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On a morning in early June, Monty and I climbed into my parents' long car and sailed off to Mesa. I wore a red dress, short-waisted, of a fabric so rubbery you could have used it for waterproofing, and Monty's slacks were green plaid. We huddled close together in the back seat, swathed in unintentional Christmas colors, while my diminutive father steered through Scottsdale's streets and my mother clutched in her arms the foamy billows of my wedding gown. We were headed for the temple.
For as long as I could remember, the Mesa Temple had been the focus of my most unbridled imaginings, a presence so grand it could not be dwarfed by twenty acres of lush lawn. My parents had traveled all the way from Florida to be married in this temple. Then when I was small our family had lived in Phoenix, and I'd ridden past the temple and had walked in its gardens a thousand times. It was the only site I'd considered for my own wedding.
But until my wedding day, the interior of the temple itself had been forbidden to me. I understood nothing of its exquisite sacraments. Although the most significant rituals of Mormonism go on within its temples, and although the Book of Mormon itself warns against secrecies in religion, the temple ceremonies are nonetheless top secret outside temple walls, lest their sacred strangeness be ridiculed and defiled by nonbelievers.
Now the morning when it would become clear had finally arrived. My morning. Many of Mormondom's young men visit the temple for the first time when they are nineteen, on the occasion when they become full-time missionaries, but most women enter the temple initially as brides. There they participate in a wedding ceremony unlike any other in the Western world and--this is what I believed--come to understand at last a host of planetary mysteries.
The universe will open today, I was thinking as Monty and I undertook that protracted drive. I wouldn't have been surprised if God himself had shown up at my wedding; my faith felt that buoyant.
And Monty's mood easily matched mine. He was jammed up against me in the back seat with a jaunty eagerness I would not experience again until it was with another bridegroom.
It's a quirk of the Mormon wedding ceremony that Monty and I weren't actually going to be married that day; instead, I was going to receive my "endowments." (Monty had received his own years before, when he'd left for his mission.) These are sacred ordinances and promises that make a person eligible for the highest heaven, and Mormons partake of them on their own behalf during their first visit to the temple. In the years to come, I would be expected to run through the same ceremony again and again as a proxy for dead ancestors whose names had been discovered through the Mormon pastime of genealogy. (The idea behind the temple is that certain ceremonies, such as baptism and marriage and the "endowments," are vital to a person's placement in the hereafter and yet can be performed only on earth. Unless conscientious mortals turn their attention to the graceless states of those who've gone on, scads of wishful spirits will flap around in limbo for eternity.) Taking out my "endowments," in addition to being a very serious business, was a prerequisite to the marriage ceremony, and is tiring enough that many Mormon brides elect to postpone their wedding ceremony until the next day.
We pulled up beside the temple's velvety grounds, and my mother spilled out of the car first, hoisting my gown in its crackling plastic bag. As I tucked my hand inside Monty's elbow and we mounted the stairs to the entrance, I could already see the Arizona heat shimmering off the temple's concrete walls in waves.
We pulled open the large doors and found ourselves in a big lobby. I recall it as long and narrow, windowless as a tomb and yet oddly light. Everything in it appeared to be upholstered: The carpets were thick, the chairs padded, the population of largely middle-aged church members was plump. At one end of the lobby was a long wooden counter manned by temple workers, as though you might check your coat there. Templegoers were renting items of the all-white ceremonial clothing they would need during the temple rites ahead; the clerks were sliding across the counter dozens of white slacks and shirts and dresses that zipped up the front and looked limp from too many washings. I was glad that my own temple clothes, starchy with newness, were beside me in the imitation leather valise that was one of many wedding presents from my mother.
A couple of my parents' friends were awaiting our family; they were leaning forward off the edges of chairs pushed against the far wall, their feet out in front of them in shoes that were a little orthopedic. My two oldest brothers and their wives were there, too, still in street clothes. I was awfully glad to see them, particularly my eldest brother, Ernest, whom I'd always been close to, and whom I wanted near me during the moments when I would discover new meanings of life during the temple session.