Saturday morning was supply day at the mission home, when missionaries from near-by districts came in to pick up copies of the Book of Mormon, tracts, tapes, and all the other materials involved in spreading the gospel in the 20th century. The mission office was filled with elders and sisters taking care of business, swapping mission news, and waiting their turns to stock up.
Just outside the door of my small office, where I was typing away on one of the quarterly reports, Elder Richard Ericson sat. His saddle-brown triple combination lay open on one knee, his black notebook containing the discussions was spread on the other, and a red pencil worked busily between them.
By some small coincidence, we both finished at the same time: I took the completed report out of my typewriter with satisfaction, and he clapped his books shut in the same instant.
“Well, Elder,” I said, “you’ve been on your mission just about three months now. How’s it going?”
He smiled, almost to himself.
“No, sister, I’ve been on my mission longer than that.”
“Oh, of course. You mean the eight weeks in the Language Training Mission. But I—”
“No,” he cut in. “I don’t mean that. I mean I started my mission two months earlier than everyone else I came out with.”
Had Elder Ericson been transferred from another mission? I thought I knew all the gossip, but I hadn’t heard about anything like that. Had he been sick, gone home, then returned? Sometimes that happened.
“All right. I give up. Don’t keep me curious. I know you’re getting a reputation as an exceptional missionary. In fact, rumor says that you’ll be a senior before Christmas. Does this extra two months business have anything to do with it? What’s the story?”
And this is what he told me.
The greatest day of my life, up to that point, was the day I received my mission call. Not even being accepted for the all-state basketball team or even achieving Eagle Scout could compare. Dad and I were home alone, because Mother and the girls were spending two months in Phoenix with Grandma. I had just finished telephoning Mom to tell her the good news.
“Wow, Dad!” I said as I hung up the telephone. “I still am very surprised! Mom thinks it’s great, too. She says to tell you Grandma’s feeling a little better, by the way. Wow! I am very surprised,” and I leaped to catch hold of the top of the door frame, executing a quick little swing.
“How would you like to start your mission right away?” Dad asked quietly.
“You bet! I wish it were tomorrow! I can’t wait to get into the LTM and then take a plane for—”
“No. I mean it, Rich. How would you like to begin your mission now?”
“Now? But Dad, the letter says, ‘You will enter the missionary home in Salt Lake City on the 20th of March.’ I don’t think they let you go in early. I think you have to—”
“I don’t mean start it in the Missionary Home. I mean start it here.” He was still sitting quietly in his big chair, looking at me very steadily. Something in his expression caused me to become thoughtful. I sat on the footstool near the fireplace and just waited.
“I don’t want to make any speeches, Rich. You’re ready for your mission; we all know that. You’ve done all the right things to prepare. By the way, in case I haven’t said it lately, I’m proud of you.”
For some reason, I became emotional and tried to hide my tears by pretending to tie my shoelace.
“But a mission’s hard on the best of young people. That early adjustment brings frustration and problems most kids your age haven’t had to deal with. And I guess a certain amount of frustration is good for the soul. It makes you grow up. But sometimes, if a fellow isn’t able to tolerate those frustrations, it can really interfere with his mission, and mix him up; it can—”
“But Dad, you said I was prepared.”
“In all the big things, yes. You’ve honored your priesthood, worked hard in your quorums, done well at seminary and in the institute this past year.”
“I’m talking about the little things. Your mother and I have tried to teach you a lot about personal responsibility, and I think you are a mature person—well, most of the time!” he laughed. “But you know your mother likes to spoil you a little—”
“Well, she does! And I guess that is her privilege. All I’m saying is this: there are lots of little surprises in store for the missionary. If you and I begin working on them now, then your adjustment should be easier. With the two of us living alone for the rest of the summer, we could operate on the missionary companion basis and see what we can learn.” Now he sat back and waited.
“I don’t quite understand, Dad. You mean, like you’re the senior companion and I’m the junior? Great! But then what? What will we do? Go tracting? I can see us at Sister Bigelow’s door—or Brother Young’s!” I grinned as I thought of the startled looks that would appear on our neighbor’s faces if my father and I donned dark suits and went around knocking on their doors.
“No, no tracting. You’ll see what I have in mind tomorrow. Right now, I think it’s time for us to go to sleep.” He got up and stretched.
“Okay, Dad. Pretty soon. I just want to catch a little bit of the late show, and then I’ll—”
“No late show. It’s time for bed, Elder.” And something about the look he gave me made me wonder about this new senior companion of mine.
“Rise and shine!” The call came loud and clear.
I bounded out of bed, startled. Dad usually tip-toed past my room, especially in the summer. Then I saw the clock. Six A.M.! I sunk back into the bed with a laugh.
“Stop joking, Dad!” I called as I rolled over.
The door banged open.
“Out of the bed, Elder! And make it up as soon as you’ve finished praying. You’re due in the kitchen in 20 minutes.” The door shut again, this time quietly. I stared at it in amazement.
When I finally made it to the kitchen, the table was set, but Dad had done nothing else about breakfast. He sat reading the scriptures in Mom’s rocker by the window, where the sun streamed in through her white curtains and over the African violets.
“You’re on breakfast detail, today,” he said, smiling. And, as I reached into the cupboard for a box of cold cereal, he said, “Sorry, You can’t do a missionary’s work on that. Now listen carefully; I’ll only say this once.” He held up the four fingers of his right hand.
“Basic four. Remember that from health? Every meal. Milk or milk products, meat or protein, fruits and vegetables, cereals and grains. Every meal. Basic four. Now get going.”
As I searched wildly in the refrigerator, glancing back over my shoulder at Dad from time to time, I wondered what had happened to my quiet, easy-going Father.
Without tears, but with plenty of sweat and a drop or two of blood (cut myself on the fruit knife), I managed to put a basic-four breakfast on the table by 7:00 A.M. I felt pretty proud. Dad said nothing, just knelt beside his chair and talked to the Lord as he had every morning of the world since I’d been in it, and before.
Later we cleared the table together and did the dishes. Then Dad said, “Study time Elder. Let’s sit right here.”
“Now I know you’re working mornings at the supermarket. But that gives you the afternoons free. I’ve talked with the bishop, and he was delighted with my plan. He’s changed our home teaching assignments; here’s the new list.”
I took one look at it.
“Good night, Dad! This list must contain every inactive member in the ward!”
“No, not all of them. But they’ll keep us busy. This afternoon I want you to go over the list. Think about the people, the families. Think about what we can do to help them, how we can reach them. Think especially about the Marlins—we’re going there tonight and you’re giving the lesson. Well, Son, time for me to go. See you a little before five. I’ll fix dinner tonight; since you’ll be working on the lesson.” And with that he was gone.
I guess my mind has kind of confused that first meeting with the Marlins. But I know that I did everything wrong. Preached to them instead of talking. Started coughing—not on purpose, I promise—when Brother Marlin lit a cigarette (trying to catch me off guard, I was sure). I asked Linda Marlin how school was, completely forgetting that she’d dropped out.
The next morning, Dad moved into phase two. Instead of getting me up at six, he opened the door at 5:30, dressed in his jogging outfit. Seems he thought I might have gotten out of shape since basketball season.
“Missionaries do a lot of walking—especially where you’re going. Need to be in good shape,” he said as we strode briskly into the foothills north of our house. “Now then—”
Now then? I thought. What could be next? Here we were jogging in the darkness, with not even the sun to keep us company. What could be “now then”?
“Brothers and Sisters,” he began, puffing only slightly between phrases, “Today we’re happy to welcome Elder Richard Ericson, who is new to our branch. We’d like to have Elder Ericson say a few words to us. Perhaps Elder Ericson would like to talk briefly on faith.”
“Elder Ericson,” slightly short of breath, rolled his eyes and began to mumble a pretty standard two-and-a-half minute talk on faith. At the conclusion of this wonderful woodland sermon, Elder Ericson, Senior, said, “Tomorrow, brothers and sisters, Elder Ericson will give us a real talk on faith.”
That evening, one tired junior companion spent the evening hours with a triple combination, concordance, and a copy of Joseph Smith’s, Lectures on Faith. But the next morning, I felt pretty good about the talk.
Soon we were jogging every morning; I was making a basic-four breakfast every other day and a basic four dinner on the days in between; we were making regular evening visits to our home teaching families; and I was spending the evenings memorizing scriptures and preparing for the talks I was “assigned” to give while jogging. I was also doing my own laundry, cleaning my room, and budgeting every cent I earned. I can’t say as I was crazy about the hours we were keeping—up at 5:30 and in bed before 11:00—but I really felt I was building myself into a missionary. So naturally, that was time for me to get humble.
“Special assignment next Sunday, Rich,” Dad told me in the middle of the week. “I’ve asked the bishop to let us give a sacrament service out at Oak Crest Hospital for Old People. It’ll just be the two of us doing everything. Now let’s see, I’ll conduct, you give the opening prayer, I’ll play the piano, you lead the singing; we’ll both bless and pass the sacrament and give talks, and then I’ll say the closing prayer.”
I wasn’t delighted at the thought of visiting the rest home down in a small canyon nearly an hour’s ride from home. I’d never liked hospitals anyway. But I’d just have to (See Hymn 13 & Job 38:3) and act like a missionary.
When I arrived at Oak Crest with Dad the following Sunday, I realized that that was the problem. I was making outward motions like a missionary, acting like one in some ways, but inside I was still Rich Ericson, star basketball player and a jolly person. I was totally unprepared for what we encountered. The hospital was clean and modern, the colors bright, the staff cheerful. But the patients! It wasn’t their wrinkled, gray faces, their slow, shuffling way of walking—if they could walk. It wasn’t even the fact that they seemed to be doing nothing, just sitting, or staring at television. What stunned me was that they all seemed so alone. Oh, here and there in a room we’d occasionally see friends and family visiting the elderly patients. And these patients seemed in a completely different class from the others. But most of the people we saw seemed isolated, even from each other. I realized that here, status was no longer money or beauty, strength or knowledge. Status was having someone who came to visit you.
We held the meeting in a small recreation room. Perhaps 20 patients made up our congregation, grouped before us in wheelchairs or on folding chairs, with canes on the floor beside them.
“Dear brothers and sisters,” my father began. Seated beside him, I looked at each face. As Dad talked, smiles came to the tired features, eyes twinkled behind old-fashioned glasses. When I stood to give the opening prayer, all the typically thoughtless prayers that I was used to saying were not sufficient for this moment. I stood silent for a moment, my head bowed, and then started quietly pleading with our Father to bless these people, to give them whatever they needed to buoy up their spirits and gladden their hearts and enable them to stay strong—to endure—until they were reunited with him.
We went through the program; singing, their wavering voices following ours; blessing the sacrament and passing it while they took it with slow, shaking hands. I began to feel the spirit growing around us like a pair of enfolding arms. In this room we weren’t alone. None of these people felt alone, I realized with surprise. Their faces may have been old, tired, and wrinkled, but they were serene and radiant, especially after the passing of the sacrament. And when Dad began his talk, they listened without the whispers, the yawns, and the fidgets I was used to in our ward. They were attentively listening to Dad’s quiet, gentle voice; more than that, they were listening to the precious words he was saying. They were receiving comfort beyond that which this world has to offer. A quick shiver went up my spine. That day the Holy Spirit became someone rather than something to me.
We rode a long way in silence after that meeting. I looked out into the foothills, with their sagebrush blowing dustily in the wind.
“Dad, that is the purpose of missionary work, isn’t it?” I asked. “The hours, the exercise, the basic four, the memorizing of scripture—those are all—” I couldn’t say what I meant.
“They’re the tools. The healthy body, the prepared mind, knowledge of the gospel plan, the discipline to go on when you’re tired or frustrated—those are all just tools. They allow you to use your priesthood—”
“To bless people,” I finished, in wonder. “To really bless them, make a difference in their lives, in their whole, eternal lives …”
“Hey, Elder! Elder Ericson! Let’s go! We have a discussion to give right after lunch, remember?” Elder Shumway beckoned to his companion from the foyer of the mission home, juggling a pile of books and tracts in one arm while he struggled into his coat.
“I see what you mean, Elder,” I said softly. “You really did begin your mission early.”
“Well,” he replied, wrapping his scarf around his neck and getting into his coat, “let’s say I went through some of my frustration at home, instead of here. I learned to get the mechanics taken care of, smoothly and without thought. Getting up on time, eating right, learning scriptures, staying in shape, organizing talks—I got into those habits before my mission, not during it. But what’s even more important, I got a little glimpse, just a peek, at what it’s all for. So I know it’s all worth it and then some—thanks to my dad.” He chuckled. “My dad—the senior companion!”
And then he was gone.