Willing Hands


(Based on a true incident.)
Oh no! Not gardening!

Stake conferences are usually pretty routine. A visiting General Authority can add excitement; but otherwise there’s just the established procedure of talks and music and (for me at least) trying to pay attention and not become distracted by crying children and my own daydreaming.

Daydreaming in stake conference can be dangerous, for Dad usually quizzes us about the talks on the way home. But this Sunday he seemed unusually quiet and thoughtful. Not until we were halfway to Newton did he speak up.

“Did any of you kids pay attention to President Betts’s talk?”

What kind of question was that? Ammon, Jennie, and I exchanged glances.

“He said a bunch of stuff about priorities and goals,” Ammon finally remarked.

“And, as usual, he talked about missionary work,” Jennie added with a flip of her blonde ponytail.

Somehow I didn’t think that was what Dad wanted to hear. I leaned back and let my mind replay the stake president’s talk.

“He mentioned that his health had been poor lately and apologized for any inconveniences it might cause.”

Dad nodded, looking rather somber. “And?”

Mom came to our rescue. “Poor Lester. He even managed a joke about not being able to get any gardening done this spring. He’s always loved gardening so much—it must be hard for him to let it go.” She sighed. “I’d hate to have to give up my gardening because of bad health.”

We were all very quiet, even Fred and Willy. I couldn’t get a visual image of President Betts out of my mind: tall, thin, gray haired, slightly stooped. He’d always looked that way, it seemed, in the years and years he’d been stake president. But lately, now that I thought about it, he appeared much thinner, much grayer, much more bent over, much older. I shivered a little. I couldn’t imagine a stake conference without him on the stand.

Mom frowned at our gloomy faces. “Now, now, it’s not that bad! He’s not in the best of health, but he’s not dying either!”

Dad, stopping for a light, glanced over his shoulder at us. “What could we all do to help President Betts?”

“Pray,” Fred said instantly.

“Yes, we can always do that,” Mom agreed cheerfully, rubbing Fred’s short brown hair. “What else?”

Ammon and Jennie lit up simultaneously. “Do his gardening for him!” Mom and Dad nodded, all smiles, and I silently groaned. I hate gardening. It’s the one family activity I automatically excuse myself from. Gardening makes my whole body sore and strains my eyes. Besides, I can’t tell a flower (or vegetable) from a weed, and I usually kill everything I touch.

“Let’s go over to his house tomorrow, for family night,” Ammon said excitedly.

How much homework did I have? Or maybe I could wangle an invitation from Ahna to watch a TV special, or a request from the Nickles to baby-sit.

“Should we tell President Betts first or just show up?” Jennie asked. She was really thrilled about this.

“Oh, let’s keep it a surprise,” Ammon quickly replied. “It will be twice as fun.”

“It’s all settled then,” Dad said, and, as if he could read my mind, continued in a rather stern voice, “right, Stephie?”

“Right,” I agreed weakly. But I had one last defense.

“What if President Betts doesn’t want anyone to do his gardening? Some people get kind of fussy about things like that, you know.”

Mom gave me a penetrating look. Could she read my mind too? “I don’t think you need to worry about that, dear,” she said in a no-nonsense manner.

I shut up. I obviously wasn’t going to get anywhere with my excuses. Secretly, I was a little relieved that I was being forced to participate. If I didn’t, I knew from prior experience that I’d have guilt feelings for weeks. But that didn’t mean I had to enjoy myself.

The next evening, after the usual quibbling and teasing, we finally managed to get all of us and all our gardening equipment (just in case President Betts had his tucked away) into the car and drove across town to his home. Perhaps I could be nice and chat to Sister Betts while everyone else was working.

Dad led us around the garage and into the garden while Mom rang the doorbell to explain what we were up to. Maybe, despite Mom’s reassurances, President Betts would be offended or upset and tell us to go away.

When President Betts came out onto the patio with Mom, he was beaming like a little kid. “You wonderful people! I never expected—” He broke off, his eyes damp.

Dad put his arm around the president’s shoulder. “We’re glad to help,” he said gently. “Just tell us what you want done.”

“That’s right,” Ammon said, pushing forward a lawn chair. “You can sit here and direct the troops.”

President Betts laughed. “If you insist—I’ll be delighted to take advantage of all these willing hands.”

He was so happy and pleased that I felt ashamed of my negative attitude. I followed Dad over to a stretch of yard.

“You’d better keep an eagle eye on me so I don’t ruin everything,” I warned.

Dad agreeably guided me through the various steps. With Ammon and Jennie on their own and Mom watching over Fred and Willy, we were soon busy at work, digging, planting and watering under President Betts’ direction.

After what seemed an eternity but was actually only 30 minutes, I straightened up and rubbed my back. Oh, how I hurt! My muscles were sore, my clothes were damp and dirty, my fingernails were black, and my glasses were dusty. I took them off and rubbed my eyes.

We had made a little progress. But there was so much left to do! We couldn’t possibly finish the whole yard in one night.

At that moment, voices—strangely familiar voices—sounded from the driveway. Feet tramped around the garage. We all waited curiously.

“Good heavens!” Brother Giberson stood stock still, his wife and children all holding gardening tools behind him, and stared at Dad. Dad stared back, and then he and Brother Giberson burst into laughter.

“Two minds with but a single thought,” Brother Giberson said jovially. He walked over to President Betts, who was open-mouthed with amazement, and shook his hand. “I’m surprised the whole stake isn’t here!”

The Gibersons set to work immediately, and between all 13 of us we were able to get the whole yard in shipshape order—and have fun while doing it! As Dale Giberson and I dug, he told me corny jokes culled from Boy’s Life. As Jana Giberson and I planted, we compared notes on school teachers and assignments. As Sister Giberson and I watered, she sang children’s songs and hymns with such verve that I couldn’t help joining in. The whole yard resounded with music as Mom, Lenna Giberson, and I tidied up and as Jennie, Ammon, and I set our gardening tools back in the car. When we finished with one last chorus of “I Am a Child of God,” the next-door neighbors leaned over the fence and applauded.

“What’s family night without a treat?” Sister Betts called as she set up a card table and brought out bowls, spoons, and several containers of ice cream.

“Mint chocolate chip, my favorite!” Tommy Giberson exclaimed. “Did you know we were coming?”

“No, but I guess it pays to stock up on certain foods,” Sister Betts said with a smile which faded a bit as she looked at our grubby hands. “Why don’t you use the bathroom first to clean up? Two at a time, one in the kitchen and one in the basement.”

Hot water and soap never felt so good. I not only scrubbed my hands, I washed my face and polished my glasses. Ah! At last I could see!

“Hurry up!” Willy called plaintively. “The ice cream’ll be all gone!” I let him in and boosted him up to the sink. He energetically splashed, soaped, and rinsed.

“This was fun, huh, Stephie?” he asked as he dried off. Without waiting for an answer, he dashed up the stairs.

Fun? I trudged, very slowly, up the stairs. I felt totally exhausted; my whole body complained with every step I took; my jeans would never be the same. I hated gardening even more passionately than I had the day before.

The patio was bustling with people talking, laughing, giggling, teasing. The feeling of caring and affection was so strong I could literally sense it. President Betts seemed vigorous and glowing, and the garden looked fantastic.

“Yeah,” I said to myself. “It was fun.”

[illustrations] Lettering by James Fedor

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull