Grandpa’s Visit


What’s even more exciting than the world’s most exciting rodeo?

Grandpa and Grandma were coming! To 15-year-old Holly Walker of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, this was front-page news, bigger than a visit from the queen or a phone call from E. T.

Holly and her grandfather are pen pals. She writes to him often, sharing her triumphs and traumas, her dreams and goals. He answers her with letters full of encouragement and counsel. The two share many things—a love of horses and gardening, a zest for learning, and, above all, a devotion to family and the gospel.

Holly’s grandmother symbolizes for her the ideal of strong, wise, gracious womanhood. Holly has grown up using her grandmother’s life as a model and cooking old family recipes first created by her ingenuity. On the horizon of Holly’s young life, these two people loom like giants.

Now the time for the visit had come at last. Holly waited impatiently at the Calgary International Airport with her mother; two of her sisters and their husbands; and assorted cousins, nieces, and nephews. They sat and watched the control tower gather in jets and sort them back into the sky like a mailman sorting mail. Soon one of the incoming specks would grow into the plane carrying Grandma and Grandpa.

Grandpa’s plane floated down across the southern edge of Calgary, tracing with its shadow the broad blue sweep of the Bow River. The plane banked, leaning hard on its northern wing, pointing the wing tip like a finger at the tall shafts of glass and metal that clustered in an elbow of the river. Just behind the wing tip Grandpa could see a splash of color punctuated with turning circles. He knew the circles were Ferris wheels at the stampede grounds. The plane flew north now, shedding altitude rapidly. Through the eastern windows Grandpa glimpsed a fringe of houses and then only a green and yellow distance to the horizon. Westward lay a broad rug of city, green with trees and parks. At the city’s western edge hills rose in gentle swells that grew mile by mile till they crested in a vertical tidal wave of stone—the eastern ramparts of the Rocky Mountains. From this distance they looked like an abrupt wrinkle on a relief map. Then the city rushed up, and the bump of wheels on runway told Grandpa and Grandma that their visit had begun.

Outside the plane, Calgary was basking in the glory of high summer, and in Calgary summer is one long delicious spring that lasts from snow to snow. Long, warm days blend into sweet, cool nights with such a perfect grace that the City of Enoch could ask for nothing better. Green is the color of a Calgary summer. The hills westward, before the forests begin, are like an immense, well-tended golf course.

Calgary lies on the western edge of the wide and fertile prairies of middle Canada. It is a bustling city whose business district bristles with soaring urban stalagmites. It stretches for miles across the plain, but it is dwarfed by this huge land it occupies. Seen from afar, beneath towering clouds of brilliant white on a summer day, it has the aspect of a quiet village on a sun-drenched plateau.

Calgary’s present success can be traced back to an age when lumbering dinosaurs moved through vast fern forests. Forests and dinosaurs alike have long since turned into the rich black oil which fuels Calgary’s economy.

Each July the city that oil built puts on its cowboy hat, mounts its quarter horse, and rides away on the wildest, westernest, rodeoingest week south of the North Pole. The Calgary Stampede is the granddaddy of rodeos, the greatest in the world. Lean, hard cowpunchers from all over North America come here to eat dust and pound leather, vying for the money and the glory, often collecting bumps and bruises and broken bones instead.

Rodeo fans from near and far come to watch the spectacle: bucking broncs that turn their bellies to the sun; fierce bulls that explode beneath cowboys like aerial bombs; rank steers that can plow ground with a cowboy’s high heels (or his nose); slippery calves that dart and cut like fish; and the hard ground of the arena waiting to rush up and plant a kiss on the cheek of a bashful broncbuster.

The citizens of Calgary join in the fun wholeheartedly, taking a time out from their everyday pursuit of oil money and donning western clothing to join the fun. The boy who serves your hamburger and french fries looks like a cowboy. The man who approves your loan looks like a cowboy. The minister at his pulpit looks like a cowboy. For a week and more Calgary revels in a festival atmosphere. Hot air balloons hang above the city’s western hills like fat, bright exclamation points. There are parades and parties. And every day the streets run like rivers, full to their banks with cars and buses headed for the Stampede grounds, where multitudes pour from the vehicles into a sea of humanity.

Around the Stampede arena, a carnival sprawls, loud and lusty and garish and gaudy. Tidal waves and octopuses and tilt-o-whirls spin and plunge. Ferris wheels rotate immensely. Side-show barkers compete for the attention of passersby. Lumberjacks race up poles and down in an endless contest. Carnival games shill the unwary. The pungent aromas of corn dogs, hot dogs, and cheese-drenched nachos circulate in sluggish eddies. Long lines curl, tangle, and lose themselves in the human maelstrom. The sea of bodies surges back and forth in currents too strong to swim against. But the lucky people with tickets to the Stampede brave the seas and make headway against all odds to the Stampede arena to see the cowboys work their magic.

Like all good Calgarians, Holly loves the Stampede, and every year she and her family attend. And Stampede 1983 was going to be something special. This year Grandpa and Grandma would go with them! It had been a long time since her grandparents’ last visit, because Grandpa is a very busy man.

When Holly’s grandfather and grandmother appeared through the airport gates, everyone rushed to greet them. You probably would have recognized them too. Holly’s grandfather is President Ezra Taft Benson, President of the Council of the Twelve. There were hugging and kissing and the happy chatter that accompanies a reunion. Then they were all off to the beautiful home where Holly lives with her mother, Barbara Benson Walker, and her father, Robert Harris Walker, who is president of the Calgary Alberta Stake.

As they drove homeward, they enjoyed the special gentility that governs life here. Drivers obeyed the speed limit, respected the rights of others and merged and yielded with courtesy. They saw cyclists pedaling out to one of the islands on the Bow River and caught a glimpse of men in immaculate white shirts and trousers playing cricket on a manicured swatch of grass.

That evening, Holly went to the LDS dance, which is one of the highlights of social life for young Latter-day Saints in Calgary. After the dance, she brought home many of her friends to meet her grandfather, who received them with graciousness and humor. He made them all feel like old and valued friends, and they also felt the powerful witness of the Spirit that they were in the presence of a beloved servant of God.

The Bensons were only able to be in town a few days, but the family made the most of the days they had. Holly treasured the opportunity more than any gift she could conceive of. Her family was the most important thing in her life, and her grandfather and grandmother were the honored patriarch and matriarch of the family. She loved to sit talking with them, enjoying the stories and counsel as much as a gourmet might enjoy a delicious meal. She listened spellbound as President Benson told her stories of his experiences as a Scoutmaster when he was a young man. It was obvious that he had taken that calling just as seriously as he does his present assignment.

Holly showed her grandfather her journal. This was almost the same as reviewing her whole life since she had last seen him, because she keeps a world-class journal. It included not only a written account of her experiences but also clippings and programs and articles and drawings and photographs and bits of fabric and many other artifacts of her life. Her descendants will be able to know their ancestor very well indeed. Through this journal President Benson was able to be a real participant in her life.

Music has always been an important part of family get-togethers, and Holly played the piano while President and Sister Benson sang. Later they walked and talked and relaxed in the well-tended yard which Holly’s green thumb had helped to prosper. Then Holly showed her proud grandpa a bedroom full of trophies and awards and shared her written goals for the coming year. For another girl, a girl with fewer trophies and fewer accomplishments, the list might have seemed pie-in-the-sky nonsense, but this young lady was up to the challenge. She has been student-body president of her junior high school, seminary president, and captain of the school basketball and volleyball teams. She is a very talented pianist, having won first place in her age group at the Calgary Kiwanis Music Festival several years in a row. She also accompanies her mother, who is a soprano soloist. Two years running Holly won the top academic and athletic award at her school. She has also won awards as a dancer, singer, and composer. These are only a few of her many accomplishments to date, and only a beginning of what she plans to achieve.

Her 1983 goals run several pages in length. They include an ambitious, capacity-stretching list of self-commitments in the areas of spirituality, academics, reading, journal keeping, photography, athletics, self-improvement, music, service, and missionary work. As an example, the sports goals include specific and challenging commitments in basketball, waterskiing, tennis, jogging, swimming, hiking, racquetball, windsurfing, trampoline, and golf.

Holly leads a busy and exciting life, so she had plenty to talk about. At the time of her grandparents’ visit, she had just finished her last year in Mt. Royal Junior High School, where she served as student-body president. She was looking forward to going on to Western Canada High School, which she is presently attending. At Mt. Royal, there were not many Mormon students, but they were admired and respected for their way of life. “You hear stories about Mormons getting teased,” she said, “but that really didn’t happen at all. It was the exact opposite. They really respected me. Several of them said, ‘How come you’re like you are? I wish I could be like you. I wish I had the family you do. I wish I had the same idea of life as you do. It seems like you’re always happy. You’re almost perfect. How can anyone have so much fun and not get drunk or even go to wild parties in the first place?’

“They just didn’t understand, and so a few of them started coming out to some of our Church activities like the dances and Mutual, and they really enjoyed it. And now they will say at school, ‘See you Saturday night at the dance.’ They don’t even want to go to wild parties anymore. They just want to come to Church activities because they see how much fun sharp Mormon kids can have without drugs or alcohol.

“The Mormon kids that I associate with are my really good friends, and we like to do stuff together. They’re always trying to do what’s right. They don’t fall because of peer pressure. I’m very fortunate to have good friends at school who have chosen the gospel way of life. We all kind of cling together as Mormons, but we also try to influence our school friends and work together to bring them to the dances and other activities. We always try to make everyone feel welcome. It’s up to us, and we’ve all realized that.”

Holly’s missionary work is paying off too. “My friends at school come to me asking about the Church, and I talk to them about it. There are about ten that are very interested right now.”

The biggest payoff of all came last year. “My best friend since grade school had been coming to church with me for a number of years, and last year her parents finally said that she could be baptized. That was probably the neatest thing that happened to me last year.”

Because of their constant exchange of letters, President Benson already knew much of what had been going on in Holly’s life as she used her journals to fill in the details. Busy though he is, he treasures the opportunity to be his granddaughter’s pen pal and never fails to answer her letters.

“First of all I express gratitude for her quality of life, and then ofttimes I refer to her achievements and tell her how proud we are of her. We are blessed with 34 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. I think Holly represents the high standards and the fine quality of our grandchildren. She is outstanding. She is everything we could ask for in a grandchild. She is a very grateful girl. She expresses gratitude time after time for her family, including her grandparents and great-grandparents, for her heritage. Overwhelming is her love for her family and home and the influence of her parents in her life, and ofttimes she refers to her grandparents also. She is really a solid granddaughter. I’ve never once heard her criticize any member of the family. Holly is about as close to perfect as you can get.”

Sister Benson agrees. “She’s choice. There’s none better.”

Monday evening the family went to the chuck wagon races at the Calgary Stampede. President Benson watched with the keen eye of a lifelong horseman as the chuck wagon teams careened around the track in a cloud of dust and tangle of wagons, horses, and outriders. A constant stream of LDS Scouts who were visiting from the nearby international jamboree came to shake the Apostle’s hand, and he graciously turned away from the spectacle to greet them warmly. Afterward there was a stage show honoring Canada, and then the night became noon as fireworks blossomed in new constellations overhead. The family laughed and joked and cheered. The best part of the evening was just being together.

There is a warmth and love in this family that cannot be missed. Holly says, “My family is the most important thing to me. If I have a question or something’s upsetting me, I go to my family. I run to my mother every night. She’s my closest friend. She’s my psychiatrist. We’re each other’s best buddy.”

She also has a close and warm relationship with her three married sisters, Flora, Laurel, and Heather. “I’ve almost never had an argument with any of them. When I was small, if we ever started to argue, we’d always have to go in separate rooms, and we could hardly stand being apart. Now I’d much rather be with my sisters than with any of my other friends.”

Her brother Robert is a missionary in the France Paris Mission. “He is the most loyal brother I’ve ever known. Even though he was five years older he was always trying to make me happy. And when his friends would tease me, he’d always stick up for me.” She writes to him every week faithfully.

Her father is the great example in her life, a man of firm devotion to the gospel cause. He has set a high standard for his home. President Benson says, “Personally, I don’t think there are many families in the Church that have a better grasp of the ideals and standards of the Church or a greater desire to bring others into the Church. There is only one standard in this home, and that is the standard of perfection.”

The family love which exists here brings many blessings into the lives of each individual. Perhaps one of the greatest is the gift of prayer. The family members pray for one another with a devotion that is touching and compelling. Whenever one of them faces an important challenge, problem, or opportunity, he knows beyond doubt that all the others are praying, and often fasting for him as well. “It’s always been a practice in our family to pray for one another,” President Benson says. “I feel that strength and support so deeply. Invariably when they know conference is approaching or when they know I have an important talk to give, they’ll write a special letter to let me know they’re praying for me, and ofttimes they’ll fast.”

Holly’s love of prayer has been strengthened from her youth by three sayings she learned from her grandfather. The first is “Prayer is the key to the day and the lock at night.” The second is “Prayer will keep you from sin, and sin will keep you from prayer.” The third is “If you don’t feel like praying, pray until you do.”

Holly applies these sayings to her life. “I live on prayer,” she says.

As with all happy events, the visit passed too quickly, but it was long enough to deepen Holly’s love for her grandparents even more. “It is great having my grandparents here. I love them and admire them both very much. They have always been and will always be great examples to me. I feel very blessed to be their granddaughter and to be so close to them. I hope that I will never let them down.

“I remember going down in the summers or at conference time to visit them. I always love to hear their stories of when they were my age or younger. Their experiences seem to really relate to me and the things I’m interested in. I love them so much. I think the greatest thing they’ve shown me is to have love in the family, and we certainly do. My family and my relatives are my closest friends. I’d much rather be with them than with anyone else.”

This joy of being together is something which her family dreams about far beyond the here and now. Holly explains: “One thing Grandpa always says is, ‘I hope that on judgment day there’ll be a circle of seats, and I hope not one of them is vacant.’ I’ve always thought of that as I’ve made decisions. I’ve always wanted to be with my family. I don’t want anything to happen that would cause one of us to be left apart, because being together means more to me than anything else.”

Watching the love that flows between President Benson and his family, it becomes very clear what success in life really means. These people love him and respect him, not because he is the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, not because he was once United States secretary of agriculture, not for any title or accomplishment. They love him because he has loved them with all his heart, because he is a good and kind and caring man, because he is Dad and Grandpa and Great-grandpa—forever. It is a joy available to every family in the Church, a joy worth a lifetime of achieving.

As her grandparents’ visit drew to a close, Holly was happy to know that every parting with those she loved would someday be followed by a reunion, and that someday there would be a reunion to be followed by no partings. Her grandfather and grandmother were hers eternally, and as beautiful as the summer is in Calgary, that knowledge was still more beautiful.

[photos] Photos by Jed Clark

[photos] Holly and Grandpa enjoyed putting on cowboy hats and watching the chuck wagon races.

[photo] The whole family got together for the two biggest events of the year—Grandpa’s visit and the Calgary Stampede.

[photos] Grandpa, Grandma, and Holly gathered around the piano in an old family tradition. Later Holly showed Grandpa some of her trophies.

[photo] One of the nicest parts of the visit was the chance to just talk and share experiences.