My father died when I was five years old, and ten days later my oldest brother died. My mother was left with five little children to raise in the depths of the Great Depression. Money was scarce, and she had to struggle to provide a living.
My mother was a heroic figure. She felt that the Savior was close to her, helping her through, and she, in turn, helped us. I learned many lessons from her, two of which were self-reliance and a concern for others.
During those depression years, a large government truck would come by at Christmastime with turkeys for needy families. Word of this went through the school, and I rushed home and told my mother that there were free turkeys. She pointed out that we raised our own chickens and had a beautiful rooster picked out for Christmas dinner, and that the turkeys should be available for people who were in great need. She always played down our own poverty and pointed out that there were many people who needed help more than we did. She told us to worry less about ourselves and more about helping those people. Her compassion made a deep impression on our minds.
My mother also taught us to finish what we started. I took piano lessons as a child and gave my first public performance at a school recital when I was eight years old. I fell down as I was walking up the steps to the stage. I went ahead and performed my number, even though I was crying all the way through it. I had learned that you don’t give up, even when you’re discouraged. You see the job through.
When I was eleven years old, I worked all summer herding cows along a ditch bank. At the end of the summer, my employer gave me a choice of receiving either twenty dollars or a calf for my work. I chose the calf because I thought it would contribute to the family’s food supply.
On the day of the first frost of that year, I came home from school and saw my summer’s work flat on its back with its four legs sticking up—dead. I learned that the first frost tends to cause bloating in animals. It was a great personal sadness to me, and I was discouraged for a time, but I took it as a lesson of life—that I needed to be more careful.
Growing up without a father, I was fortunate to have wonderful Church and Scouting leaders as role models. One of these was my father’s cousin, Israel Bennion. He was the stake patriarch, and when I was seven, he paid us a visit that helped me look forward with courage and hope during those hard years.
Each of us children, scrubbed clean and dressed in our Sunday best, waited in turn for this dignified man to place his hands on our heads and give us our patriarchal blessings. Mine was only 263 words long, but it has been a guide to me my whole life. It helped me begin to realize that I was literally a son of God and that He knew who I was and what I was doing. If I lived the right way, He would help me. It sustained me when I was in the Navy in World War II. It inspired me on my mission. Throughout my life it helped me chart a course that included honesty and high moral standards.
My favorite passage of scripture has been another great guide in my life. In His Sermon on the Mount, the Savior said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). We must each apply that to our own circumstances. In my case, it meant coming back after two and a half years in the Navy and being called directly on a mission. Although I felt a great need to fill the mission, I also felt a strong desire to be at home. But I believed that if I did what my Church leaders asked, I would be blessed. That decision to go on a mission has blessed and enriched me all the rest of my life.
Our choices in life are not always easy ones. The Lord’s way is usually not the easiest way, but it is always the best. I’ve lived long enough to know that Heavenly Father keeps His promises. He is the best partner we can have in life. Sometimes His timetable for blessing us is different from ours, but if we make all of our decisions based on what the Savior would have us do, our Father in Heaven will keep His part of the bargain. Like the prophets of old, we must first show our faith and courage by doing His will. After that, the blessings will follow.