Knee-High Visiting Teacher


Though a young child, I was often able to be with Mother as she visited the sisters.

When my father and mother married, they moved to a farm in rural upstate New York. Sister Rich and Sister Sellick were the only other local members of the Relief Society, and they were isolated from Church attendance by long distances and advanced age. Mother was assigned as their visiting teacher, and my sister Cindy and I sometimes went with her when Dad was busy on the farm and could not baby-sit.

I still recall the yellow house with a high, peaked roof and my mother helping my sister Cindy and me, then preschoolers, to climb up the outside steps to the second-story apartment. There Mother would knock lightly, and short, grandmotherly Sister Rich would usher us into a room cast in darkness except for tiny slivers of light that managed to sneak through heavy drapes at the bay window. Mom explained that Sister Rich didn’t need much light—she was blind.

Cindy and I would kneel on the floor near the coffee table and hungrily eye pink wintergreen mints in a glass candy dish in front of us. We knew she would give us some before we left. Also on the table was her special treasure, the Book of Mormon in Braille. I touched the dots. They felt funny, and I wondered how Sister Rich could read a book with her fingers.

When we walked outside again, the sun would seem extra bright and hurt my eyes. The pink candy in my mouth would begin to turn syrupy and sweet. We would climb in the car and wind our way on country roads amid hills loaded with green trees. Finally we would take a last turn up a steep hill and onto a bumpy dirt road. Rolls of dust would billow behind us as we pulled up to an old white farmhouse.

This time thin, gray-haired Sister Sellick would open the door. She was old but stood ramrod straight. Homey smells greeted us as we stepped inside, and Cindy and I loved to snuggle deeply into maroon overstuffed chairs. I enjoyed weaving my tiny fingers in and out of the spider-web doilies.

Sister Sellick had a brown pump organ with tiny knobs and golden letters. Sometimes she played for us, and the pedals creaked and whooshed. Pencil-thin, reedy notes were followed by rich, full chords.

As a child, I didn’t remember even one message given during our visits, but I did remember how these sisters’ faces shone when they saw us at their door. We went many times—when the early tulips of spring were nosing out of their flower beds, when brittle leaves crunched under our feet as we went up their walks in the fall, and when towering snowdrifts lined the roads in winter.

My recollections of visiting teaching don’t end there. During my elementary school years, our family would awake early on the day of district conference and drive miles to pick up Sister Sellick. Dad would slowly help her from the house to the car. She usually wore a dark, old-fashioned suit and a matching pillbox hat with netting. We squeezed her into the front seat and drove another hour to conference.

Over the years our branch grew. I went along with my mother countless times to help sisters move, take people food, or clean houses. Then I went away to college and was called to be a visiting teacher myself. It came naturally to me. Through the years, almost imperceptibly, I had gained my own testimony of the importance of visiting teaching.

Later I married and settled in my old ward. After a time I was assigned as my mother’s visiting teaching companion. We loved visiting together. As the years passed, I sometimes needed to bring along my own children. Our visiting teaching had come full circle. As I strapped a child in a car seat, I wondered what memories my partner and I would be making for those knee-high companions today.

[illustration] Illustrated by Jerry Thompson

Debbie VanDerwerken Schaffer serves as Young Women president in the Schoharie Valley Ward, Albany New York Stake.