“The Face in the Photo,” New Era, Apr. 1990, 36
Clay Brimhall eased the Bronco into traffic and began weaving his way toward the interstate. He couldn’t resist a kind of sad, ironic smile, thinking that two weeks before he had been driving a BMW from Washington, D.C., to an elegant house in the Maryland suburbs. Now he was driving a Ford from Salt Lake City to a condo in Provo. Divorce changes things.
Was it a mistake, he wondered, coming back here to try to rebuild his life? Once Utah had been home, but that was years ago. Was this fair to Carrie, his only child? She had come willingly, foregoing her plans to attend college at Georgetown in D.C., but still he worried that it might not be the right thing for her. Carrie’s decision to come with Clay seemed neither to surprise nor disappoint her mother. “You were always the one who cared the most,” she had said, matter-of-factly. “It’s natural that she would want to go with you.”
Carrie was in the kitchen preparing dinner when Clay came in from work.
“Hi, Babe. How did you get along at the mall?” her father called from the hallway.
Clay tossed his briefcase onto a chair, entered the kitchen, and gave his daughter a hug.
“Did you leave any clothes on the racks?”
“Not in my size,” she replied happily.
“Ah, good. I wouldn’t want to be accused of not spoiling my daughter.”
“I met a boy,” Carrie said.
“You did? Tell me about him.”
“Well, he works in the mall and goes to college. He’s studying communications and he’s funny.”
“Does this person have a name?”
“Jeff. He took me to lunch. And we’re going out Saturday night. With my father’s permission, of course.”
“He sounds like a fast worker.”
Carrie smiled. Then her face clouded a bit. “There’s one problem,” she said. “He’s a Mormon.”
Her father laughed. “So are you, Babe!”
“No, I’m not, Daddy. Not like he is. I’ve hardly been to church since I was little. I think he goes all the time. He was even a missionary in South America.” Carrie noticed a sadness in her father’s eyes; then she remembered. “You were a missionary, too, weren’t you Daddy? I’d forgotten.”
Clay nodded his head. “Yes, I was a missionary once,” he said slowly. “Long ago.” He turned to leave the room. “I’m going upstairs to change now.” At the doorway he stopped and caught his daughter’s eye. “Don’t burn the Jello,” he said.
As he walked deliberately up the stairs, Clay’s mind was suddenly flooded with memories of his time in the mission field. Memories of a young man full of faith and zeal. What had happened to that person? he wondered. Had he come back to Provo to look for him?
“I’ll get it,” Carrie called to her father, who was working in the garage. She opened the front door to Jeff, who was holding a bouquet of dandelions tied with a red ribbon.
“For me?” she said in mock delight.
He bowed. “A dandelion by any other name …”
“Would be a weed just the same,” Carrie concluded.
Jeff laughed. “That’s good. That’s very good.”
She smiled. “Come in while I get a vase for the flowers.”
“Be careful,” Jeff warned. “These are the long-stemmed variety. Very delicate.”
“Of course,” Carrie nodded, sticking the yellow weeds in a glass of water.
“In fact, they’re not indigenous to this area.”
“No. I had to go to a pasture on the edge of town where the moisture content and other stuff in the soil make the conditions ideal for long-stemmed dandelions.”
Carrie gave Jeff a skeptical look. “Did your parents have any normal children?”
Just then, Clay entered from the attached garage. “Hello.”
“Daddy, this is Jeff. Jeff James,” Carrie said. “Isn’t that weird? He has two first names.”
Clay smiled and extended his hand. “Please excuse my daughter’s rude behavior. Her mother and I failed in our attempts to teach her good manners.”
“She was probably a slow learner,” Jeff said.
Carrie gave him an indignant look and a little punch on the shoulder. “You two talk while I finish getting beautiful,” she said, heading up the stairs.
At the top of the landing, Carrie stopped and called down to Jeff, “Show my father the lovely flowers you brought me!”
Jeff looked a little embarrassed as he turned and followed Clay into the living room, but Clay was smiling as they sat down. It had been a long time since he’d seen his daughter so animated, so happy.
“Carrie tells me you’re a returned missionary,” he began.
“Yes, sir. I was in Argentina,” Jeff reported.
“I served a mission in the north central states,” Clay said.
“Oh? Where’s that?”
“That included Minnesota, the eastern Dakotas and Manitoba, Canada.”
“Big area,” Jeff observed.
“The Church was much smaller and the missions a lot bigger in those days.”
“It’s exciting to see the way the Church is growing,” Jeff said.
“Yes,” Clay said slowly. “Yes, I guess it is.”
“Did you read about the new stake in Nigeria?” Jeff inquired.
“No, I didn’t.”
“The work’s going great there. My folks are in Nigeria now on a mission.”
“Your father’s retired, then?” Clay asked.
“Uh huh. Well, he’s not really my father. I call them my folks because they sort of raised me.”
“I see,” Clay said. But of course he didn’t see at all. What did “sort of raised me” mean? Looking at Jeff, he suddenly found himself lost in thought. There was something familiar about him. He looked so … wholesome—so good. Wasn’t there a scripture about that? Clay searched his memory for a moment, but it wouldn’t come to him.
Jeff was a regular at the Brimhall residence for the next few weeks, and Carrie was soon attending church with him. There followed other changes in Carrie’s life. She began reading the Book of Mormon, and Clay noted her praying in her room before bed. Also, there was a subtle, almost imperceptible difference in the way she looked. It was nothing Clay could put his finger on, but it was real nonetheless. Clay felt both pleased and threatened by these spiritual stirrings in his daughter. Carrie was all that he had now. Was he going to lose her too? That possibility frightened him, and the feeling manifested itself in resentment toward Jeff. Clay tried to mask that resentment because he knew it was misplaced. One day, though, it spilled over when Carrie innocently repeated to her father something that Jeff had said.
“Well, isn’t your young man all wise and knowing,” Clay remarked sarcastically.
“What is that supposed to mean?” she asked, looking both stunned and hurt.
“It means that when you’ve been around as long as I have, everything isn’t either black or white.”
“Who said that it was?” Carrie challenged.
“Jeff is 22 years old,” Clay went on, “and except for his mission, I suspect he’s spent his whole life here in this valley surrounded by Primary teachers, quorum advisers, and bishops. What does he know about the world?”
Carrie sat quietly for a moment, biting her lip. When she began to speak, she did so slowly, to keep her emotions in check.
“Jeff was born in Texas,” she said evenly. “His mother was an alcoholic, and he never knew his father. He lived dozens of places and had a lot of ugly experiences before he was taken in by a Mormon couple when he was 13. I think he’s seen a little of the world. I also think you’re jealous, Daddy. I think you’re jealous that Jeff found something special to guide his life. Something that you once had.”
Clay had no reply as Carrie rose and left the room.
The following Sunday afternoon Carrie returned home from church to find her father in the living room paging through an unfamiliar green book. Clay glanced up. “Jeff’s not staying for dinner?”
“No. We’re going to a fireside tonight though. What are you reading?” Carrie wanted to know.
“My missionary journal. I found it the other day when I was unpacking some things.”
Carrie peered over her father’s shoulder. He was looking intently at a photograph he’d found in the journal. A family of five, flanked by two missionaries, jumped out at him, and the memory of that day and the events that led to it brought the sting of tears to his eyes. Suddenly he remembered the scripture that had escaped him the night he met Jeff. It was from Alma in the Book of Mormon: “Have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances?” (Alma 5:14). It was there, on the faces of those people in the picture—the image of God in their countenances.
Clay handed Carrie the photograph. “Recognize anyone?”
Carrie looked closely at the old photo. “How old were you when this was taken, Daddy?”
“Twenty,” he said. Then he asked, “Does that picture of me remind you of anyone?”
“Jeff,” she said without hesitation. Carrie walked from behind the chair and sat down on the couch, opposite her father. “Daddy?” He looked at her. “Do you still believe in the Church?”
Clay turned away and stared out the window. “Yes, Babe,” he said softly, “I do.”