'Angels to Bear You Up' recounts the dilemma of paying rent or tithing

By Judy C. Olsen

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Jan. 30 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Editor's note: This an excerpt from Judy C. Olsen's book "Angels to Bear You Up," which was recently published by Covenant Communcations.

I turned 10 years old the year life changed for me forever. There were only six of us living at home at the time, my parents and four children: Carol, Douglas, Sara and me. Two of my sisters had already married.

We had just moved to a small town in the Midwest, leaving behind a large, beautiful home in Seattle, as well as extended family members, friends and years of meaningful church callings.

My sister Sara and I started at a new school in Waukegan, Ill.; Douglas started at a new high school; and my sister Carol, who had just turned 18, was planning on going to college. We didn’t know anyone in that small town. I felt my world had turned upside down. But as things go, that was only the beginning.

Not long after we moved into an old two-story house on a tree-shaded street, my dad was hospitalized. One night after I had gone to bed and fallen asleep, I was shaken awake by my sister Carol.

“Our daddy has just died,” she told me gently. “You need to come downstairs.” He was only 46 years old.

In my half-drowsy state, I walked woodenly behind her, knowing some terrible calamity had taken place but not sure yet what it would mean to my already fractured world. In the living room stood five or six men and women, all strangers to me. We had not even had a chance to attend the small branch, yet here were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to help my mother at this terrible moment. We all stood in a circle, and someone was saying we needed to pray. At some point, the enormity of it settled in, and tears started to fall. A woman put her arm around me and held me close.

The next morning, Mother expected Sara and me to go to school. Looking back, she probably needed us to be cared for while she dealt with a hundred details, but I didn’t see how I could. I asked her to at least write a note to the teacher. I couldn’t just go to school as if the world had not irrevocably changed overnight.

So Mother scribbled a note. I took the note to school and, with great self-control, handed it to my teacher. She began walking away then stopped, turned, and read the note to the class. She looked at my stiffly composed face and said, “Aren’t you sad?” The dam broke, and I put my head down on my desk and cried and cried.

We headed back to Seattle for the funeral, and the procession that followed us to the cemetery was more than a mile long. But everything we owned was still in Illinois, and a week later we headed back.

Once home, we tried to pick up the reins of life. It was not easy. My mother was 42 and had been a full-time homemaker who had created a home for a husband and six children. She had two years of college behind her and no real marketable skills. Those first weeks were very hard. There was no money coming in. In time, she applied for and received Social Security survivors’ benefits and found a low-paying job that would get us through. But right then, those first weeks, we were in great financial distress.

My sister Carol went to work instead of to college, and my brother Doug took up an offer to live with an aunt and uncle in Oregon to finish high school there. I felt like our whole family was somehow falling apart. Sara and I came home from school to an empty home, something we had never had to do before. It was a sad time.

One Saturday morning, my mother changed out of her clean-the-house dress and into a nice go-to-the-store dress, as women did in those days. She picked up her handbag and then, instead of leaving to do the grocery shopping as she had done for countless years, she went into the living room and sat on the sofa.