My first encounter with Relief Society—other than loving my nearly perfect Cache Valley grandmother, LaVerna Robinson, who was “Relief Society” personified—was on a U.S. Marine Corps airstrip in Jacksonville, North Carolina, in 1960.
I was nineteen and a sophomore at East Carolina University.
On that airstrip stood a man and a woman whom I had never seen before. It was six o’clock in the morning. My mother, some close friends, and I had just landed in a marine corps plane after returning from Puerto Rico. It was a few days after Easter.
The preceding August, eight months prior to that morning on the North Carolina airstrip, my mother had married Major Warren L. Stewart. During the four years after my father abandoned us, while my mother was alone and struggling to help my brother and me through our high school years, she had dated several different men—good men, as far as I know. But I had resented all of them. Sometimes I wouldn’t speak to them when I came home from high school. No one could take my father’s place. I wish now that I had apologized and made them understand that my resentment wasn’t personal. But I think they knew.
Then Major Stewart came along. He was impossible to resent or to resist. A marine pilot, he was soft-spoken, loving, thoughtful, and patient. He didn’t push his relationship with my brother and me, and it wasn’t long before we really loved “Stew,” as we called him.
When Mother married Stew that August, it was an end to many things—but mostly to a fragmented, insecure family life. Someone was now there to take care of our mother, and from that time on, my brother and I moved on with our lives—to his mission, to our college experiences, and later to our marriages.
The following months were the happiest ones I had ever experienced. I wanted to be near my mother and Stew, so I decided to follow them to North Carolina. I loved the friends I found at East Carolina University and loved going home on weekends to the base at New River. I even met a handsome young marine corps lieutenant, Al Christy, the very first weekend I went home.
In March, Stew left for a two-month deployment to the Virgin Islands with his helicopter squadron to practice amphibious landings off the aircraft carrier USS Boxer. The morning he left for the aircraft hangar, he whispered to me, “Take care of your mother.”
On Easter morning that April in 1960, several of Stew’s close pilot friends and the flight surgeon came up to my mother and me as we were eating breakfast. “We don’t know the details, but Stew has been shot in St. Thomas. Pack your bags. We’re flying you both there in half an hour.” We were prepared for an aircraft accident—Stew had successfully flown through several mishaps in the air—but a shooting?
The flight was, for me, spent in prayer and pleading with the Lord not to take Stew from us after all we had been through. The officers and pilot and surgeon were kind and gentle and did all they could to keep our hopes up. They tried constantly to get any information they could about the shooting.
We stopped to refuel in Puerto Rico and were waiting in the ready room before going on to St. Thomas when the officers accompanying us and the pilot came in.
“We’re not going on to St. Thomas,” they said. “Stew just died.” Stew had been in the lobby of the hotel with several other officers waiting to go to dinner when he was shot three times by a disturbed and violent young Puerto Rican for no apparent reason.
I don’t remember much after that about Puerto Rico. We slept the rest of the day and returned that night to North Carolina.
As my mother and I, exhausted and heartsick, walked down the steps from the plane, the man and woman standing on the airstrip walked over and put their arms around us. It was the branch president and the Relief Society president, neither of whom we had met before.
I wish I could tell you her name or the names of any of the sisters who cared for us during the next week. Sisters we had never met floated in and out of the kitchen of our quarters like soft shadows, bringing food to serve the officers and families who came to call, then cleaning up. Then staying, serving food again, and cleaning up.
Those days were confusing as we struggled to deal with the fact that Stew was dead, a victim of a senseless shooting. But there was always a sister there, waiting quietly in the background—to take messages, to answer the door, to hold our hands as we made phone calls to our families and friends. They were there to help us pack, to deal with all that had to be done.
Through it all, I developed such a sense of gratitude that I couldn’t imagine how I could repay those dear sisters. I desperately tried to think of a way, but imagination gave way to exhaustion. The Marine Corps people were wonderful, too, but even they marveled at the loving care those sisters gave us.
Years later, when I was thirty-five and Al and I had three small children, I was called to serve in a Relief Society presidency in Washington, D. C. There came the time when I didn’t think I could drag my children around one more day doing the difficult tasks expected of me. But then the memory came back. I thought of that airstrip in North Carolina. Now, I thought, it’s my turn.
A woman in the ward had lost her fourteen-year-old daughter. The mother asked me to buy a beautiful gown and to dress her daughter’s body in it in preparation for the burial. I was able to do it—and found it a very tender experience. It was my turn to serve, as those sisters in North Carolina had served me.
An elderly woman in the ward who lived alone overdosed on her medications and was in a helpless condition for three days. The other counselor and I found her still alive in her apartment and cleaned her up before the ambulance arrived. We then stayed to scrub the apartment—walls and floors—with disinfectant. My turn again.
A young mother in the ward, one of my friends, suddenly lost her only child, a beautiful three-year-old daughter, to an infection that took her life before the doctors were even aware of how serious her illness was. The other counselor and I went to the house as soon as we heard of little Robin’s death. As we approached the screened patio door, we heard the father (who was not a member of the Church) sobbing as he talked long distance to his mother. Looking up, he saw us and, still sobbing, spoke into the phone: “It will be all right, Mother. The Mormon women are here.” My turn once more.
When people ask what I think of Relief Society, I tell them about North Carolina, about Washington, D.C. That’s how I feel about Relief Society way down deep. And why.