“Hello,” Connie said.
“Hello and good morning, Sister Gordon!” said a voice cheerfully. It was a quarter to eight in the morning. Connie thought cynically that nobody would be that cheerful on the phone at that time of day unless they were about to ask a favor.
She was right. “And you did such a wonderful job helping the kids write the roadshow last year, that I just wondered—”
“Sister Jennings,” Connie interrupted, “I think it would be wonderful, and I hope the kids do a good job of it, but I just can’t do it this year. I just don’t have time. I hope you understand.”
“Oh, but Connie, there’s just no one who can do it like you—”
“Thanks for saying that, Sister Jennings, but you understand, I just haven’t the time. There are lots of other sisters who could do a better job. Will you excuse me, now? I’m really busy.”
The conversation lasted another five minutes before Sister Jennings finally realized that Connie meant her refusal. Connie was almost shaking with anger when she hung up the phone.
Then, suddenly, Connie felt terribly guilty. She couldn’t believe that she, of all people, could feel so hostile, could be so irritated by another good Church member, who was just trying to fulfill her calling. Why had Connie wanted to hang up on her? The whole ward couldn’t be out of tune—it had to be Connie.
She remembered the times she had heard of people who left the Church because another member had let them down, or because they had had their feelings hurt. How could anyone be so immature? “What a cop-out!” she had thought.
Then there were the sacrament meeting speakers who related the steps to apostasy (they must have found them in an old Improvement Era, she thought; she had heard the same talk in at least three wards now). Each time, she had smugly checked off each step, thinking “Well, thank goodness, that one doesn’t apply to me.”
Recently, though, she had found herself conjuring up excuses to miss Church meetings, leaving the phone off the hook to forestall telephone calls, and sourly second-guessing the speakers and teachers at the meetings she did attend. Even the testimony meetings, which had always left her with smeared mascara and a deeply spiritual feeling, seemed to have lost some of their power.
She winced to think of how sharply she had spoken to Sister Jennings this morning. Of course she could have helped the kids put together a roadshow script; she’d done it before, and enjoyed it thoroughly. She could find the time, too. After all, being Social Relations teacher and having two school-aged sons didn’t exactly place her in contention for the World’s Busiest Mormon Mother Award! It was just the timing, Connie thought, and the way Sister Jennings had acted—as if she’d expected Connie to do it! The same old trapped feeling, like Connie really didn’t have a choice.
Looking back, Connie wasn’t sure when her joking complaints (“If they’d only invent a 36-hour day!”) had turned to bitter recriminations (“If we only had more time, maybe we could be decent wives and mothers!”). It might have been at Christmastime, when one by one the special projects she had planned for her children were preempted by the chairmanship of the ward Christmas program, taking care of the Elmore children (three of them, all under four!), and serving on the homemaking day brunch committee. Miraculously, she had also managed to do the shopping, decorate the house, and make all the holiday goodies and huge meals. But Connie had felt no trace of the warm glow of Christmas she had always felt before.
Yes, Connie thought, it was about then that she had begun discovering little inconsistencies in her life and the lives of her friends. Like the way she had neglected her sick neighbor because she’d had to finish her visiting teaching; and the way the Samsons had had to leave the pleasant two-family get-together with the Gordons to go home and “get home taught” because it was the last day of the month. Connie had become more and more skillful at catching people living the letter of the law and ridiculously ignoring the spirit. Everybody, including Connie, was so busy doing their jobs that they forgot to be brothers and sisters. Especially me, Connie thought, depressed.
A shout from the back bedroom reminded Connie that the decline and fall of the Little Falls Ward would have to wait. Steven needed clean socks, and the eggs were waiting to be scrambled. She sighed heavily and went back to her morning tasks.
She was a day behind in the laundry. She had to tell Steven to wear yesterday’s socks. She was behind in everything. Did it matter? Did she care? As she scrambled the eggs she wondered how she could pick herself up, get back in tune. Fast and pray? She realized she was already munching on one of the chocolate chip cookies waiting to be put into somebody’s lunchbox. Talk to the bishop? The home teachers? Hi, I have a little problem; I don’t like the Church anymore. Talk to Ron? She knew what Ron would say. He had already said it.
Reading the scriptures had always helped before; she’d try it again. As soon as she had a minute.
And when would that be? When she had been under pressure before she had always sped up, done things more quickly, caught up. Now she just slowed down, put things off even longer, got farther behind.
This morning she had looked in the mirror and said, “You’re a loser.” The lines around her mouth had become really deep; the trace of a double chin she had always had was now a frankly fat, matronly face. Connie had been shocked at her resemblance to Aunt Emma, now in her sixties. I’m only thirty-four, Connie thought.
When breakfast was over and everyone was gone, Connie went shopping. Tuesdays were the days to go if you wanted to avoid crowds. But the clerks were all sour-faced, lazy, and indifferent. Connie remembered that she used to be able to inspire salespeople to smile and treat her like a special customer. Now even the labels in the supermarket seemed cynical. “Joy.” “Cheer.” Did Madison Avenue have no mercy?
Her bumper sticker said, “Happiness is family home evening.” Connie sighed wearily.
As she turned the key in her front door, Connie heard her telephone ringing. Probably Sister Jennings again, asking her to reconsider about the roadshow. After the fifth ring she surrendered and picked up the phone.
“Hello.” Her voice was not brusque, exactly, but at best quite businesslike.
“Hello, Sister Gordon?” Another cheerful voice. Who? She couldn’t place it immediately.
“Yes, this is Connie Gordon.” Make it quick, she thought, there’s ice cream in the grocery bags.
“Sister Gordon, this is Helen Miller. I was wondering—if you’re not too busy, I mean—could I come over to your house for a few minutes?”
Connie was vaguely surprised that Helen Miller was still in town—wasn’t she moving? Yes, the Millers were going to another state. Connie felt a stab of regret—she liked Helen Miller, from a distance, and had intended for quite a while, every time she thought of her, to invite her for lunch, get to know her. There had never been time. And now there’d be no time at all.
“Of course,” Connie answered. “Come whenever you can, I’ll be here.”
Why did Helen want to come over? Connie thought about her as she put away the perishables and hurried the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher. Helen Miller had joined the Church a little less than two years ago, and at first had been an on-again off-again attender. Like I am now, Connie thought wryly. But in the last few months Helen had become extremely active: she was one of the ones who radiated happiness and love. Did I ever radiate anything? Connie asked herself. Maybe, a million years ago. The front doorbell rang.
There was Helen, looking as slim and pretty as an eighteen-year-old in a pair of levis and a slimline blouse. She was holding a beautifully wrapped package, looking, Connie thought, self-conscious and effervescent at the same time, if that were possible. She came in at Connie’s invitation.
“Sister Gordon Connie.” she began, “we’re on our way, but I just had to say good-bye and give you this. I tried to call you earlier, but—well, here.”
She handed Connie the package, and Connie thought how much it was like the first time little Steven had given her something he had made by himself. Helen watched anxiously, excitedly. It was a plaque, exquisitely lettered and decoupaged, finished to perfection. Did she make this? Connie wondered. It must have taken hours!
Connie started to comment on the beauty of the plaque, to say how the colors were just right for her kitchen. But words stopped coming when she read the inscription. Where had she heard it?
“Guard closely a sense of the wonder of life, of the joy of giving, of love for another. For in a heart devoid of these, God cannot dwell.”
“I couldn’t leave without telling you, without thanking you,” Helen began. “Your friendship has meant a lot to me, you know, although we’ve never really spent much time together.” Connie felt complimented, bewildered, and guilty all at once. Why hadn’t she followed the prompting to invite Helen over to lunch one day? Helen was giving her far too much credit.
“I owe my testimony to you, my marriage, everything!” Helen said, the words tumbling out. “You’ll never know.” Helen began to cry, and instinctively Connie put her arms around her. Stunned, she listened as Helen described the problems she had had after joining the Church: how disillusioned she had been when she discovered the frailties of the ward members, the seeming hypocrisies. “Everyone was so busy, no one had time to care. I thought,” Helen said.
Don’t I know it, Connie thought.
Helen went on and told how she had fluctuated from week to week between resenting the Church for the friction it caused with her nonmember husband and resenting her family for trying to block her from Church activity. “I was turning into a witch, Connie; you can’t imagine.”
Oh, can’t I? Connie thought.
“It was on one of the resent-the-family-and-go-to-church days that I attended your class in Relief Society, Connie. It was like words from heaven! I needed so badly to hear the things you said. I came up after and asked you for the quotation. Remember? And you smiled and talked to me and made it all seem so hopeful. You probably don’t remember.”
“I remember,” Connie said. The lesson had been on priorities, how the Church was organized for man, and not man for the Church, and all the commandments and programs were only to help us to become more Christlike, closer to the Lord, and more loving toward our brothers and sisters.
Connie pictured herself, the Connie of long ago. Young, slender, confident, full of happiness and feeling guided by the Holy Ghost as she taught. She had prepared herself through fasting and hours of fervent prayer, and she saw in the faces of the women in the room that the Spirit had carried the lesson into their hearts. But that had not been so long ago, really—five or six months.
Helen couldn’t stay: they wanted to make it to Kansas City before dark. The two women were tearful and tender as they parted.
Connie didn’t try to stop the flow of tears that persisted after Helen left. How could she have let herself forget the Spirit? Finding fault with members who she thought lived only the letter, she had forgotten both the letter and the spirit of the gospel. Had Satan caused her to rebel, feeding on her weariness to bring her to the edge of inactivity? Or had she become complacent, thinking she had arrived, and then decided to coast the rest of the way? A little of both, probably. But as the Lord had made Connie his instrument in changing Helen’s life, so he had brought the same gift back to Connie in those few moments Helen Miller had taken on her way out of town.
The door slammed and Andy and Steve came in, dropping a coat here, a book there. Connie wanted to run to her boys, to hold them close, to tell them how she had just been saved from walking down a forbidden road. But Steven was twelve, and not inclined toward such demonstrations, and Andy was already searching the refrigerator.
Connie took a deep breath and headed toward the kitchen. “I got some ice cream at the store today come on, I’ll fix you a milkshake.”
Tomorrow she’d get down to some serious planning, but right now she could start by putting a little extra love into the afternoon.
She thought of the pile of unwashed laundry and couldn’t wait to get started catching up.