The Day They Gave the Park Away
Last year the county bought a saltwater park on Port Susan, a deepwater bay on Puget Sound. It is a lovely spot, but when it was privately owned we couldn’t afford the entrance fee.
Now the painted green sign said “County Park.” It looked inviting, so I cranked our old car toward the entrance.
On the cliff to the right were some giant trees of the past: firs that would take at least three pairs of arms to encompass. To the left we saw a curve of beach strewn with sun-and sea-washed driftwood. The children immediately envisioned fortresses, castles, hideouts, and jungle gyms. When the car stopped, both doors flew open as one, and we raced over the logs, jumped into sand, picked up loose pebbles, and cupped our hands to make leaky buckets. All the while we laughed and thanked God for his goodness.
We went to the park many times after that, and found others enjoying it, too. The leaves changed from green to a blaze of gold, brown, and orange. School, chill breezes, and football interfered; fewer people went. But we kept going.
Last Monday, five-year-old Amy prepared our family home evening—a lesson, a story, and some games. She proposed we have it at the park. The vote “for” was unanimous.
Monday came; so did the clouds. Monday evening arrived; so did the rain. I vacillated, then said, “Come on, let’s go anyway.” My wife, Ann, hesitated, knew she was outnumbered, and headed for the closet to get the coats.
The rain had settled the dust on the gravel road between the park and home, and a clean, damp smell rose in its place. As our little car jounced over the washboard road, we sang, “Give, Said the Little Stream” because it had a verse about rain in it. The tune wandered at times, Jill was half a verse behind, and squeals from the baby punctuated here and there, but sing we did while the one remaining windshield wiper beat time. We were finishing “Oh, Beautiful for Spacious Skies” (there was a small disagreement between Joel and Amy over whether that song could be sung on a rainy day) as we drove into the park entrance. One sweeping glance revealed something missing: not one car, truck, or camper was there to blot the landscape. No moving soul was there. The whole panorama was ours, unfettered and free.
Our balding tires squeegeed on the wet blacktop as we rolled to the beach and ran for the sheltered picnic table. One by one we found a place and waited to see what Amy had prepared for home evening.
Amy loved her role of conducting, and with solemnity and an air of importance she called on someone to give the prayer. She led the opening song while I dashed after Jason, who had toddled toward the incoming tide during the prayer.
Amy, with the help of Mommy, gave a skit about reverence in sacrament meeting (no small problem for our children), and then led a discussion about working out a job chart. After that everyone played “Simon Says.” The children loved it and so did we.
Ann’s treats were gobbled up faster than you can spell disaster. Then, while she held the baby (who was getting fussy by now), the rest of us played hide-and-seek in the dusk.
My lungs hurt from hard running as I wove in and out of the trees lining the beach drive. I found a trunk with a girth that exceeded mine and pressed myself close to hide from my pursuers. The rough-channeled maple bark gave off an aroma of wet moss and nutty autumn, and I relaxed to capture this moment as I tried to still my errant breathing lest the enemy should hear. It was then the thought came firmly to my mind:
“The family is a divine unit; family home evening has been given you for your joy and your salvation.” The thought burned through me. I knew it was true.
“We see you, Daddy,” the children squealed in delight. I let out my best lion’s roar, and their shrieks filled the empty park. I bent down to catch a girl under each arm, while Joel scrambled on my back. With a full heart I hobbled back under my delightsome burden.
As we scrambled into the car and started chugging up the hill, Joel turned and waved, “Goodbye, Park!” We all looked back. The breeze-tossed branches returned the wave.
“A Small Taste of Love”
When I first met Bert Braack in the early 1930s he was nearing the end of his search. He had taken the Bible admonition, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7), as his personal invitation to prayer, and it had brought him a challenging answer.
Bert’s mother died when he was nine, and his father, an atheist who wanted no part of religion, ran preachers off with a gun. The large family of children received no religious and little moral training. Drinking, smoking, and swearing were a way of life with them.
Yet as Bert grew to maturity and left home to make his way in the world, he says there was a deep craving within him. He wanted desperately to know if there was a God. And if so, what was that God like?
He began attending different churches and reading the Bible. The words in Matthew prompted him to ask for himself, and so, like the youthful Joseph Smith, with an intense desire to know the truth, he offered his first prayer: “If you are there, God, let me know and I will do what you want me to do.” And as he knelt, he says, “A great peace engulfed me, my heart burned within me, and a joy such as I had never known flowed over me. I felt as if I were completely immersed in a great spiritual essence.”
For three days this feeling remained with him, and during all that time, he says, “I hardly felt my feet touch the ground. The pure love of God seemed to completely encompass me, and it was wonderful. During this time I loved everything. I had never cared much for children, but now a great love flowed out from me toward them. I had cursed the rain; now, drenched in it, I loved every minute of it. If this is a small taste of the love of God that fills the celestial kingdom, no wonder the lamb and the lion can lie down together and there is nothing to hurt or make afraid.”
After three days this great joy left him, and he felt he had lost the most precious thing in the world. In great agony of soul he prayed to God to restore it, but he was left on his own. Only now there was a great difference—he knew there was a God. He knew God was real, for he had felt his love and power. He knew God would answer sincere prayer, for his prayer had been answered.
Then came a time of soul-searching. He had made God a promise. He would keep it. He would do what God wanted him to do—if only he could find out what it was. Determined to put his life in harmony with the truth, he first felt God would want him to change his life, so he quit smoking and drinking and tried to overcome other faults.
Then, surely God would want him to learn the truth. He began to study the Bible. Later he read the Koran, works on Buddha, Confucius, and other religious philosophers. The religion shelves at the public library became his schoolroom. He could not rest until he gained knowledge of the truth.
“The local protestant minister was a sincere man who wanted to baptize me,” Bert recalls, “but I gave him a strange answer. I told him that it would do no good for him to baptize me because he didn’t have the authority. I don’t know why I felt this way, but I knew it was true.”
At this point Bert arranged to move to Raymond, Washington, where he remembered seeing many churches. There he began questioning the ministers. “What is God like? Describe him to me. If I met him walking down the street would he be a man? Is he six feet tall, or more?”
The answers were not satisfying. He was told he could not meet God, that God couldn’t walk, that he was not any size but was something that filled the universe.
One day he noticed a small tract at his sister’s home called Rays of Living Light. He read it excitedly and asked his sister where it came from. “If you had been out on the desert for days, dying of thirst, and someone gave you a drink of clear, cold water, you would feel as I did when I read that tract,” he says. “I knew it was the truth. It was as if I were dying of thirst for the truth, and now I had received a small cup of it. I wanted more.”
Bert’s sister told him that her doctor, who was something called a “branch president” in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had given it to her. She thought they were called “Mormons,” too.
Soon Bert had some well-marked tracts, a Book of Mormon, and an invitation to attend church. It was at the doctor’s office I first met my husband, Bert Braack. I next saw him in church. He attended all the meetings. His searching questions kept the members busy studying for the answers.
At last he had found someone who could explain God to him. Joseph Smith’s description of God and Jesus rang true. He could understand a God with a real, tangible body—a God who could walk and talk, one he could meet face to face and who could love with the great love he had felt once before. After a long search, he knew he had found the church with authority to baptize him, and since his immersion one autumn day in the cold Willapa River, his testimony has never faltered.
When the Sun Broke Through
In the summer of 1952 the young people from our branch were enjoying Girl Scout camp near Helsinki, Finland, and anticipating a visit from President David O. McKay. A beautiful grove surrounded by tall birch trees was chosen as the setting for welcoming the president, and since the summer had been lovely, we believed that this special day would be beautiful too.
As the time approached, and we talked of his visit, one of the girls suddenly asked, “What will happen to our testimonies if he does not act and look like a prophet?” Little by little, doubts began to creep into our minds. The darkness of these doubts seemed to be reflected even in nature, as dark, heavy clouds gathered above our heads on the day of his coming and the rain came down in torrents. I remember sitting under a large tree with a friend, watching the rain beat down on the lake, and again and again my thoughts returned to the gnawing fear that the president might not meet our expectations. I knew he would not appear in white robes like the prophets of old we saw in pictures, but that he would be dressed like an ordinary man. So strongly did I fear losing my testimony that if I could, I would have run away. But that was not to be, I had been chosen to give the welcoming speech.
As we walked toward the grove, the rain let up, but the sky was so gray and the clouds so heavy it was almost dark. Our Scout uniforms were wet, and we were drained of enthusiasm. In silence we formed a U-shaped line and waited. My place was in the middle of the line. I was supposed to take three steps forward, greet President McKay and his company, wish Sister McKay a happy birthday and give a flower to her.
Into this dark, damp setting drove a black car. And then, as President McKay stepped from the car, the sun broke through and suddenly the grove was a sea of light. The leaves and grass sparkled as the rays of sun hit the raindrops. We were stunned and momentarily blinded by this intense light.
I looked at the president but could not see him clearly. All I could see was his majestic silhouette against the sun, with the light against his beautiful white hair forming, it seemed, a shining halo around his head. We all gasped and stood in awed silence.
The time had come for me to take my three steps forward and welcome the president, but I could not move. I knew that if I took those three steps, he would immediately see the doubts and fears in my heart that had been tormenting me. Everyone waited, and I stood there helpless.
Finally we heard the mission president, Henry A. Mathis, prompting, “Sister Valkama, didn’t you have something to say to us?” I forced myself to take three very small steps. The tears streamed down my face and onto my uniform. President Mathis said, very patiently, “You’d better come a little closer. We can’t hear you.”
Again, three small steps, and again I tried to speak. Confused and embarrassed, I stood there and wept quietly. Then I heard President McKay’s voice.
“Come here, my child.”
I went to him and he took both my hands in his and held them while I gave my greeting. I was aware of his golden, tanned skin and the warm light in his eyes. I felt as though it was as important for him to help me as it was for me to give my message. A feeling of complete peace flowed from his hands into me. My fear of him judging me, which I had felt only a moment earlier, left me and an overwhelming feeling of love had taken its place. I knew he was the prophet of God who had come not to judge us but to love us.
Thus, I gave my greeting. Then the president asked if I would act as translator for him while he spoke. I felt honored, but past experience had taught me that it was difficult to retain the message while translating, as I concentrated on the individual words and their meanings. And this was one time I felt I would have liked to hear and treasure the message.
Still holding my hand, he then told us about his visit to the Holy Land where he had walked in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus did. To my surprise, as I translated, the words seemed to come effortlessly and I was able both to translate and to retain his words. Once more I was assured he was a prophet.
As long as I live, I will treasure the memory of that unusual day twenty-four years ago.