Joseph Young was only 16 when he married his first wife, Sarah, a nice girl who had given him eyes all through Sunday service. Much to her father’s complaint, they had dated for about three months and gotten married just South of their hometown of Smithsview, Missouri. She was pregnant in less than a month. It was the summer of 1911.
Joseph was a Latter Day Saint. At first, the Mormons practiced polygamy out of necessity for believers. Now, the church looked down on polygamy for legal reasons. Joseph believed God’s law was supreme; he should marry many. Sarah had not been keen on the idea at first.
“Another wife?” she said. “Am I not enough?”
“Honey, God wants me to free the souls in the pre-existence.” This hadn’t worked as well as he’d planned. She had burst into tears the moment Joseph had introduced her to Angela.
“We don’t have to do this, Joe,” Angela had said.
“Yes, but I love you. It’ll take some getting used to, but eventually we’ll all be one family of God.”
He’d had trouble finding a preacher to perform the service. Finally he located a Rev. Donald Sweezy, native to East Iowa. Sweezy had been excommunicated by the Church for plural marriages back in 1906, but he’d continued to perform the services out of the back of his garage for a small fee. Sarah cried the whole time.
On the way back, Joseph showered Angela with kisses and affectionate talk. Sarah sat in the back of their black Model A and sulked at their giggles.
“Can’t you wait until we get home,” Sarah said.
“Shhh,” Angela said. “He’s trying to drive.” She shot an angry look at Sarah and licked Joseph’s neck. He laughed loudly and swerved off onto the shoulder of the road. The car passed over an unseen nail and punctured a tire. The loud Flump-flump-flump told Joseph something was wrong.
He got out of the car and began jacking the side up. The women stood around outside of the vehicle.
“You know he loved me first,” Sarah said.
“Yeah but he loves me now,” Angela said.
“I love the both of you,” Joseph said. “Equally. With God’s eternal love.”
“Well God loved me first,” Sarah said. Angela rolled her eyes. By this time, Joseph had let the car down and the three got back in and drove back to Missouri. They rode back in silence.
Wife three had angered even the easy-going Angela. Her name was Theresa and she was only 16 years old. Joseph had met her at church and bartered with her father for her hand in marriage. Her father was a bit skeptical and wondered if three wives would be too much for the Joseph, who was barely 21.
“I am doing the work of God,” Joseph said. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I’ll be fine.”
The drive to Rev. Sweezy’s old garage had been tense. Angela and Sarah sat in the back of the Model A, both staring out of opposite windows. Theresa was fascinated with Joseph’s independence.
“How can you just take off and leave the state like that,” she asked. “I’ve barely been out of the house.” He laughed.
“You’ve just gotta go,” he said.
In Iowa, Rev. Sweezy took Joseph’s money and performed the ceremony. There were no witnesses except Sarah and Angela, who cried the whole time.
“Wife number three,” Sweezy asked after the service. “Getting on up there, huh Joe?”
“Lemme tell ya’,” he replied. “It sure ain’t easy. It’s my duty though and I’m not a man to fall short of his responsibilities.” Joseph tipped his hat at Rev. Sweezy and got back into the car to drive home.
Joseph eventually acquired 18 wives, all of different sort. He had fat ones, thin ones, cooks and cleaners. Wife number 15 could sew a mean crochet and several of the girls were good with the children. As soon as Sarah and Angela had gotten pregnant, Theresa had been quick to follow. All in all, the family had 26 children by Joseph’s 40th birthday, the day he resolved to stop getting married.
At first, the wives had a hard time getting used to the way things worked. The bickering eventually subsided, however, and the house hummed along like a fine-tuned machine. One woman’s weaknesses balanced out another’s strengths, giving Joseph quite the formidable working crew. He assigned them various chores and arranged their weekly duties, leaving the house clean, warm and quiet.
One day as Joseph was walking back from Sunday service, he noticed a young girl with curly blonde hair and shining blue eyes.
“Hey,” he said, smiling. “Who are you?”
“I’m Langley Parker’s daughter, Melissa,” she said. “We just moved into the area a week ago. I’ve barely gotten a chance to meet anyone. Who might you be?”
“The name’s Young, Joseph Young. I do maintenance work for the Mormon Church here in Smithsview. Do you attend services?”
“No, my parents are atheists. My father is a doctor and my mother is a midwife.”
“Hmmm,” Joseph said. “Would you like to have lunch with me?”
“Well sure,” she said. “Let’s eat in the park.”
Joseph looked the young girl over on his way to the creek next to the oak tree. She was right pretty in his eyes. He heard the voice of The Lord in the babbling brook telling him this was to be his next wife.
“Yes Lord, I hear your word,” he said out loud.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Would you marry me?”
She blushed and looked away. “Why ask me such a forward question? I’m only 22.”
“It just seemed right,” he said. “A girl your age needs a husband.”
“No man has ever asked me to marry him,” she said. “I’m sorry if I was harsh. I’m just really careful when it comes to lifelong decisions.”
“I understand,” he said standing up. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
As he walked back towards the house, Joseph began to chew at the inside of his cheek. He saw Sarah standing at the driveway holding a bag of what smelled like dirty diapers.
“Michael and Peter have chicken pox,” she said. “Luke and Brigham are starting to develop a mean cough. I sent Emily to her room early because she didn’t eat her lunch.”
“Okay,” Joseph said. He looked towards the field behind their house and noticed the shed door swinging open. He thought about Melissa’s eyes and the way they never stayed locked with his. “Is dinner almost ready?”
“Yes,” she said. “The girls are finishing up the mashed potatoes right now. We’ll eat at five.”
“I’ll meet you inside,” he said. She walked back towards the house as he walked towards the backyard. He heard several children running upstairs and listened as the windows rattled. Melissa’s words kept running through his head. He stood at the swinging shed door and looked inside. Assorted shovels littered the floor alongside a stuffed rabbit. Joseph picked up the stuffed rabbit and threw it out into the yard.
The next day, he saw Melissa walking from the Post Office. Her long red dress shined in the sunlight. He walked up to her.
“I have 18 wives,” he said. She looked at him.
“Do you? That’s quite a feat.” She walked on.
“Does that not tell you that I’m a good husband?”
“No it doesn’t. How could you get to know 18 women at the same time?”
“Well it kind of happened over the course of about 20 years,” he said, thinking of Sweezy’s garage services.
“Are you happy with them?” she asked. Joseph hesitated.
“Well of course I’m happy. I’ve got what every man dreams of: women to cook, women to clean house, and women to raise the children. I get to devote all of my time to the church.” His voice trailed off.
“Women can do more than cook and clean, you know,” She smiled while looking at a tall man walking by with dark hair. The tall man smiled back and kept walking.
“I can’t stop thinking about what you said about making lifelong decisions. I’ve never met anyone like you.” He looked down at the ground of muddy clay.
“Maybe you’re just upset because I didn’t give you the answer all the other girls did,” she said.
“Maybe,” he replied.
“My parents taught me to ask questions and to never be satisfied with the answers until they make sense. Your question didn’t make sense, but it does now. I really have to get going. Goodbye, Joseph.”
He said goodbye and waved as she went down the road. He returned to his house and Sarah was standing by the street again.
“Several other children have gotten the chicken pox, I think,” she said.
“We’ll need to quarantine their room,” Joseph said. “We’ll keep them together until they’re better.”
“Okay. Emily didn’t eat her lunch again today. She complained that she was fat. I told her she wasn’t. I don’t know where she get these ideas.” Sarah went on.
“She’s not fat. I’ll talk to her later. I’m going out back.”
“Okay, but dinner’s almost ready.”
Joseph walked towards his shed. He heard the loud running of the children through the house and a woman’s voice screaming for them to stop. Suddenly a tiny body fell through the window just to his left. The glass fell away from the house in shards. The boy hit the ground hard and didn’t get up.
“Are you alright, Joseph?” The child yelled as Joseph tried to roll him over. Several of the children looked out the second floor window in awe. Joseph knelt down and felt the boy’s arm. It folded in the middle of the wrist like it shouldn’t. The boy cried harder.
“I think your wrist is broken, we’re going to have to call the doctor.”
He pulled the boy’s body upright and carried him into the house. After calling for the doctor, Joseph sat by the boy and listened to him cry. The other children all gathered around and stared as tears ran down his reddened face. When the doctor arrived, Joseph noticed Melissa was with him.
“Hello. I’m Dr. Watts and this is my assistant Melissa. Did you say the boy has a broken wrist?”
“Yes, I think its broken. Hello, Melissa,” he said grinning sheepishly. “The boy is right in the living room.”
As the doctor looked the boy over, the family crowded around to watch. Joseph watched as Melissa held the wrist bone in place while Dr. Watts made a cast. Joseph thought she was beautiful in her white nurse’s outfit—not unlike an angel. When he was finished, Dr. Watts told the boy how to treat the arm to take care of it.
“And don’t be rough with all of your friends here,” he said smiling.
“These are not my friends,” the boy said. “These are my brothers and sisters.”
Dr. Watts’s forehead crinkled. He grabbed Melissa’s hand and stood up.
“Well that’s interesting. Come, Melissa. We must be on our way.” The two hastily stood up and walked out the door. Joseph handed him 20 dollars.
“Its all I’ve got,” he said.
“It will be fine,” Dr. Watts replied. “Just keep that boy inside.”
The two left the house as Joseph waved goodbye. He went back around to his shed, ignoring the questions of Sarah and Angela about the doctor.
“I’ll be in shortly and I’ll tell you then,” he said. The house was quiet.
It was two months before Joseph saw Melissa again. He had been doing less work at the church and it showed. The door to the Sunday school room was about to fall of its hinges, several pews had broken arms, and the grass had grown up in the churchyard. He stopped going to meetings, but he still felt the children should go. Each woman took her own children to church every Sunday while Joseph stayed at home.
One Sunday when Joseph had been sitting in his shed, a familiar figure appeared at the doorway.
“I thought you might stay back here,” Melissa said. “Why aren’t you at church?”
“I can’t go anymore…” his voice trailed off. He looked like he was about to cry.
“What have you done?” she asked.
“The Lord’s work!” he yelled at her. “Since day one, I’ve only sought to further His cause and His Kingdom.”
“And in doing so,” she said.
“I think I’ve been left behind.”
“You can always start over.”
“How,” he asked. “I’ve already done all this.”
“I don’t know, but nothing is final but death. I think you might find a way. I’ve been accepted to medical school in New York. I’m moving next week. I came to say goodbye.”
Joseph’s eyes widened. “You can’t leave. You’re the only one that seems to know what’s going on. You’ve got to help me.”
“Joseph, I can’t.” She turned to walk away and he grabbed her arm.
“I love you. Let me go with you.”
“Joseph…” she looked into his eyes. He built up the courage to kiss her. Their embrace lasted only a second. She pulled away and walked out the door, not looking back. Joseph sat crying in his shed until the family came home.
Sarah called him into the house for dinner. They ate at the long table in silence.