Maybe all you need to know about Marjorie Pay Hinckley is that her favorite sound is the sound of the screen door slamming. To her, that door sounds like summer, like children playing, like family.
Times have changed, of course. She is 91, and there is no screen door and no children under foot. She and her husband Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints live in an apartment in downtown Salt Lake City, which is a strange place to end up for two people who raised their family in what was then the country and love nothing more than working in the yard and the sunshine. They don't get out much these days, partly because of age and partly because they are virtual prisoners of his fame. So it is just the two of them at home, with frequent visits from their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
She is a simple, practical woman with simple wants for a good husband, a good family and a good book, and a love of God and church work. He saw her pleasantness and her basic goodness early on. (He saw Marjorie Pay for the first time more than 80 years ago when they were children attending the same ward.) As a teen she told her mother that young Gordon Hinckley was going places in life. They will celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary at the end of the month.
Recently, while standing at the pulpit together in a church area conference, President Hinckley discussed the years they had been together and began to weep.
"Has it been that bad?" asked Sister Hinckley.
Which is typical. Among the many traits she shares with her husband, humor is one of them, and it has served their marriage well over the years.
I met the Hinckleys for an interview in the Church Administration Building, which was no small feat. It is easier to contact Elvis than arrange an interview with the Hinckleys, because of his demanding schedule and because of her discomfort with interviews. As always, one of her daughters was by her side for the interview in this case, Kathy Barnes, their oldest child. As the interview approached, President Hinckley reminded Kathy, "You're going to be there for your mother, aren't you?"
Sister Hinckley was patient and humorous throughout the interview, but her answers were brief, with almost no elaboration. At one point, recognizing her discomfort, I jokingly asked her how she liked the interview so far.
"Well, I'm not having any fun at all," she said brightly.
When I told her she acted as if she were in a dentist's chair, she said, "I am."
"You can't wait to get out of here, can you?"
"I can't," she said. "I like you, but I can't wait." Even in her moment of discomfiture, she tried to make me feel betterby saying it wasn't personal.
As the interview progressed, I began to feel like I was Ed McMahon to their Johnny Carson. I was their straight man, setting them up for one-liners, some spontaneous, some old ones they had used previously. They are funny and playful together, and they play off one another, not to mention their interviewer.
When President Hinckley noted that he remembered Marjorie as a little girl, she mumbled to him, "I was really cute. Tell him that."
"Oh, yeah, she was a cute little girl," he said without missing a beat.
When she was reminded of the long months that her husband used to be away from home on church business, leaving her to tend their household and five children, she said, "Then he'd come home and think he was in charge."
Their feet have slowed, but not their wit. In the preface of Sister Hinckley's biography, "Glimpses," Sheri Dew recalls a meeting in which President Hinckley began to address a group of missionaries by announcing, "I am going to exercise my prerogative and call on Sister Hinckley to talk with you. This is something for which I will pay a dear price, but so be it." Never at a loss for words, Sister Hinckley stepped to the microphone and said, "I like this man a lot, but I like him sometimes a lot more than others."
In another meeting, President Hinckley again began his talk by saying, "Sister Hinckley and I have been all over the world speaking to missionaries, and I don't know anyone who does a better job at this than she does. So I think I'd like for her to speak for a few minutes." Sister Hinckley leaned into the microphone and said, "I'll tell you exactly why I'm speaking. President Hinckley hasn't decided yet what he wants to say and he's stalling."
In my brief interview with Sister Hinckley, this was my impression: Maybe she is 91 years old, stands 5-foot nothing at best, has gray hair and is as sweet as the Relief Society president's Jell-O, but she is a strong personality. She is independent, knows what she wants, and she can take care of herself. Ask her if it was difficult during her husband's long absences early in their marriage, and she says matter-of-factly, "No, I liked to be in charge." She also added, "Then he'd come home and start running things, and I'd say, 'Wait a minute; I'm in charge here."'
"She's really tough and independent," says Virginia Pearce, another of the couple's three daughters. "But it's not a selfish independence. She was always willing to make herself available to Dad."
During the 1998 Governor's Marriage Enrichment Conference, Sister Hinckley told an audience, "I am very grateful for a husband who always lets me do my own thing. ... He never insists that I do anything his way, or any way for that matter. From the very beginning he gave me space and let me fly.
"What a man!"
There were times, of course, when they had differences of opinion, and she put her foot down and prevailed. He was always, for instance, tearing up the house with remodeling projects. When it got to be too much, she would say enough and stand her ground. He'd laugh or leave the room and let it go.
General authorities of the LDS Church have been heard to say, "She is every bit his equal intellectually, spiritually and socially."
But they are different. As Virginia notes, "They have complementary qualities, which makes them a good team."
The way Virginia describes it, her father is "focused, disciplined, overloaded. And she just had this remarkable ability not to push life. It made home a refuge for him."
President Hinckley tends to be in a hurry while his wife has always taken things slower, even when she was a young woman. He walks as fast as he can go while Sister Hinckley moseys along. "Hurry up, Marge," he'll say.
"Oh, slow down," she'll say pleasantly. She doesn't get upset, but she doesn't walk faster either. Once, when she was asked what she considered to be a good birthday present, she said, "Just to be alive, to be able to put my shoes on and go."
Sister Hinckley describes life with her husband these days this way: "We just get up in the morning, put on our shoes and go to work." He goes to work every morning, at the age of 92, coming home for lunch and dinner with his wife. She has frequent visitors: her siblings, children, grandkids.
Most of her longtime friends have either died or can't get out. Ask her what she does each day, she says, "That's not a problem. I'm just busy all day." Sister Hinckley has the normal aches and pains of her age, but any discussion of them doesn't get far. A conversation with her daughters will go something like this:
Daughters: "Do your knees hurt?"
Sister Hinckley: "Well, I'm old."
Daughters: "You never say anything."
Sister Hinckley: "What good would it do?"
Her advice for living a long life is about what you'd expect from her: "If you're happy, you live longer than if you're unhappy." And she has always been happy and content with the world. In 1937, when a young Gordon Hinckley told her he wasn't sure they could be married because he had only $150 in the bank in those Depression-era days, she replied, "You mean I get $150 and a husband?!"
Her position in a worldwide church has changed nothing. She is still a sensible-shoes woman, ever practical. Once one of their daughters saw her getting dressed in a pleated skirt and white cotton blouse for a reception.
Her daughter protested, "The reception is in honor of Dad and you. He's probably going to wear a tux. Every woman there will have on sequins and diamonds." As she continued to dress, Sister Hinckley said, "I don't have any sequins in my closet, but this skirt is black and the blouse does have a lace collar and, besides that, if we're the guests of honor, whatever I wear will have to be right."
Acquaintances like to say that Sister Hinckley has always just tried to be herself, to which she likes to say, "I couldn't think of anyone else to be."
It has been the great surprise of her life for this simple woman to find herself married to the famous, beloved leader of the LDS Church. "How did a nice girl like me get in a mess like this?" she says frequently.
Says Kathy, "She comes from simple, hard-working stock. I don't think to this day she completely comprehends where life has taken her. She still lives her life, and he has his church job. She wouldn't be any different if he were the chorister in Sunday School."
She grew up in a salt-of-the-earth family and lived in the Salt Lake Valley virtually her entire life. She never learned to swim or ride a bike and never went to college, which was a big regret for a woman who loves learning and books and took classes when she could manage it. One morning during the Depression years she registered for classes at the University of Utah. Later that day she learned her father had lost his job. That afternoon she took a job in downtown Salt Lake City, and that was the end of college.
And yet she has seen the world at the side of her husband, visiting more countries than she can count. Sometimes, she says, she has to pinch herself to see if this is really her wonderful life, one that she never saw coming.
She says she knew from the beginning that she would never be No. 1 in Gordon Hinckley's life God held that position but she took comfort in that. He went to work for the church following his mission and has worked there ever since.
While he was busy opening missions in the Orient and traveling abroad, she was taking care of the house and yard, putting the kids through their chores, driving the boys on their paper routes, picking fruit from the backyard trees. It was a job she loved. When the kids went back to school at the end of the summer, she cried. She hoarded every minute she could with them.Once, when one of her children was required to stay after school for disciplinary reasons, she marched into the school and told the teacher, "You can do anything you want with this boy all day long, but after 3 p.m. he's mine"
"I'm grateful to say our family's turned out amazingly well in my judgment," says President Hinckley, "and I give all the credit to this little lady."
Perhaps it is revealing that all five children live in the same corner of the Salt Lake Valley. Sister Hinckley no longer hears the screen door slamming, but she is surrounded by her children and their children and standing at her husband's side, and she's still putting on her shoes every morning to go to workand is thankful just for all of that."Well, it turned out better than I expected," she says. "It's been a good life."