Pt 7: My Mama, Esther LeBaron Spencer, Me, and the Perils of Polygamy

My Mama, Esther LeBaron McDonald de Spencer 

ma's face
My pretty Mama, Esther LeBaron McDonald de Spencer

“The mother’s heart is the child’s schoolroom.”
Harriet Ward Beecher



We left off last week where I was questioning Mama about her childhood. Let’s continue with her telling me the following unbelievable coincidence:  

“Because I had so much fun with my seven brothers when I was growin’ up,” she exclaimed, “I wanted to have seven boys in a row when I got married. Instead, I got seven girls in a row! [Doris, Beulah/Stephany, Sharon, Judith, Mary, Pauline, ‘n’ Nola]. That just shows ‘to-go-you’: Be careful what you wish for!”

Then she continued, “Aunt Onie [Mama’s father’s plural wife] ‘n’ her daughters ‘n’ my two older sisters, Irene ‘n’ Lucinda, did most of the upkeep of the home ‘n’ the care of the kids, while your Grandma was busy spoilin’ me … ‘n’ teachin’ piano lessons to help your Grandpa feed ‘n’ support his two wives ‘n’ all his kids.

“Besides teachin’ piano lessons there in Colonia Juarez where I was raised,” Mama continued, “Mama/ your grandma was oft’ times gone one or two days at a time, twice a week (up to five days a week sometimes!) teachin’ piano lessons in the nearby Mormon colonies. 

“Even so, she let me out of all the housework ‘n’ other chores ‘n’ responsibilities about the home ‘n’ yard — long as I studied hard to get top grades, went to my piano lessons, ‘n’ practiced the piano long hours  — so I could perform outstanding piano solos in public, to impress our Mormon oppressors, ‘n’ make our family look better in the eyes of the town’s people who always gossiped about us ‘n’ put us down.

“Consequently, “Mama laughed, “much to your Pa’s aggravation ‘n’ disappointment, once he married me, he discovered I didn’t know how to be a homemaker!

 All I knew how to do was be a pianist ‘n’ scholar … and artist, ‘n’ poet, ‘n ‘writer. At twenty-two, when I married your Pa, I could barely make a bed, let alone bake bread!

“When your Pa complained to your grandma that I didn’t know how to boil water, let alone bake beans, she merely retorted, ‘Ah, well … She’s got plenty of years ahead to learn them things!’ “

But the upside is Mama was the top student in her small, mostly Mormon 8th-grade graduating class. Thus she got to give the Valedictory Address! 

“And, as part of our graduating program, I also played a difficult piano solo, “The Fawns,” Mama proudly informed me. “Plus I harmonized in a duet I sang with another student  — while my mama accompanied us on the piano … I was only thirteen years old!

But my gettin’ so many important parts in our graduation program, ‘n’ outdoin’ all the other Mormon kids that were supposed to be so much better than me and my polygamist family, created envy ‘n’ aggravation amongst the Mormon colonists who’d been so busy runnin’ us LeBarons down all them years.

“But at least they saw Dayer’s family had excelled in spite of bein’ made the scapegoats of the town … ‘n’ treated so low down … like untouchables … though my older siblings (Irene, Ben, Lucinda, Wesley, ‘n’ Alma) got it lots worse than I did,” she ruefully reiterated.

“By the time I reached my teens (as I told you before, I was the seventh child) the Mormons had decided to start treatin’ ‘apostate’ Dayer LeBaron’s family better.

“They finally begun lettin’ us participate in their Mormon Social’s, for example —  especially after they saw what the persecution had done to my older siblings: 

“For example, Ben ‘n’ Lucinda had nervous breakdowns in their late teens. Then eventually went completely crazy … never to recover! Spent most of their life in a mental institution,” she said, tearfully wiping her eyes.

Then Mama continued, “Since it was a Mormon colony, all the school ‘n’ church socials were always combined. That meant we were always left out of everything — especially my first six older siblings!! It was devastatin’ … so hard on my talented ‘n’ gifted older brothers ‘n’ sisters … So very painful for them ‘n’ my whole family!!”

Continued in: “My Memoir: My Mama, Esther LeBaron McDonald de Spencer, Pt 8″ 

 

Pt 6: My Mama, Esther LeBaron Spencer, Me, and the Perils of Polygamy

My Mama, Esther LeBaron McDonald de Spencer

ma at 14
My mama, Esther LeBaron McDonald de Spencer, at age 14


“People are what their mothers make them.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson



I left off in last week’s blog where Mama had exclaimed how, despite persecution and her own religious confusion, she had wonderful times doing things with her half-sisters, Aunt Onie’s children. And had also loved being not only the middle child but the only girl in the middle of seven brothers: Ben, Wesley, and Alma were born before Mama. After her came Joel, Ervil, Floren, and Verlan.

Mama explained to me, as I continued to question her about her life growing up:

“Ma had four girls. But my sister Jenny died at age six from eatin’ poison mistletoe berries. I’d just turned four. After we arrived home from Jenny’s burial site, some Mormon neighbors met us with food ‘n’ flowers. I told them, ‘We left Jenny up there on the hill!!’ “

“Ma couldn’t bear to discipline me after losin’ Jenny so I was spoiled rotten. Then I was pampered even more after Ma had twins, David ‘n’ Mary — who also died. I was eleven by then. They were the last kids she bore … but they were ‘Blue babies:’ The cord was wrapped ’round their necks, so they strangled to death. 

“Irene, my parents’ oldest child,” continued Mama, somberly: “was nine years my senior. She grew up ‘n’ left home by the time I was ten. And Lucinda, five years my senior, had a nervous breakdown at age seventeen. She was in a mental institution, off ‘n’ on, after that — till years later she had to be institutionalized for the remainder of her life. When I asked Mama why she went crazy, she was in one of her rare moments of utter honesty as see responded to my query:

 “I was twelve when my gifted, artistic, ‘n’ highly sensitive sister Lucinda had her first mental breakdown. What broke her was hearin’ one of her Mormon teachers (who was also the Mormon Stake President of Colonia Juarez) runnin’ her father down to her High School class.

“He didn’t know she was in the back of the room. Among other things, he told the class: ‘Lucinda’s father, Dayer LeBaron’s a crazy crackpot … a bad man … an apostate! He’s goin’ to hell … ‘n’ may even be a son of perdition.‘ [The worst thing you can be in Mormondom!]

“But what also lead to your Aunt Lucinda’s emotional breakdown,” Mama added, “was she’d gone into the bathroom medicine cabinet ‘n’ secretly taken a bunch of pills to try to start her period. The pills made her deathly sick!

“Eventually, Ma ‘n’ Pa found she was pregnant. So Pa beat the livin’ daylights out of her. Why? Because she’d lost her virginity … and was now gunna have a bastard baby who was not only part Mexican, but its father wasn’t even Mormon! So Lucinda had brought even more shame on our despised ‘n’ denigrated family!

“After Lucinda went crazy, Pa beat her relentlessly … tryin’ to beat the devil out of her. Evil spirits had taken her over: She’d been turned over to ‘the buffetings of Satan,’ due to her transgressions ‘n’ fornication.”

Mama never told me the rest of the story — Just one more story that was covered up so the iconoclastic “Mexico LeBarons” would look like “A godly family with a saintly mission.”

“Needless to say,” Mama continued, “When Lucinda went crazy, your grandma spoiled me even more. The loss of Jenny, then my oldest sister leavin’ home … ‘n’ now Lucinda goin’ out of her mind, caused Ma to treat me with kid gloves ‘n’ coddle me like a treasure beyond measure!

“Besides, I was her only daughter left at home. Gettin’ top grades at school, along with my looks ‘n’ charms … ‘n’ playin’ difficult Piano Concertos like Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto in C Sharp Minor,” was helpin’ to make our family look better. Ma valued me for that too.

“I was like the Savior of the family, so to speak. So, though I was the middle child, I wasn’t insignificant the way a middle child often is … especially since I was the only girl ‘mongst all them boys!”


* Please note: When I quote/ paraphrase things Mother said, way back when, please don’t think I agree, by any means, with all her ideas or ways of thinking and doing.

That’s the way I was raised. But that was a long time ago. Since then, I have routed out a lot of these backward beliefs, and ways of thinking, and behaving — Let’s hope! — Not only in my values but in my lack of prejudice, as well as in my rationality and understanding.

Perhaps Mama even changed a bit, in her outlook and values, too, before she died at age ninety-two. I wasn’t around to see.

Continued in: “My Memoir: My Mama, Esther LeBaron McDonald de Spencer, Pt 7”



Pt 5: My Mother Esther LeBaron Spencer and Me

 

My Mama, Esther LeBaron McDonald de Spencer

IMG_6326
My beautiful mother, Esther LeBaron McDonald de Spencer

 

 

Juarez Stake Academy
(Jr. High/High School of Colonia Juarez, México)



“My mama is so good to me,
She works for me each day,
So She can buy me food and clothes,
And many toys for play.
I love my mama,
Yes I do, my mama good and kind;
And if I looked and looked,
No better mama could I find.”
(Author unknown — Children’s song)




As a kid, I used to ask Mama what her life was like when she was a kid. Fundamentalist Mormon “Saints” believe they are/are supposed to be perfect. So Mama mostly only told me about the many good things in her life as she was growing up. But she sometimes would admit to some bad things that happened too.

For example: In answer to my questions about her childhood, Mama exclaimed: “I loved my life! It couldn’t have been more perfect! The persecution my older brothers ‘n’ sisters had to suffer had let up a lot by the time I was of school-age. And Pa only gave me one spankin’ in all my life — which I deserved! [She wouldn’t tell me what she did to deserve it.]

“However, I still experienced feelings of low self-worth ‘n’ excruciating shame … which I always worked hard to try to overcome. Even though my siblings ‘n’ I were top students at Juarez Stake Academy [Her High School’s name], it still really affected my self-esteem ’cause I grew up with my family bein’ looked down upon ‘n’ not bein’ accepted.

“The LDS Stake President ‘n’ Superintendent of our school system said my brother Ben was the brightest student ever to have gone through the Juarez Stake Academy!” [It was a very small-town High School, to be sure, in the early to mid-1900s, when Mother and her siblings attended this Mormon colony’s public schools. So not too much competition.]

Mother often talked about The-best this” andThe-best that!” (This is how I was raised!) The jury is still out on whether Uncle Ben still holds that title — or if he ever held it at all! But I always heard about how brilliant he was — before he had the mental breakdown and schizophrenia/bipolar disease set in.

Mama continued: “So despite how well us LeBaron kids did in school, my parents were called ‘apostates.’ And people in the Mormon colonies were told to not associate with us, other than for doin’ business.

“Ma ‘n’ Pa didn’t, therefore, go to church, though they believed in Mormonism. Even so, us kids went to the mainline Mormon colony’s only Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There, we were taught the revisionist Mormon doctrines: That polygamy was now a sin, for example … ‘n’ they taught me my parents were sinners.

“Yet, since my parents were Mormon fundamentalists, at home we were taught the orthodox Mormon doctrines — The Mormon beliefs lived before the Manifesto of 1890.

“It was confusing to have my ma ‘n’ pa pointin’ out how the Mormon church was now out of order …  all the while at the LDS church I was goin’ to, my siblings ‘n’ I were taught our parents were out of order ‘n’ on the wrong path — ‘n’ therefore goin’ against God ‘n’ God’s leaders — so headed for hell!

“But even though Pa had more than one wife, ‘n’ people of my same faith were makin’ fun of our family ‘n’ my father, they respected Mother’s piano teachin’ ‘n’ playin’ … And my own piano expertise, too … ’cause Ma was the best piano teacher … ‘n’ I was the best pianist in the colonies!”

[There was at least one other outstanding pianist back then in the Mormon Colonies in Mexico: The one who taught Mother to play Piano Concertos, etc. (Ione Fenn?) — so Mother could accompany a Symphony Orchestra performing Piano Concertos. I don’t recall hearing much about this expert pianist and piano teacher … or whether she was really “the best”!]

But let’s let Mama continue: *”So I grew up with mixed feelings: On the one hand, I knew I was the best ‘n’ most outstanding girl in town — And for that matter, in all of Mormondom.


*”How could I be sure of this? ‘Cause whenever church Apostles ‘n’ other church leaders visited our colony, they would tell us the Mormons of Colonia Juarez were the very best ‘n’ purest of all the Mormons they met in any other Mormon town or city.

“And I knew I was the best ‘n’ purest of all the girls ‘n’ women in Colonia Juarez. So that’s how I knew I was the best ‘n’ most perfect woman in the whole world — given that Mormon women are better, to begin with, than women of the world …

“So, as you said befer, I knew I was the best ‘n’ purest of all them Mormon women. [I will enlarge upon this in a later blog. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on it. LOL!]

“But on the other hand, I came to feel like my family ‘n’ I were the lowest people in town — due to how so many people talked ’bout us, ‘n’ shamed ‘n’ shunned us.

“Still, when my two older siblings, Ben ‘n’ Lucinda, went crazy, that added more ridicule, ostracization, ‘n’ shame to our family. [In those backwards days, especially in small towns, the mentally ill weren’t looked upon kindly.]

“Even so, and in spite of all our sorrows ‘n’ religious confusion, how I loved playin’ with ‘n’ doin’ things with my half-sisters, Aunt Onie’s children — Barbara, Clara, Verla, and Ilene. And how I loved bein’ the only girl in the middle of my own seven brothers: Ben, Wesley, Alma, Joel, Ervil, Floren, and Verlan. 


 Please note: When I’m quoting things Mother said, way back when, please don’t think, by any means, that I agree with all her ideas or ways of thinking.

That’s but the way I was raised. However, it was a long time ago, and I have changed a lot since then (Let’s hope!) — not only in my values, but in my lack of prejudice, and in my education, rationality, and understanding also.

I’m sure Mother changed some in her outlook, beliefs, and values, too, over the years. Since I left her cult and moved away, I wasn’t around her a lot in her last forty-six years.

But the few times I had spoken to or seen her during that time of estrangement, I could only wonder how she never saw through the numerous fallacies she preached and believed in so zealously: Things such as polygamy, for example — even though she was too jealous to live polygamy, herself (according to Daddy).

 

 

Pt 4: My Mother Esther LeBaron Spencer, Me, at the Perils of Polygamy

My Mama, Part 4 — Esther LeBaron McDonald de Spencer 

LeBaron homestead.jpeg
Mama’s home in Colonia Juraez, Chihuahua, México

“God could not be everywhere,
so he made mothers.”
 (old Jewish proverb)



As I related in the previous blog, Mama’s family returned to settle in the Mormon colonies in Mexico in 1924. Mama was around two-and-a-half years old at the time my grandparents and Aunt Onie fled the United States, barely outsmarting a mainline Mormon mob, arrest, and being thrown into a Utah jail for having broken the law by entering into polygamy.

“My family had lived in various Mormon colonies in Mexico previously,” Mama told me, “goin’ back and forth between them and the United States a number of times over the years.

“By our return in 1924, Pa had been able to buy a large fixer-upper home in the poorest section of Colonia Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. It was one of the homes abandoned by Mormon colonists who fled back to the United States to avoid the catastrophes of the Mexican Revolutionary War of 1910.

“Bein’ a pretty good handyman, Papa, along with the help of my three young brothers, Ben, Wesley, and Alma, and some cheap Mexican laborers, was able to soon fix the home up enough to live in.

  “We were lucky we could afford even that piece of property to house Papa’s two wives and soon-to-be ten children — for your Grandma was expectin’ her ninth child, Ervil … and Aunt Onie was pregnant too.

“In 1929, five years after our family moved to Colonia Juarez, the United States’ Stock Market crashed. Many people lost all their money, and huge numbers of people were out of work. It was hard for Pa to find any payin’ jobs in the terrible economic depression that had set in. 

“So our family was stuck livin’ in the Mormon colonies where we were excoriated and rejected. Every day, on the way home from school, mainstream Mormon kids would call us Mormon fundamentalist kids horrible names, throw rocks and sticks at us, and chase us home, tryin’ to beat us up.

We didn’t understand why they would do this, because some of them, though not excommunicated from the Mormon church, were kids of polygamists, themselves! Or their grandparents had been polygamists — before The Manifesto of 1890 outlawed polygamy in the Mormon church.

“Most adults in town just looked the other way and let it happen … Let their kids beat us up and call us horrid names. Some adults even encouraged the children to harass and molest us. 

But, despite all this,  Mama and Papa had hoped their children would eventually be accepted back into the social setting in Colonia Juarez, thinkin’ it was still the best place to raise their kids.

“Unfortunately, not till I was in eighth grade did the Mormon colonies let up on some of their ostracization toward the LeBaron family … Partly ’cause they’d seen what this terrible persecution had done to my older siblings.

“But by then, my elder siblings had suffered from seven to eleven years of heavy rejection and intolerance — the treatment given the worst outcasts and scapegoats in Mormondom,” Mama moaned.

Really sad, I say! One of those things that should never happen to any child! And unfortunately, it only added to what Mother and her siblings already had suffered growing up in their stoic, fanatically religious Mormon orthodox family — with a crackpot father at the helm, besides.

But to top it all off, Grandpa Dayer was often absent months at a time, struggling to make a living working in the United States doing odd jobs, and painting houses — or whatever else he could do to bring in money. (As I mentioned before, Mexican law does not allow Americans to earn a wage in Mexico, even though they have children born there!)

It was extremely hard for Grandpa Alma Dayer LeBaron to support his two huge, constantly expanding and growing young families, especially between the years of 1929 and 1946 — the years of the Great Depression in the United States and World War II.

Needless to say, what happens in the US also affects its neighbors south of the border. And so, against this backdrop of dire economic straitjacketing, Grandpa, his two wives, and their swarm of young children and teenagers were all living under the same roof for seven years.

I don’t know how many children the two wives ultimately had, during the seven years they lived in “the big house.” I only know that Grandmother already had eight children and another soon to be on the way when Grandfather married Onie as his plural wife in 1923.

Among Mormon fundamentalists, the practice of birth control was a mortal sin. So altogether, Grandma bore Grandpa thirteen children, and Aunt Onie bore him six — before she left him. (More on that later.)

I’ll leave you to a guesstimate of how many adults, children, and babies in diapers were housed altogether, under one roof, before Grandfather could finally afford to buy a separate “roof” for his second family!

Continued in: “My Memoir: My Mama, Esther LeBaron McDonald de Spencer, My Mama, Pt 5”