah Fa’onelua.”
“Yes, that’s him,” I said.
How had he made the connection to me? It must be my bubbly personality—and Isaiah likely had told Epalahame that his father-in-law was gay. I was wearing blue, green, and pink-pin-striped pants, a green bow-tie, a fuchsia colored shirt and a white vest, accessorized with a paisley patterned pocket square bursting with those colors and more. This was not your standard white shirt, tie, and “Mr. Mac’s two-pant-suit headquarters” suit. Yep, he knew who I was.
“We came on a cargo ship from Tonga, like stowaways,” he chuckled. “Just a short time after arriving, my father was called to be the stake president here in Laie.”
“Oh my, that’s a big calling, for sure,” I commented with great empathy. I had served as a counselor in a stake presidency, and I definitely knew how big a job it was.
“Joseph Fielding Smith stayed in our home in 1961 while visiting Hawaii, and I remember it all very well,” he continued with his story.
Joseph Fielding Smith, who is a great-grand nephew of Joseph Smith, spoke at a stake conference that weekend in 1961, and because Epalahame’s father was also a newly called stake president as well as a religion teacher at BYU-Hawaii, Epalahame himself got to be in the presence of a living apostle of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Epalahame’s mother had made special dinners while Elder Smith was with them, and Epalahame remembered those meals well. It was a memorable and spiritual weekend, he tells me.
“Do you remember Joseph Fielding Smith speaking about the moon and the space program during that stake conference?” I asked.
He didn’t remember. My mind remembered. “We will never get a man into space. This earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.” I should put a citation here, but this is all fiction, except for that quote and a few other things, so I don’t have to. Neener, neener, neener.
“Should I begin to crack his shelf, and tell him what Joseph Fielding Smith really said?” I asked myself.
Now that I was out of Mormonism, I would often ask myself during interactions with true believing members—TBM’s we ex-Mormons call them—whether I should present something that contradicts their worldview. That’s what we call “shelf cracking,” or “shelf crackers.” After putting too many unanswered questions on a shelf in the backs of our minds, that shelf starts to crack. Then break. Then fall. Your whole world comes tumbling down, dumping tons of heavy, deeply philosophical, unresolved questions on top of you. Emotional pain. Sinister, Witch-hat Black.
Perhaps Epalahame—calm Tongan man who surfs away his anger, stress, and frustrations on the Hawaiian Ocean Blue waves—doesn’t have a shelf of questions. Peace. Blissful Blue.
“Joseph Smith also talked about men on the moon,” I told Epalahame.
Joseph Smith—the original guy, not the 1960’s grand-nephew—taught that there were men on the moon and that they were tall, stalwart Swedes—oops, I mean Quakers (at least, in dress). And that’s the final irony of ironies: Joseph Fielding Smith teaching that humans will never reach the moon, and Joseph Smith teaching that there were already men on the moon, and Brigham Young bombast-ing about life on the Sun. Is it any wonder I’m crazy, phasing in and out of life like the moon?
“I haven’t heard that one before,” he answered.
“Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels,” I sang quietly—words from Joni Mitchell—just loud enough for him to hear.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Oh, just an old song I thought you might remember, from before my time. I sing often when something jogs my memory, like the moon did just now,” I said with a lilt in my voice.
Isaiah and Sariah, carrying Hagoth, came down the hallway into the lobby where Epalahame and I were talking. Isaiah greeted Epalahame with a warm hug. Hagoth was crying loudly, so I took him.
“Poo-poo to the Proclamation on the Family,” I thought. “I’m a walking paradox, father and mother.” I started singing to Hagoth.
I see the moon,
The moon sees me,
Under the shade of the little palm tree.
Please let the light that shines on me,
Shine on the ones I love.
He stopped crying the second I started singing. Innate nurturer, I am! Feminine Fifties Pink.
We all headed out the back door as Isaiah and Epalahame conversed animatedly in Tongan. I remembered speaking in tongues as a kid and my grin bursts into a full smile. Epalahame stopped by a big blue van. I knew this van! It had a few rust marks, a white bumper instead of a chrome one like ours, a moon roof, and a “tattoo” of a surfer dude on its rear side panel.
“Hello, Azurette,” I said, right out loud.
“Who are you talking to?” everyone asked me simultaneously.
“We used to have a van just like this,” I replied. “Same color, but no surfer dude or moon roof. My mom named her Azurette. The van died in a roll-over accident when I was thirteen. I broke my nose.”
“Oh. This is my surfing van,” lamented Epalahame. “I just don’t get to surf much since becoming bishop,” he repeated for the umpteenth time.
“You deserve a break today,” I said, with a chuckle, “So go out and surf away!”
“Not on the Sabbath Day,” he said, not knowing he was rhyming.
“I deserve a break today, too.” I thought, “Goodbye, Mormon Moonstone God. I’m going surfing. Surfing for men,” Jesus called his disciples to be “fishers of men,” but this would have to be close enough. I laughed out loud, not realizing it. I have lived in my mind so long I can hardly tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Tune in next week to this same bat channel, same bat time, when we travel back to June 1978, where Michael Jackson and I, along with the inimitable Azurettes perform an interpretive dance to Michael’s never-before-released hit song “Revelation.” I think Gladys Knight and The Hips—her new ones—are performing, too, at the invitation of her latest producer, Rusty M. Nelson Recordings, Inc. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we disco! Leave your PTSD behind. Can I live with this two-year’s supply of cognitive dissonance? What color is peace of mind? Tiger Orange Plaid pants, Liberace Gold Sequined blouse, and Temple-White, patent-leather platform shoes. Colors and costuming by me.