My mother does not even recall the day the strangers came, but it was a day in which she made a major contribution to my philosophy of life. It happened during the summer when I was eight years old. Mama and I were picking raspberries and my small brother Georgie was playing in the high grass when a dusty green Model A Ford rattled into our yard.
“That looks like those missionaries,” Mama said.
Fear made my heart bounce. Those Missionaries! I looked around for Georgie, glad that he wasn’t out in plain sight where they could grab him and carry him off before we could do a thing about it. My friend Clara Becker said that’s what Those Missionaries did. That wasn’t all Clara said they did. Those Missionaries came through our tiny Idaho community every summer, and Clara was full of fearsome stories about how they stole people’s souls and sold them to the devil for peanuts and Cracker Jack. She said you shouldn’t go near them because they had magic eyes and would hypnotize you if you looked straight at them. She said they weren’t at all like our own Mormon missionaries, and I believed her. After all, I had never been more than thirty-five miles away from our farm, and Clara had been all the way to Pocatello, so she ought to know what people from the world outside our valley were like.
I cowered behind a raspberry bush, peering out at the dusty green car. There were four of them in the old car, a gray-haired man and woman and a young couple. The older man was driving, and even from where I lurked I could see he looked hot and tired. I had never seen any of Those Missionaries that close before because other years when I had seen them coming I had hidden in the barn. I thought now their magic eyes looked like anyone else’s eyes, but that was probably just a trick.
The gray-haired man leaned out of the car window. “Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said politely to Mama. “I wonder if we might ask you for a drink of water?”
“Of course,” Mama said. “Won’t you come and rest in the shade for a while? It’s such a hot day.” She motioned toward our tree-cool lawn, just beyond the raspberry patch.
“That would be lovely, ma’am,” the tired-looking man said. He turned to say something to the others in the car and they all got out.
That worried me. Mama, Georgie, and I were alone since my father and older brother were mowing hay in a far field and my older sister was away helping a neighbor. But surely Mama wouldn’t be so polite to anyone who might kidnap Georgie and me, would she? Or were they hypnotizing her with their magic eyes?
Mama went into the house and brought out some fresh lemonade for everybody and a couple of chairs for the two women. The gray-haired man sat on the grass under our weeping willow tree while he drank his lemonade and the younger man stretched out on his back and covered his eyes with his arm, raising his head occasionally to take a sip of the cool drink.
“We appreciate this, ma’am,” the gray-haired man said. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead, leaving it streaked from the mixture of dust and perspiration on it. “We stopped at some houses up the road, but the ladies shooed us away. One of them ran into her house and slammed the door.” He smiled a little as he said that.
Then Mama said an incredible thing, “Would you like to stay for dinner?”
I hoped they’d say no. Georgie was crawling around right in their midst and I hardly dared look away for fear they would snatch him up and dash for their car. Clara Becker said they were sneaky.
But the gray-haired woman said, “May the Lord bless you, ma’am,” and the young couple echoed her words. The gray-haired man stood up. “If you’re sure it wouldn’t put you out any, we’d certainly be grateful. We depend mostly on our book sales to feed us, and we haven’t sold any for a while.”
“The food is almost ready,” Mama said. “We have our big meal in the middle of the day. I’ll feed you now since I don’t know just when the rest of the family will be getting here.”
Mama had taken a roast out of the oven just before we went to pick raspberries, and then had popped in a batch of bread that was just finishing baking. She quickly fixed new potatoes creamed with little new peas, and there was corn on the cob and lettuce, fresh from our garden. For dessert we’d have the raspberries we had just picked, with sugar and thick cream.
Mama put her best white tablecloth on our kitchen table, which was the only one we had, and she told me to set out the best dishes, the ones that matched.
Those Missionaries ate as if they hadn’t had any food at all in those days of no book sales. When they were finished, the gray-haired man didn’t look so tired anymore. Mama urged them all to eat more, but they said they couldn’t. It was just about the best meal they’d ever had, they said, but they were full to the top. When they said they had to go, Mama wrapped up a loaf of new bread and gave it to them along with an armful of corn ears and a paper bag of new potatoes.
“Ma’am,” the gray-haired man said, “I don’t know how we can ever thank you. Would you let us tell you a little about our message?”
Mama nodded. “I’d like to hear.” That scared me again. Why should Mama be interested in what they had to say when we knew we had the truth? Unless … I looked straight at their eyes, and, sure enough, they were glowing with magic! But as I looked I realized it wasn’t magic at all that made them glow. It was what Those Missionaries felt inside. As my gaze shifted back and forth from them to Mama, I began to understand. Those Missionaries needed to give something in return for Mama’s kindness, and the only thing they had to give was their testimonies. And Mama was accepting what they said as a gift. But there was no need to fear. I knew that this gift would be stored away with the other gifts Mama couldn’t use, like the fancy ashtray a friend who wasn’t a Mormon had once given her.
“Thank you,” Mama said, when each of Those Missionaries had spoken, and I hoped when my brothers went out to be missionaries for our church that other people would be as good to them as Mama had been to the visitors.
As Those Missionaries patted Georgie on the head, said good-bye to Mama and me, and drove away, I wondered why I had believed what Clara Becker told me. Those Missionaries were plain, ordinary people, just like the rest of us. I decided that Clara Becker didn’t know half as much about things as she thought she did, even if she had been all the way to Pocatello.
But one thing still puzzled me. Why had Mama done all she had? It wasn’t because she was afraid of them. And she certainly didn’t stand to gain anything from them. In fact, the purpose for which they came was to persuade her to give up her own religion and accept theirs.
“Mama,” I said, “why did you feed Those Missionaries?”
Mama looked at me as if she were surprised that I should have to ask. “Because they were hungry,” she said.