by Dawn Houghton
My mom claims Marilyn Monroe is the Mary Magdalene of her generation, misunderstood and angelic, so my mom goes about thinking of ways to save Marilynâ€™s soul.
Instead of a usual Monday â€œFamily Nightâ€ where we talk about charity or honesty, we wait until the weekend and we watch Marilyn movies, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, Some Like it Hot, Bus Stop, and The Misfits at the Avalon theater on State Street using our first-of-the-month check each time. It is the 15-year anniversary of Marilynâ€™s death. My mom says Seven Year Itch doesnâ€™t have good moral values because it’s about the temptation of affairs and because of the scene where Marilynâ€™s dress blows up in the air, plus it’s one Marilynâ€™s ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio, didn’t approve of, so we donâ€™t watch that one.
My mom starts going crazy doing genealogy. She makes each of us our own â€œBook of Remembranceâ€ with our names on the front and a drawing of our family tree on the first page. She says that on Sundays, doing genealogy is a way of keeping the Sabbath holy.
The family tree in my Book of Remembrance says that my dad is Charles Derrick; my mom says it isn’t anybody’s business who my real dad is. “What’s legal is what counts,” she says. Besides my mom, step dad, Moroni, Rachel, Grace and our grandparents, uncles and aunt, there isn’t anyone else on the family tree.
My mom discovers that Marilynâ€™s real name was Norma Jeane Mortensen at birth and then Baker and that Monroe was Marilynâ€™s grandfatherâ€™s name which went all the way back to James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States.
We have pictures of Marilyn, cut from magazines and collected by my momâ€™s best friend Sister Sylvester, the pictures are from the Enquirer and Hollywood Yesterday and Today. One is of Marilyn as a child with Easter clothes on and there’s another where she’s an adult, wearing a flower dress standing in front of a swimming pool for her last movie Somethingâ€™s Got to Give. My mom pastes them in her own â€œBook of Remembranceâ€ with captions that read, â€œNorma Jeane, face of a distraught child,â€ and â€œMarilyn, shortly before her untimely death. Note: movie never completed.â€
My mom tells us things about Marilyn, like that she was sensitive and intelligent; and that Arthur Miller wouldnâ€™t have married a knucklehead. Even though my mom says Arthur Miller was a real catch, she says her favorite husband of Marilynâ€™s was Joe DiMaggio, a man who was caring as any, the proof of which is an item she cut out of a Ripleyâ€™s Believe it or Not paperback. She pastes the unbelievable item alongside a photo of Marilyn drinking Coke from a bottle; it says that Mr. DiMaggio faithfully put roses on Marilynâ€™s grave once a week.
My momâ€™s number one goal is to make Marilyn a Mormon, but sheâ€™s been told that only a relative can request that. Once, when a woman claimed she was Marilynâ€™s daughter in Star magazine, my mom wrote and asked for permission to have Marilynâ€™s temple work done, meaning make Marilyn a Mormon through baptism and so forth. The daughter actually wrote back but with the answer no and to leave her family alone because they’d been through enough already.
But somehow my mom proves to the deciders high up in the church that we are related to Marilyn as distant cousins. She does it by finding a Monroe in our family tree and adding as many other Monroe names in the middle until it comes to her own dad, my Grandpa Graneau, whose third cousin married a Munro.
The day my mom gets the letter with her name typed on the front from the church office building in Salt Lake City, she won’t open it until she pulls out her Book of Remembrance and looks at one of Marilyn’s pictures glued toward the front. In the photo Marilyn has brown hair and freckles on her nose and sheâ€™s wearing a blouse with long sleeves and a high collar. My mom reads the letter under her breath but when she gets to the part saying she can do the temple work, she reads it out loud and slowly and then reads it again but this time even louder and slower.
I have never seen my mom so happy as that day. Her neck is pink and she is walking on tiptoes around our living room. She is giggling. She puts Marilynâ€™s baby picture–that she cut out of a magazine from the dentist’s office and glued to a piece of cardboard–on the piano and starts singing the song â€œCome, Come Ye Saints.â€
“Though hard to you this journey may appear. . . All is well, all is well,” she sings. It is one of her favorite church hymns; it is about the pioneers making their way to Utah. We sing it, too, all of us except my sister Rachel who never sings anything. Marilyn’s baby picture falls off of the piano and lands on my mom’s lap. Then my mom says a thank-you prayer.
On Sunday, before sacrament meeting, my mom tells a few Sisters and Brethren about the possibility of Marilyn becoming a Mormon. We are in the foyer, I am passing out programs and getting pats on the head for it. Grace is standing close to my mom; Moroni and Rachel are sitting and sliding on the back pew. I see two of the brethren raise their eyebrows and smirk like they’ve just heard a nasty joke.
“Do you think sheâ€™ll accept it?” one of the sisters asks, meaning accept being Mormon.
â€œShe wonâ€™t accept it, not with her morals,â€ Sister Edwards whispers.
â€œMarilyn was a beautiful person,â€ my mom says to Sister Edwards.
Sister Edwards makes a sound to let my mom know that she thinks we’re nuts; she walks away and loses her shoe, but instead of putting it back on, she picks it up and keeps walking right by me and into the chapel without taking a program. I follow Sister Edwards to the front of the chapel and put a program next to her when she sits down.
â€œYouâ€™re sweet,â€ she says and takes a deep breath.
My mom checks out books on Marilynâ€™s life from the library. My favorite book about Marilyn is one with a pink cover and Marilyn making a kissing face; inside, in the middle, there’s a picture of Marilyn with her hand behind her head, and she’s naked. I look at the picture a lot. My mom says it’s too bad that Marilyn had to start out having pictures taken in such a vulnerable way. She also says Marilyn has a perfect body.
I’m old enough to do baptisms for the dead in the temple, the rule is to be at least twelve; my mom wants me to do Marilynâ€™s baptism: she says it’s something I’ll remember and be proud of my whole life. I like Marilyn. I memorize a poem she wrote about a willow tree and imitate her soft voice from the movie Bus Stop. And I like the kind of funny, daring person she was in Some Like it Hot.
On the day we go to the Salt Lake temple to do Marilyn’s baptism, the bus driver compliments both my mom and I on our dresses when we put our change in the meter. I think of how he doesn’t know I’m about to do something important. And how he’s important for taking us downtown. Iâ€™m missing school for this, but itâ€™s a good reason.
â€œMarilyn could be watching us right now. Imagine how excited she is,â€ my mom says during the bus ride. After she says that I feel a little scared and wonder if Marilynâ€™s ghost will haunt me.
We get off of the bus by the main post office downtown and walk two blocks. Around the outside of the temple is a tall, stone wall. There are places to enter temple square as a visitor; to look at flowers or go inside the Tabernacle and hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir practice their songs, or go inside the Visitors Center and look at pictures of Jesus and his apostles and lions with lambs. Inside the Visitors Center on the second floor there’s a big, white statue of Jesus, taller than a house, and Jesusâ€™ arms are out and all around him are stars and planets and in his hands are the scars from the nails used to put him on the cross. It’s the statue that Vincent’s brother Ron threw the rock at when he went crazy.
The temple looks like a castle, gray and pointy, made of granite, and on top is the tall gold statue of the angel Moroni who my brother is named after.
â€œForty years to buildâ€ my mom says.
â€œI knowâ€ I answer.
â€œIâ€™m just saying. Can you believe it? Forty years. Iâ€™m not even forty years.â€
I donâ€™t answer because we are at the side door to the temple and people are quietly entering.
My mom points down a hallway and lets me walk in front of her to a desk where a man in white clothing waits to look at my temple recommend, a small piece of paper signed by the bishop. We walk down a hall that feels like a tunnel but with lights and the kind of tile floors schools have. A gray-haired woman, also in white clothing, greets us. Sheâ€™s not wearing a ring or a necklace. We are inside now, there are white walls and high ceilings and carpet; it is quiet and clean. The woman takes us to the ladies dressing room where there are benches and lockers. She asks me if I’m on my period. I say no and my mom tells her that I hadn’t even started for the first time yet and the woman shakes her head and smiles at me and I wish my mom hadn’t said that.
I go inside a dressing stall and hang my blue corduroy jumper and yellow cowl-neck blouse up in a locker. I put on a white jumpsuit and my mom, who is now dressed in white too, helps zip up the back.
â€œMari is named after Marilyn; Mari with an â€œiâ€. That makes it all the more special,â€ my mom tells the woman in white who stands smiling with her hands clasped in front of her.
â€œYes,â€ the woman says softly.
Two other women, both wearing white dresses and white pantyhose, walk me to the baptismal font. The font is held up by sculptures of big gold oxen, standing in a half circle. I walk up the painted-white metal stairs. Three other people in white clothing, two men, rush to the top of the platform once I step down into the water. I hear a murmur of voices; I hear Marilynâ€™s name. The people on the platform want to watch Marilynâ€™s baptism. They smile at me like they’re my grandparents.
After the man, who stands in the water with me, says a prayer and says the name Norma Jeane Baker, because that’s Marilyn’s official name growing up, the man dunks me all the way under the water. I pop up to the sounds of soft claps and some people even have both hands to their mouths as if my coming back up is a miracle.
Once my mom told me that if a person is really happy that you’ve done their temple work, they’ll show their appreciation by making your face change to look like theirs for a split second, so I say, “Do I look like Marilyn now?” and the people on the platform laugh and my mom stands at the top of the steps and smiles and nods her head yes. Her eyes are puffy and pink and she holds a tissue up to one side of her nose.
I dry my hair in the locker room and change back into my jumper and cowl neck. We go to the Walgreenâ€™s restaurant just down the street, to share a grilled cheese sandwich and a Sprite at the counter.
While we eat, my mom tells me she thinks that Marilyn accepted it and that she’ll thank me in heaven for what I did. She also says that we’ll probably all be friends someday. When the check comes, I wonder if my mom has enough money.
Back at our trailer, my mom says she has to pick the kids up from Mrs. Yang’s. I like it with just the two of us so I say, “Listen to one thing?” and she says she will but just one thing. Then she walks around the house drying dishes and crying to Elton Johnâ€™s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album, borrowed from Linda Mercer’s brother’s collection. I play the song “Candle in the Wind” because it’s about Marilyn. For a while my mom leans in the kitchen doorway with the dish towel at her hip and listens to the song. She makes a soft pouty face with her eyelids half closed and her lips pushed out when Elton John sings how Norma Jeane never knew who to cling to when the rain set in. Then my mom stares in the same hopeless way Marilyn did in The Misfits when Clark Gable went a little crazy with the horses, sort of sad and lost, with nothing left to look forward to.
Art by Freckle Face Girl
Thanks for your fascinating story, Freckle Face. You are a great narrator.
I am especially enjoying how skillfully you are using Marilyn Monroe as the hinge that is twisting religion and family.
Freckle Face did the art, btw. The story was written by Dawn Houghton.
Thanks for making me aware of that, Robert.
My apologies, Dawn Houghton. As I said above, great short story. And my compliments to Freckle Face for the art.