Best of Friends

by Melvin Leavitt

Associate Editor

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    Three maids of Orleans enjoy a golden friendship on the banks of Old Man River.

    Four girls sat side by side on a humid New Orleans afternoon. One of them was bronze. She didn’t have a great tan. She wasn’t an Indian. She was really bronze. The three other girls had seen her sitting on a stone bench at the end of a courtyard where some whimsical sculptor had apparently seated her. Her face was so sad and thoughtful and lonely they decided she needed some new friends. They knew very well how important it is to have friends.

    As they sat there resting for a moment, the sounds and smells of New Orleans drifted in to them. A tug sounded a horn on the river. Traffic blared down the narrow street. Tourists’ footsteps pattered along the sidewalks. Faint spicy smells spread from the gift shops. A piano and a trumpet whispered confidentially back and forth about something sad. The tantalizing aromas of gumbo and crawfish floated past from nearby restaurants.

    They were in the French Quarter, a moody section of shops and courtyards, overhanging balconies lacy with iron grillwork, and many a hallowed shrine of jazz and of Cajun cooking. It was an exciting place to spend what was left of an afternoon after visiting the Louisiana World Exposition a few blocks away. There they had walked along the Wonder Wall, visited giant sea gods and alligators, and explored the world by way of the national pavilions. They even found time to give the carousel a whirl.

    The afternoon was wearing swiftly away, and they soon had to say good-bye to their sad new friend and leave the French Quarter. On their way out, they stopped a moment at Jackson Square, where Andrew Jackson reared his horse against the swirling clouds. Then they visited the Moon Bridge. It is a boardwalk that runs along the Mississippi, and there are benches on it for river watching. They sat for a little while and watched the solemn old river flow.

    The talk drifted to other times they had spent together, especially a recent trip to the Barataria unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. In their minds they walked again through the lush green swamp. Cyprus, elm, tupelo, honey locust, palmetto palm, black willow, and oak rose all around them from the green water. Cyprus knees pierced the surface, and fallen logs were everywhere. The friends looked closely to see if some of the logs were alligators, because only a sharp eye can tell the difference. The whole swamp was covered with what seemed to be a green scum, but they found that it was really duckweed, tiny little plants that float on the top of the water.

    They knew that the swamp was home to otter, mink, and deer; but they saw only one timid nutria and a dead armadillo. In the murky waters catfish, perch, and gar swam invisibly. Overhead, they heard bird music and looked carefully. The park is home to a hundred kinds of birds from hawks and owls through herons and egrets, but they saw none of them. Crawfish are legion, and the friends saw their little chimneys projecting up from the mud. The trees were full of glistening spider webs in which huge golden silk spiders waited for their prey.

    Park rangers told them about the Indians who had lived here several thousand years ago and about the settlers who had come later. They learned how steeped willow bark had been the only aspirin and wax myrtles had been rendered into candles. Most of all they looked in awe at the beauty of God’s creations.

    When in their minds’ eye they had walked out of the swamp through the cloud of mosquitoes feasting on them and the dragonflies feasting on the mosquitoes, and back into the present on the firm timbers of the moonwalk, they talked for a while about their lives as LDS teenagers in southern Louisiana. That meant a lot of talking about each other, because Nancy Ho, Marny Roberts, and Melissa Patrick are the best of friends.

    Nancy and Marny are members of the West Bank First Ward, New Orleans Stake. Melissa is a member of the West Bank Second Ward. Nancy and Marny attend the same high school, where they are the only Latter-day Saints. Melissa is the only member in her school.

    To begin with they were all in the same ward, but then the wards were split. Melissa ended up in one of the new wards, and Marny and Nancy were in the other.

    “After they split the wards, and we figured out who wasn’t going to be where, we all started crying,” Nancy remembered.

    But there were still chances to get together. There are plenty of excuses in this beautiful land, whether on river, bayou, lake, land, marsh, swamp, or sea.

    And if none of those places work out, there is one even better spot. Sometimes on a Sunday morning when they get a little lonely for one another, the three friends get together at church. “Sometimes I just stay and go to their ward’s meetings after mine are over,” Melissa says. “And sometimes they’ll come early and go to mine before going to their own.”

    In a place where association with other LDS youth is rare, friends are more than just a source of pleasure. They are a survival mechanism.

    “It’s important to have LDS friends,” Nancy Ho said. “It helps a lot even if there’s just one Latter-day Saint in my whole school. It helps me to keep my standards high, and it gives me strength, knowing there’s someone who feels the same way I do. My friendship with these girls is a real strength in my life. Without them, it would be hard to make it. During the school year, you spend so much time around people who don’t share your values that it sometimes gets you down. But during the summer when I see all my friends who are members, I become revitalized. Then when I get back to school I’m ready to meet the world. My batteries have been recharged.”

    For Melissa, LDS friends seem even more vital. “I’m the only Mormon in my school,” she said. “If there were even one other member of the Church, it would be so much easier.”

    How does she handle it? “I cry a lot.”

    “My standards are noticeably different from those of the kids I go to school with,” Nancy said. “They all know I’m LDS. They know what I stand for, and they respect me for what I am. If there’s drinking and stuff, they won’t push me to take part. In fact, they won’t let me. The guys all joke around and say, “Someday I’ll marry a girl like you.”

    “They don’t deliberately try to drag you down,” Marny agreed, “but the whole attitude and atmosphere at school can get you down. It’s a party atmosphere. Except for Nancy, I don’t have a single friend at school who doesn’t drink. Some of them drink a lot. They don’t put direct pressure on you to join them, but they make it seem so enticing, so fun sometimes. But, of course, it’s really up to you.”

    In the midst of this daily clash of values and lifestyles, the Church is a sustaining influence. “The Church is really a big part of my life,” Nancy said. “It keeps me going. It strengthens me. It keeps me out of trouble. I look around at school, and all my friends are so messed up. We’re so much better off because we have the Church.”

    Could they get along without the Church? They answer with one voice. “No!” It’s like asking a scuba diver deep underwater if he is willing to give up his oxygen tank.

    “I feel so sorry for people who don’t have the Church,” Melissa said. “When I go to a stake conference I just feel like getting all of New Orleans in there. I know that they’d feel the Spirit.”

    Marny said, “I know we have some effect on their lives. They know that at least around us they can be themselves. A lot of them put up a front that doesn’t reflect what they really are inside. They feel that they have to appear bad to be accepted. They want to be part of the crowd. A lot of them are secretly envious of us, but it’s like they’re in bondage to their peers.”

    Melissa added, “You wish you could tell them, ‘It’s all right. You don’t have to do those things.’ As a matter of fact, I do tell them. I say, ‘Just be yourself. It’s all right,’ and they say, ‘I can’t.’ Sometimes my friends and I have gone to the movies, and I say, ‘Now, just this night don’t drink, and see if you can’t have fun.’ And we have a blast.”

    Marny agreed. “They can have so much more fun without those things. A group of kids came over to my house after a football game. It was near Christmastime, and I was the only Latter-day Saint in the group. I think it was the best time I ever had. There were about eight of us, and we sat around the Christmas tree and sang Christmas carols. We stayed up till one o’clock. These were people who would normally go out partying. If they hadn’t been there they would have gone out to the levee and gotten drunk. Later I talked to this guy who had been to the party, and he said, ‘That was one of the best times I’ve ever had.’”

    Although the three friends have impressed some of their fellow students, awareness of the Church remains low. “I’m the only Latter-day Saint most kids in my school have ever met. And the few who have heard of the Church at all have only heard of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Homefront ads on television,” Melissa said.

    The good side of this is that it leaves plenty of room for missionary work. “Sometimes people say, ‘You’re different. How come?’ and I tell them,” Nancy explained.

    Marny said, “I introduced a guy to the Church last year. He took all the missionary discussions, and he had a testimony; but he wasn’t 18, and his parents wouldn’t let him be baptized.”

    “I have friends who know a lot about the Church because I talk to them about it all the time,” Melissa said. “They come over and see my pictures of the temples and say, ‘What’s that big building?’ That gives me a chance to explain that families can be eternal, and they think that’s really neat. I take all my New Eras over to two friends who live down the street, and they look at the guys. They think Mormon guys are gorgeous. If BYU’s playing a televised game they always turn it on, and if there’s an article in the Times Picayune, they’ll cut it out and show it to me.”

    The influence of these girls reaches beyond the circle of their immediate friends. “We went to the temple last year,” Melissa said. “We had a testimony meeting after going to the temple, and our bus drivers came in and listened. The Spirit was so strong. It touched one of the drivers, and he asked for a copy of the Book of Mormon. He later joined the Church.”

    The same Spirit which moved the bus driver sustains the three friends through the tough times in life. Melissa said, “At school I want to have the Spirit with me all the time because the Holy Ghost is my only friend who understands my feelings about the gospel. I work hard to keep the Spirit with me and think about church things all day to cheer me up when I’m feeling down. Without the Spirit I’d feel alone. With it I’m never alone.”

    “At school it’s hard,” Nancy said, “because they’re always talking dirty. And the Spirit just leaves.” How does she cope with it? “I think about church things. I hum hymns.”

    “All week we’re doing other things and thinking about other things,” she went on, “but underneath all that, we’re also struggling to keep the Spirit with us to get us through the day in good shape. Seminary helps to keep our spiritual batteries charged during the week.”

    Marny and Nancy attend early-morning seminary with one other student. It’s at 6:30 in the morning, and they have evolved a creative way of dealing with the early hour. They arrive at seminary with their hair undone, their makeup unapplied, wearing sweat suits or whatever else they can throw on. Then, after seminary, they both go to Nancy’s house, where they shower and dress for school.

    Melissa attends a once-a-week seminary class, doing the rest of the work through home study. Both classes are taught by a Sister Babcock who is, by all accounts, a real ball of fire. She used to be a champion sprinter, and she still keeps things moving fast. “We never fall asleep in her lessons no matter how tired we are. She makes it so interesting, and she’s so enthusiastic. It gives you a real boost. We also have Mutual, and that helps. But I especially look forward to Sundays. Sunday is WOW! Supercharge! You come home from church a mile high! Getting together with LDS friends has the same effect. It’s like being in a desert and seeing water. ‘A Mormon! Talk to me!’”

    They talked in awe about parts of the Church where there are LDS chapels every other block, stake dances every month, and a majority of the students in school were LDS. “Tell them not to take it for granted,” they said.

    Before long it was time to leave the Moon Bridge and go home. Another night they would come and see the fireworks display over the Mississippi. Since they all lived on the far side of the river, they had come across on the ferry. Now they walked back to the world exposition to board a gondola that crossed the river at a dizzy height on a crane-suspended cable. Crossing over, they watched the setting sun run down the cable toward Lake Pontchartrain. The skyscrapers that clustered down to the river shrank to a slightly unreal diorama on the far shore.

    Meanwhile, back at the Moon Bridge, more and more people were coming as the night approached, just as they come every night. They sat and looked and looked and looked at the river. The bands were playing on Bourbon Street. The world exposition was rocking. Night clubs and theaters and restaurants beckoned, but people just sat and looked at the river.

    There was no moon to turn the surface to molten gold. There were no ships shedding light in their wake. There was only the murmur of water lapping against the levee, the pull of the moving currents, the mysterious force, the inscrutable power of it. This levee-tamed giant that could smash cities and gut continents slid by with such a soft romantic murmur that everyone fell in love with it. Along with its own special magic, the Mississippi has the same mystic presence that belongs to all the world’s great rivers, a timeless sense of lives flowing into eternity. Almost every culture has felt it—this sense that life is a river and death is the sea.

    Perhaps the watchers on the Moon Bridge were wondering what was downstream for them and what the sea was like. Or perhaps they wondered why they were making the journey. They spoke little. Strangers remained strangers, but there was a sense of oneness, as if there were no need to speak, because everyone understood.

    Nancy, Melissa, and Marny had sat there many times themselves. They too had felt the pull of the river, the parable, the mystery. But unlike many of the other river watchers, they know where life’s river leads. They know that they are not chips in the stream, but voyagers steering a course toward home. They know also that the mortal voyage is one that nobody should have to take alone. They know that on this journey they have and will always have friends, good friends, the best of friends, both here in the dark currents of mortality and in the great shining sea toward which the river flows.

    Photos by Brian Wilcox