“Yes, the pioneers had it hard. But if they could see the temptations and trials of today, they wouldn’t trade us places.”
It was my then-85-year-old grandma who said it over a plate of Mormon comfort foods — mashed potatoes that had been under-beaten by a fork, a side of brown roast and an even browner mound of what I assume were once vegetables.
Everyone around the dinner table politely nodded. An hour later, I climbed into the car with my then-boyfriend (now husband). The moment he shut the passenger door, he asked me about it.
“What was that pioneer thing all about?”
I often forget he didn’t come from a Mormon family in the heart of Zion like I did, and so sentiments that often roll over me (a person who grew up with pictures of Jesus hanging in the bathrooms) sound like alien proclamations to him. His cultural inquiries had already become commonplace by the time he heard my grandma’s pioneer remark. Only weeks before this, a family member said she felt the presence of the Holy Ghost and he, in absolute sincerity, whispered “how spooky!”
We once came across a statue of the resurrected Lord hovering over Mary and he whispered into my ear, “Is that supposed to be David Blaine?”
One time he asked me what Mormon missionaries do all day, so I told him they talk to people who are “investigating” the church. He gasped, put one hand to his chest, and asked “like the FBI?”
It doesn’t come from a place of mockery, truly. They’re wholly innocent, his observations. Many of them sound as generous as others sound critical. Not long ago he overheard a passing reference to “the woman taken in adultery” so he asked what that meant. I shared the story — about how Jesus told the judgmental scribes and Pharisees to pound sand. When I finished the summary, my teary-eyed husband responded, “Awe. Jesus seems like he was a really sweet guy.”
So I wasn’t surprised that he had never heard this saying about Mormon pioneers and our hypothetical pissing match with them over the generational size of our respective trials and tribulations. Nor did it catch me off guard that he would have found my grandma’s declaration unusual.
“It’s something I’ve heard throughout my life,” I explained to him. “People often say the pioneers wouldn’t trade us places because our challenges today are so overwhelming.”
He wasn’t buying it, and he asked me to give him an example of a temptation from the modern world that would so terrify the pioneers that they’d give up access to TV just to avoid it.
“Well,” I said, “some people think the pioneers would be horrified with internet pornography.”
He was quiet for a moment, and then he pushed back.
“I’m pretty sure if I told the pioneers I could give them consistent access to hot water that comes out of a faucet in their climate-controlled home with down pillows in every room and a washer and dryer in the basement, and in exchange they just had to avoid looking at naked people through a piece of glass, I’d have some takers.”
In the years since my grandma spoke this cultural aphorism, he has referenced the pioneer “lie” as often as he could find an opening.
“Could you imagine going to the dentist in the 19th century to have a tooth pulled without proper pain medication?” a friend once said to us.
“Yes,” my sarcastic husband responded. “But if the pioneers could see what we go through today, they wouldn’t trade us places. Do you really think they’d want modern medicine if it meant they also had to deal with navigating Costco crowds on a Saturday?”
I can’t stop him at this point, and I’m not sure I want to. I left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and haven’t been religious in nearly a decade. Naturally, I have a lot of complicated feelings about my former religion, so these takedowns of my youth’s adages sometimes feel like a high-five — validating, if not satisfying. But then he’ll see my Mormon mother write in his birthday card “I’m so glad to have you in our forever family” and he’ll say to me, “What a nice concept — that you should try to love your family so much that you want to be with them forever.” As much as I’d sometimes like to pretend otherwise, I can’t deny those moments often bring tears to my eyes.
Recently we went camping. I don’t know why. We aren’t any good at it. We spent hours chopping wood with a dull ax, starting a pitiful fire, and cooking bland food over smoldering coals. We eventually climbed into our tent to lie on rocky ground that somehow seemed to be equally sloped in every possible direction. I, shivering, snuggled over to my husband to try to find some warmth.
“This is miserable,” I murmured.
“So miserable,” he groaned.
Then I heard a quiet giggle before he continued.
“I bet the pioneers wouldn’t trade us places.”
Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.