Sunday, November 27, 2011

A singular meal

“Good evening,” he said, a lilting accent giving away his foreign upbringing. “And welcome to Palo.”

We returned his smile, offering thanks.

“Is this your first time here with us?” He adjusted my husband’s seat.

Was this our first time? Most definitely. No, we had not dined in the exclusive adult-only five-star restaurant on top of a 14-story Disney cruise ship at night while docked in the beautiful and balmy harbor of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Our friends, Ward and Lisa, were also first timers along with us. We were just over half-way through our week-long dream vacation. Our kids were five stories below us, being served dinner at our regular table in the Parrot Cay, a wonderful restaurant on its own.

“Yes,” we answered, not caring if it was obvious how much we were enjoying everything about our present surroundings.

He knew our names. Once he determined which one of the men was Dave Blaser, who had made the reservation, he welcomed us all by name. Just another simple layer of Disney courtesy.

“My name is Nikola,” he said as he poured Mickey tap water into my glass (we had opted out of the Evian bottled water at $5.00 each). I shifted my gaze to read below his name tag to find out what country he was from. Serbia.

“Kako ste?” I blurted out, spouting the only Serbian I could recall. During my mission, almost half a lifetime ago, I had known a fair amount of Serbian, and could have carried on a decent conversation. Most of that knowledge had now fallen through the cracks of life, making room for more critical information like what bribes worked to get your daughter to practice the piano, and how to do seven loads of laundry on the side of an otherwise crazy day.

“Dobro,” he answered automatically. It took a second longer for him to realize I had just spoken in his native tongue. “Do you speak Serbian?”

“No.” I racked my brain for any more Serbian. How do you say “I lived in Slovenia?” I couldn’t pull it out. “Zivi en Slovenija.” I said, mixing bad Slovene grammer with a random Spanish article thrown in for added confusion. What?

But, he understood. The verb, ‘Ziveti‘ meant ‘to live‘ and the root was similar enough to Serbian. We exchanged a few more pleasantries about that area of the world, thankfully in English. This additional rapport was just another magical coating on our evening. It is a small world after all.

The entire night was marvelous. No, a three-syllable word does not do it justice. Sensational. Incredible. {Insert brilliant-sounding five or six-syllable word here.}

We started off with an entire antipasto bar, rolled directly to our table where Nikola doled out almost transparent slices of prosciutto, plump artichoke hearts, and parmesan cheese that had aged for over eight years, all drizzled with garlic-infused, hand-pressed olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Fresh, warm italian bread accompanied it.

The next course was soups and salads. The caprese salad had a beautiful twist. A perfectly ripe tomato, halved and peeled, adorned with generous wedges of mozzarella cheese amid a plate decorated with basil and oil mixed together and drizzled in the shape of a large tree branch. It was almost too appealing to touch, but one-bite did the trick, and soon Nikola was clearing out plates to make room for the margarita and quattro formaggi pizzas we had ordered. The thin-crusted margarita was perfectly italian. Crunchy crust, obviously cooked in a brick oven. Thin tomato-based sauce dripped off the ends of each piece, staunched occasionally by a stray basil leaf or a slice of mozzarella still trying to melt.

I was starting to get full. Our entrees hadn’t even arrived. I forced myself to abandon the second slice of tempting pizza. The conversation never got dull. When we weren’t whimpering in delight over each bite of whatever we were consuming, we were discussing our next possible vacations together. This was just the beginning for our families. We each had three children. Same ages. Same genders. It was ideal.

Nikola timed our entrees to perfection. My sea bass was a work of art. With each bite, butter and lemon exploded into my mouth and the flesh of the fish simply melted onto my tongue. We exchanged bites around the table so everyone could taste everything.

“You’ve got to try this” should be Palo’s catchphrase. We all must have said it a dozen times that evening.

Long before our entrees had even arrived, Nikola asked us if we wanted to try the specialty dessert: The Chocolate Souffle. And, yes, all three of those words deserve their capitals. It took just under a half an hour to cook one, so if we wanted them, we needed to get the order in then. We had been prepared. We had been told, no, almost commanded, that The Chocolate Souffle was a must at Palo. Essential.

Enough time had passed since our entree platters had been removed to just tickle the tops of our appetites. Though, even if we had been truly full, we were quickly becoming experts at eating more-than-generous portions.

With flair, Nikola adjusted a thin rolling cart containing our desserts near our table. On top sat four rectangular white plates. Each was centered with a white ramekin overflowing with The Chocolate Souffle. On one side, two miniature pitchers held vanilla bean and chocolate sauces. On the other side, a perfectly round sphere of vanilla gelato floated on a ceramic resting spoon. Steam emanated seductively from the ramekin.

After presenting us each with our platters, he removed Dave’s plate to use for demonstrative purposes. With the fork tines away from him, he gently prodded a small opening in the top of the souffle. Mist stole its way out in a puff. He picked up the vanilla bean sauce and pour an ounce into the hole. The entire souffle responded with a sultry bulge.

We all smiled in our own sinful anticipation of what was about to come. I gently poked a hole along the cracked lines in the surface of my souffle. Poof. A pocket of bottle fog crept out. I couldn’t decide which sauce to apply first. So, I chose both. I raised my small silver spoon and penetrated the opening I had created. Ecru cream poured out of the small container and was quickly swallowed up by the darkness inside. Milk-chocolate sauce followed and my spoon grappled around for a perfect mixture of vanilla bean, chocolate sauce, and chocolate souffle. I pulled it out with a perfect, delectable mass.

I blew on it slightly, looking up to see all three of my dinner companions doing the same. We shared a silly smile. Kids in a candy shop had nothing on us. And then...

Mmmm. How can something be crumbly and so moist at the same time? I swirled the sodden morsels around in my mouth, absorbing each burst of flavor. No need to say, “You have to try this” to anyone now. We were all equally drawn up in food euphoria.

Over the next too-rapidly passing ten minutes, we sat enjoying our souffles. I relished in each bite, pouring more sauce intermittently. Eating each bite slower than a bank teller returning to the long line of customers after her ill-timed break. It was simply sumptuous.

With each swallow, I tried to capture the entire essence of the evening. That day had been one of the best so far. We had started out eating breakfast with Mickey, Minnie and all their friends. We had gone for an amazing catamaran ride out to a secluded bay to snorkel. The ride back to the boat had been a highlight. All six kids were laughing on the catamaran ride back. Lying on their stomachs on the stiff netting watching the waves splash up all around us. Standing up surfing and trying not to get knocked over when we hit a particularly large swell. The sun beating down on our skin, warming us; the perfect contrast to the wind in our hair. Upbeat music blasting from the ship’s stereo. Now, we were all showered, and dressed up to the nines. Our children, who had been fed and taken care of by other people, were now all comfortably watching Cars 2 in 3D in the huge theater seven stories below us. The view was a dark, lulling ocean and blinking harbor lights. I had seen a sign that afternoon that read, “There is a better life out there, it just costs more.” I had laughed at the time, but I felt I knew what it meant. This moment. This was what it meant.

And, suddenly, I didn’t want it to end. I looked down at my souffle, and even though I was absolutely full, I wouldn’t not have eaten the last bite even if I had room. I had to save it for later. To let it linger in my memory. To know that it was still there, unfinished, waiting for me. Waiting for the next time.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Memory of my Mother

This is a quick memory I wrote, originally for Mother's day to my Mom. I finally finished it two months later. Happy Mother's day Mom. What are some memories you have of something your mother did that still stays with you today?


The wind whispered to the trees, who answered with a disagreeable shake, covering me with a fresh coating of snow. Even though it wasn’t snowing, I was laden down and soaking wet, with each new gust reaching deeper inside me. I was beginning to rethink my decision to walk my best friend home, now that I had accomplished the task and had only my breath as companion. But, I hadn’t been ready to part ways when it was time, so I waved to my siblings and told them I’d take the long way home. An impetuous decision, given the weather, but done in the name of fourth-grade friendship.

Just a few more houses, and I’d crest the big hill. It would be the perfect sledding hill, were it not for the unfortunate fact that it was a busy road. I precariously placed each moon boot down as close to the sweeping drifts and plow leftovers as I dared. The sidewalks wouldn’t be visible or approachable for months. With each passing car, I turtled into my coat and held up my arms against the residual flurry, berating myself once again for forgetting my scarf. It now fruitlessly warmed the brick-colored tiles on the floor of the school coat room. A few more cars passed. A few more houses. I peeked out of my cocoon. Almost. Almost. There it is. Our street. Home.

Knowing what awaited me kept me going. I would have smiled in anticipation if I hadn’t thought my cheeks would break from the effort. I knew my mom would be waiting for me. And not just waiting. I knew she would have a warm, comforting snack. She’d help me off with my stiff gloves and thick coat. She’d rub my arms down to warm me up. How many cold days had I walked home? How many times had my boots crunched through snow to and from school? Other than my solitude, this one was no different.


Decades later, I remember this particular walk. The grey skies were streaked with colors that pointlessly fought to be blue. It wasn’t because it was specifically colder than any other day. It was the warmth of the knowledge that my mother would be home, waiting for me, that engraved the memory of that walk home deep in my soul. How sure I was of that fact. I was more certain of her presence, waiting with a warm snack just for me, than I was that the sun would rise the next day.

And I was not wrong. Trudging up our driveway that would need to be shoveled once again, I almost broke into a run to prove to any wayward doubts that my mom was there. Immediately after entering through our garage, I shook off the last layer of snow and stomped my way inside. My mother was there in seconds, helping remove my hat, gloves and coat. I couldn’t help it. I smiled. For no apparent reason. Yet, I knew why. As my nose begin to thaw, I smelled it. Hot chocolate.

My siblings were scattered up and down the counter, hands surrounding their individual, steaming mugs. Content. I quickly joined them and their conversations, warming my soul with words and delicious drink. It was most likely hot carob, now that I think of it, but as a child, I honestly didn’t know the difference.

The rest of that day, and the majority of my childhood has since blurred into scenes of unspecific happiness. But the feelings of cold, tempered by the sweet knowledge of security live on. What a gift to have a mother waiting for us each day as we came home. What a gift.

I now live in the Valley of the Sun, where snow is so rare that the very rumor of it escalates into prime time news. So, I greet my kids as they ride home on their bikes and scooters with popsicles. Neon green, deep purple and some shade of orange that looks like the over processed tangelos in the store. We sit up to the table, where the ceiling fan is whirring away, as they plop their backpacks on the floor and kick off their flip flops, declaring this to be the hottest day yet. We lounge around licking and talking as they recount the wonders of their day. I may not be quite like my mom, in any regards, but in this one aspect I hope I’ve learned from her. What a gift to be at home. Waiting for my children each day. Waiting with open arms... and a snack.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Last week, the Relief Society teacher in my ward asked if I'd share a few words about developing talents. She also asked if I'd share something I had written. I was really hesitant at first, then decided it was too hypocritical to get up and talk about how I've been trying to develop and grow a talent as a writer and not be willing to share, so this is what I wrote: Enjoy.

As a teenager, my paternal grandfather laid his withered hands on my head and softly uttered my Patriarchal blessing. In it, he specifically advised me to ponder the parable of the talents. For years, I would pray extra hard before reading that section of Matthew, half-expecting a secret word to appear in the margins or an esoteric pattern to emerge containing the secret to my life. I soon wearied of not finding answers between the lines and resorted to resting my thoughts on the parable every few months, after a lesson on Talents. Always questioning myself. Which character was I? Did I have five talents? Two? One? and a dusty one at that? As life has wizened me up some, I’ve realized I am all three.

I am the wicked and slothful servant, too embarrassed to even keep a talent in my pocket, to gingerly jingle occasionally as a reminder of what I’d been given. Instead, I throw it down a deep ditch, away from sight. As a child, I loved to write. But, I excelled at Math. And, in a world where early on we must declare ourselves either a numbers nerd or a lover of the arts, I followed the yellow brick road of A’s to a degree in Finance, burying my love of words deeper and deeper along the way.

Then, two years ago I took a risk. Some friends had started a writer’s group and I got out my proverbial shovel and asked if I could come to one of their meetings. And then, then I did something even more daring. I asked if I could come back! And I haven’t missed a meeting since. Over the last two years we have shared the silly and the saintly, laughing and crying, always to the tune of some delicious refreshment, of course. (We are proper Mormon girls).

Word by living word, I have cautiously, painfully, and sometimes by the shovelful, dug out my buried talent. It is starting to live again. Breathe. I sculpt it as best I know how. Realizing I am giving life to my thoughts, so safely tucked inside my head before. Allowing for hurt, shame, and rejection and calling it ‘pruning’.

I am also the servant given two talents, so prone to stare into the deadly mirror of comparison. Two vs. five, always coming up short. Only when gratitude appears do I get to work improving what I’ve been given.

And then, I am the servant given five talents. But, life sometimes requires different talents than those naturally given. My original five did not include a very nurturing spirit, a natural affinity towards motherhood, a love of cleaning or an ability to Betty Crocker my way through whatever is in the fridge. So, I’ve put my five talents to work, trading, earning, learning, gaining new albeit, not-so-natural, talents. Because, in the end, it will not matter whether the talents were given or earned, the Savior will not distinguish. Yes, at that day He will say, “Well done. You have stretched until it stung, you have blessed others until you broke. Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord. (Matthew 25:21).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Inhaling gingerly, I squinted my eyes and braced myself as I answered, “I read it on Facebook.”

“Oh, thank goodness for Facebook!” my husband said, sarcasm dripping like an ice-cream cone in the hands of a two-year old. “How would we ever learn anything worth knowing without Facebook!”

I could almost feel his eyes rolling, even though he was in the next room.

Later on, as I tried to find the shut down button on my brain’s computer so I could sleep, I thought about what he had said, sarcasm notwithstanding. I could learn a good week’s worth of information from Facebook in the time it took me to eat my morning bowl of yogurt and granola. Just that day, I had found out my little sister was scheduled the next day for an induction on her seventh baby. And, I didn’t find out from her. It was my cousin who was posting on her wall, wishing her good luck.

I got over 60 birthday wishes last year on my birthday. Sixty! I’d have to celebrate a decade of birthdays in my life before Facebook to receive that many different wishes! I schedule my visiting teaching appointments through Facebook, remind our babysitter when we’ll be picking her up, find out which friends are pregnant, and catch up on everyone’s lives.

But, it’s not just about reconnecting with friends, it’s about connecting in general. From the comfort of my not-so-comfortable chair, I can talk, at my own leisure, about current events, weather woes, health issues, and parenting tips with people who have been a part of my life over almost four decades and just as many continents.

It’s not a perfect social world. I still prefer face-to-face interaction. But, I don’t have to put on makeup or even wear a bra to get on Facebook. I can play the game of social banter, coming up with witty posts, commenting as cleverly as I can, and racking up points. But, first, I have to go to the bathroom.

Thirty percent of women read Facebook before they go to the bathroom in the morning. It’s true.

I read it on Facebook.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Giant Green Gumdrops

Giant Green Gumdrops

Someone must have opened a window upstairs. A cool breeze tiptoed down as I rocked back and forth, back and forth; my eyes, fixated on the television. Our parents had projects going on, resulting in the unlocking of the TV. We were watching wonderful summer re-runs of “The Greatest American Hero”. Outside, one stalwart sprinkler held its course. Krrsh. Krrsh. Krrsh. Krrsh. Ratatatatatat. Krrsh. Krrsh. Krrsh. Opening up my delectable bag of giant gumdrops, I peered inside, inhaling the sugar that had fallen off from rumbling around. Dad had gone to a hardware store that morning for his project. I had a handful of change currently not doing me any good. A hardware store is as good a place as any to spend hard-earned nickels and dimes. Especially when they sell gumdrops.

It was the summer of 1986 and I was working hard on 13. My two little sisters had given up trying to get me to share my goodies and were content to watch a curly-haired thirty-something in tights jump around and fly, trying to save the world in his own quirky way. Back and forth, back and forth I rocked. Not going anywhere, but not really trying.

I heard my mom switch a load of laundry and the successive whir of the dryer kick on. I reached my fingers into my stash and pulled out a perfectly-shaped green gumdrop. It was a nice, appealing sort of green, sharing a shade with baby snow peas and spring leaves. Determined to suck the marrow out of each piece, I slowly stuck it in my mouth and willed myself not to bite it. I was going to dissolve each delightful sugar granule with my tongue. Back and forth I rocked, sucking patiently at the gelatinous glob, enjoying it in slow motion. Then, just as I achieved total smoothness, my giant green gumdrop turned and slipped down my throat, coned-side down, lodging perfectly in my esophagus.

Every nerve in my body spiraled into high alert. Clear, urgent alarms coursed through me. I silently tried to cough, but couldn’t make even the smallest movement to the gumdrop. Help! I jumped off the chair, amazed that my body could still function properly when everything was awry. I had learned about the Heimlich maneuver in school through a cheesy video. I knew the international sign of choking was to cross your hands, palms out, facing yourself, overlapping your thumbs and bringing it all up across your neck. I knew that, but did my little sisters? Hopefully. I vaulted myself in between them and the television and quickly made the international choking sign, the distress more than evident in my eyes.

Both my sisters started yelling at me. Viki asked if I was choking. When I fervently and desperately nodded, she bolted out of her chair and ran screaming and shouting upstairs to my parents. Emily’s reaction was slightly different. She yelled at me too, but she said, “Get out of the way, you’re blocking the TV!”

I actually moved out of her way, realizing quickly she was too young to understand what was really going on. My life was suddenly and blaringly too short to hold on to blame.

Everything became very defined, as if blocking the oxygen from my brain was like turning the lens and focusing my understanding into stark detail. I understood perfectly that I had about a minute to live as I knew it. I did not want to die. I did not think I was going to die. But, I knew something had to change to my existing circumstances or I was going to die. My memories quickly scanned through the images of the video. There was an overweight, bald man who was choking on a chicken bone in a restaurant. Too proud to get help, he went to the bathroom and subsequently died. A lady with feathered hair showed the correct position and instigation of the maneuver on a dummy. They showed her shove in slow motion over and over from various angles. A man, living alone, used the end cap of a stair rail to dislodge something caught in his throat. A disembodied deep voice warned against ever doing the Heimlich maneuver on yourself as you could become seriously injured. It was a means of last resort. Only to be done if desperate.

Was I desperate? Only a second or two had passed for all of those images to play in perfect lucidity. I could still move my arms, my feet, walk, think, hear, see, feel. Viki had ran upstairs to get my parents, but we lived in a rather large house. I had no idea where they were upstairs, or how long it would take them to get down to me. Should I run upstairs? Even though my muscles operated normally, I was too scared to go anywhere. Tears started to well up in my eyes. I let them fall, sweeping my gaze around the room to see anything I could fall on to displace the giant green gumdrop. Nothing. Instinctively, I fisted my right hand, with my thumb facing just above my belly button. I covered my right with my left hand, to give it direction and force. I couldn’t speak, or I would have prayed out loud. But, I knew I could pray in my head. I voiced one word. “Help.” Then, I thrust my left hand into my right fist in an inward and upward motion. Nothing.

I had to try again. The disembodied voice from the videos replayed something regarding possible broken ribs, and I hesitated. But I had to breathe. I could survive a broken rib. But I couldn’t survive not breathing. I felt like I should bend over and mimic throwing up at the same time as I shoved my fists into my stomach. So, I shouted up my one-word prayer and tried again, propelling my fists as hard as my underdeveloped arm muscles would allow.

As I shoved inwards and bent over, the giant green gumdrop shot out of me. It didn’t just come up in my mouth again, it catapulted several feet. The next thing I remember, I was lying on the ground not wanting to move, or do or think or feel anything but the flow of oxygen in and out of my mouth. I don’t know if I actually passed out for a few seconds or not. One moment I was attacking myself and the next, I was lying on my side, relishing every breath as my tears fell unimpeded.

The way I was facing, I could see the bottom half of the staircase. Often, we would stand on the third-from-the-bottom stair and jump all the way to the bottom. Then, as we got older, we’d move up to the fourth-from-the-bottom, and so on. The record was the fifth.

My mom is not a very fast person. She is methodical and does everything with meaning and purpose. She speaks clearly, pronouncing each syllable. She irons clothes meticulously and in smooth, unhurried motions. She kneads dough calmly, over and over, with no haste or pounding. When it is her turn to read scriptures or say the family prayer, we all inwardly groan, because she takes forever! She thinks deeply about each sentence she utters, giving it meaning. She pauses in between sentences in the scriptures instead of racing through the allotted verses like the rest of us. No, my mom is not what I would call fast.

My dad, however, has a competitive side to him. He played football all throughout high school and is still an avid tennis player. He is the parent you want in the three-legged races at the reunions. About two steps into the race, he just hugs you up to his side and races full speed ahead. You end up with rope burns at your calfs, but a first-place finish as balm.

So, when I saw my mother’s feet flying down the stairs first, I was astonished. Then, she broke all our stair records. From the sixth stair from the bottom, she jumped! Gracefully clearing all those steps, she vaulted herself around the corner and was kneeling at my side before I could figure out how my mom had moved that fast. Milliseconds later, my dad was hovering over me and they both were asking questions and prodding and lifting and listening as I breathed out a ragged response.

Lots of hugging, explaining and reenacting followed. By this time, Emily had joined in to see what all the fuss was about. Apparently we were finally more interesting than the show.

When I re-tell this family story, as I have often done, during late game nights over common bowls of Peanut M&M’s and Red Vines, and sometimes even gumdrops, I like to take it slow. Viki and I team-tell it, building and building the story until we get to the part about Emily’s innocent, but ridiculous declaration “Get out of the way, you’re blocking the TV”. We all laugh and laugh, wiping away the tears. Courteously, eyes turn to me for a quick one or two sentence recap. But, when I relive it in my mind, as I have often done, I savor different aspects of the story. I recognize the miracle that happened. I stagger at the overwhelming love I felt when I saw my steady, methodical mother leap down six stairs at once and rush to my side.

Someone passes me the bowl of gumdrops. We’ve moved on to another exciting episode of memories by now. I reach in for a gumdrop, avoiding the green ones, bring it to my mouth and promptly bite it in two.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Untitled, part 2 of 2

(Part 2 of 2) -- still looking for a good title. Click here for part 1.

I was so busy glancing around, I almost passed it. But, there it was; a pay phone. I didn’t even look both ways before galloping across the street as I swung my backpack around and fumbled through my wallet for my phone card. I force-fed it down the slot. Zero balance. It spit it out faster than a nine-month old rejecting string beans. If I ever needed a miracle, now was the time. Did I have enough faith? I said a prayer that the card would miraculously work and reinserted it. Rejected again. Briefly the story of the ten virgins flitted across my mind as I turned away and ran down another street. I didn’t have time to deal with a mental reproach on preparation.

Then, I saw a light. It was too bright to be from a personal residence. It had to be some sort of store or business. Then I heard some music. It was faint, but it was definitely music, albeit music with more bass and drums than actual melody. But, music meant people. Unfortunately, these people were even farther away from my companion and I hesitated, wondering if I should run back and check on her. Part of me was shouting to return to my companion and I didn’t know if it was the spirit prompting me, or just the voice in my head who couldn’t deal with the sense of aloneness. Being with a companion was so ingrained into my psyche that it was very difficult to finally pursue the trail of the music. But, I knew it might be my only option for finding a phone.

I had to run about a block and a half before I came to the light. It was a movie theater that doubled as a bar and what appeared to be a tiny nightclub. I sprinted to the entrance and then skidded to a stop. There is something fundamentally wrong with a sister missionary entering a bar alone late at night. Just plain wrong. I hesitated on the steps, my mind and spirit battling out my eternal redemption. My stomach actually lurched backwards as I crossed the threshold. I had broken so many rules in the past twenty minutes, what was one more! I ran to the bartender and asked if I could please borrow the phone.

I’m not sure if it was my accent or my long skirt and tag denoting that I was a “sister” for some church, but she gave me the weirdest look, turned and walked hastily away. What? Not now! I was rejected over and over again all day long when I was trying to talk to people about spiritual matters. That came with the calling. But now? I could not get rejected.

“Ma’am!” My tone got her attention. I started to beg as I explained my emergent circumstances. She finally sighed and went to the counter, returning slowly with a black rotary phone. I reached out for it and she pulled it back. Then, she looked me square in the eyes and said, “Are you going to call England?”

I half grunted a release of tension. “No, no, just here in Ljubljana! I promise! Local call!” A ha! Maybe she hadn’t been rejecting me after all. She had been worried about long distance charges. But, it was nice of her to finally let me use the phone -- even for a local call. Every call, local or not, cost money. All the same, she stood as close to me as the bar allowed and watched me dial every number, ready to disconnect my call if it exceeded the six numbers necessary for a local call. I didn’t attempt to turn away for privacy.

I dialed the Elder’s number, praying the whole time that they had been more rule-abiding than I had been. They answered on the third ring.

“Elder Reynolds! It’s Sister Groberg. Sister Basker’s been hurt. She sprained her ankle or broke it or something. Hurry to our bus stop. We are downtown and will catch a bus to our apartment, but we need your help to get off the bus and up to our apartment. She can’t walk at all, so you need to stay at the bus stop and wait for us. She also wants a priesthood blessing. Please hurry. We could be there in as little as 15 minutes. And however soon you make it there, DO NOT go up to our apartment until we get off the bus. Hurry!”

He said they’d be there. I hung up, thanked the bartender, and gratefully exited the bar. Racing back through the silent, dark streets to my companion, I was overcome with fear. Why had I left her all alone? I had only been gone for about 20 minutes, but it seemed like forever. What if she was gone? She had only been in the country a few weeks and didn’t know her way around or speak the language that well. Dozens of awful scenarios skirted the edges of my mind.

It was with an immense smile that I turned the corner and saw her sitting on the sidewalk, holding onto that signpost like it was the iron rod. I got back just in time for what would be the last bus of the night to take us to our apartment. I helped her get up off the cement and we hopped, painfully, over to where the bus was loading. We started up the stairs very slowly. I tried to bear all her weight each time we had to go up a stair. Another man behind us stepped up and grabbed my companion on the other side and helped us up. A young couple on the bus noticed our predicament and helped us find a seat near the back of the bus so we wouldn’t have to go far once we got to our stop.

They were very friendly and we found out they were headed to our same stop. As we neared our destination, I looked around in vain for the Elders. Where were they? They lived one measly stop away. It would take them 5 minutes, tops! Ten if they walked the whole way. I had been very specific that we needed help getting OFF the bus and to hurry! Where were they?

Fortunately, the nice, young couple helped us get off. As the bus pulled away, I looked up and down the street for the Elders. No sign of them. I could tell the young couple wanted to leave, but they also felt bad abandoning us. I explained we had help coming. They looked around and back at me, their eyes silently asking where the help was. It was awkward for a few moments, until Sister Basker started shaking from so much pain, grabbed my arm, and promptly sat on the ground. It spurred us all into action. I knew we had to start the trek home with or without the Elders. First dilemma: crossing the busy street. I suggested we make a sort of chair by linking arms with the young man. We tried to get my companion to slip her legs through. But, partially because of her long skirt, and mainly from her pain, it was evident it wasn’t going to work. Across the street was an ice cream shop that was just closing. The young lady ran across the street and asked if she could borrow one of their chairs. She ran back across the street with it and we all lifted my companion into it. Then, all three of us tried to lift the chair and carry it across. We made it about ten feet before we toppled and my companion fell, once again, to the ground. Fortunately, she protected her previous injuries and wasn’t hurt further. We were now well into the first lane of oncoming traffic. None of us had any desire to retrace the last ten feet. Instead, I got one side of her, and the man got the other and we hobbled and jumped and carried and stumbled our way slowly across what was normally a very busy thoroughfare of a street. Twice the young lady had to hold her arms out to stop a car until we could cross. But, eventually, we made it.

With each painful and miserable step, I got more and more frustrated with the Elders. Sister Basker was now safely across the street, but the effort and movement had put her over the edge and she sat there crying on the sidewalk. I felt so helpless. And angry. What part of hurry did the Elders misunderstand? The nice young couple asked again if we were sure we had help coming. I promised them, though there was no forte in my voice. They stayed there with me and my crying companion for a few more minutes, then the young lady said, “Look, my car is just a few blocks away. Can I go get it and give your friend a ride up the hill?” The last ten minutes had taught us all that the three blocks up the hill to our apartment were going to take most of the night and the rest of Sister Basker’s capacity.

I looked up the street towards the Elder’s apartment once again, turned back, and nodded my assent. She ran off to get her car while he waited with us, like a protective father. If I wasn’t so upset about the lack of Elders, I would have talked to him about the gospel. They both seemed so kind and deserving.

Ten minutes later, she returned with her car. Still no Elders. I could not possibly think what was keeping them. If something was really wrong, I entertained the notion of them deserving it. We carefully and with a few tears loaded Sister Basker into the passenger side of the car. The young man got in the back. I started to tell them where our apartment was, but the young lady stopped me. “We know where you live. We see you walking all the time. We’ll get her home safe, I promise.” Not only was there not room in the car for me, but also I knew that once the Elders deigned to show up, they would undoubtedly obey my instructions to wait at the bus stop until we got there. I had no choice but to leave my companion, once again, in the company of strangers and trust in God to watch over her.

I waved as they drove off, praying again that I was doing the right thing and turned to stew in misery at the lack of Elders. Ten more minutes dragged on, giving me ample time and energy to plan out several tirades to give them. A, B, and, oh! especially tirade C! That would show them. If they ever arrived.

Finally, a straggling bus came puffing down the road and screeched to a stop in front of the ice cream store. The back door creaked open and down came two young Elders, all dressed up in suits and ties, with hair freshly combed.

“Finally!” I screamed. “What took you so long?” I didn’t even wait for an answer. “She’s not here. Some nice people gave her a ride to our apartment. I can only hope she made it there alive!” They explained that when I called, they were already in bed. They had to get dressed and ready. Also, neither of them had ever given a blessing before. They had to track down some consecrated oil and look up in their handbooks on how to give a blessing. I could see in their recently wetted hair and brushed teeth that they were extremely nervous.

I let them off the hook with a watered down version of tirade B as we ran up the hill and got on the elevator. The whole ride up, I kept praying that she’d be home and safe. Why had I let her go? Again? What if they had robbed our place? Okay, probably not. We didn’t have much in the way of material goods. Unless you count skirts that had been through four sets of missionaries.

I put the key in our lock, took a deep breath, and opened the door. I called out to Sister Basker and she answered with a sweet grunt of pain. She was lying on her bed in agony, but she was there, safe, and alone. I said a prayer of gratitude for that young couple and for all they had done for us. At least we had given them one of our Books of Mormon. It was the best (and only) repayment we had.

Our apartment was a studio apartment and the only place to sit was on our beds. Awkward. Not only was it weird having these two Elders in our apartment, but they were in our bedroom, sitting on our unmade beds. I thought about how many more rules we were breaking and then decided to stop keeping track.

After oohing and aahing (more like eewing and eeeehing) at Sister Basker’s ankle, the Elders sat back down on our beds. And sat. And sat. They started asking about the accident, about our appointments, about our evening. Sister Basker was trying so hard to maintain some dignity, sprawled out our her bed, crying. The Elders were so nervous, they were just stammering small talk. Finally, I shouted, “Look! We didn’t invite you over here for punch and cookies! Just give her a blessing and leave!”

It got their attention. They produced their oil and proceeded to bless her sincerely and powerfully. She was promised that she would regain full use of her ankle in time and our work would not suffer as a result of her injury. After they were done, they started to sit back down on our beds. I’m sure they had read in the handbook that you should visit with those you are blessing, or something like that. I finally had to shoo them out, and promise that we’d call them in the morning to let them know how she was doing.

I found some aspirin for Sister Basker and eventually she fell asleep. As I lay on my straw mattress trying to calm my brain down, I realized how the Lord truly watches over his missionaries. Even when they forget to put money on their phone cards or leave their companions alone, or go into bars, or curse Elders in their minds. I was reminded of the scripture in 1 Samuel 16:7; “but the Lord looketh on the heart.” Even though I had knowingly broken enormous rules that day, I knew the Lord saw my heart, and all was well.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


(Part 1 of 2)

There are certain cardinal rules to be kept by missionaries: Never leave your companion. Don’t get into cars with strangers. Be home by 9:30 p.m. Don’t have physical contact with men. Don’t enter bars and night clubs, especially alone. Never let the Elders into your bedrooms, let alone your apartments. By the time I fell asleep that night. I had broken all of them, multiple times.

I rarely woke with the intention of breaking any rule, let alone five or six major ones. It wasn’t looking to be a rule-breaking sort of day. We had zone conference scheduled for all morning and afternoon. And, we had two appointments scheduled for that evening. Two appointments! A day with just one actually scheduled appointment was a treat. But two appointments in one evening? Well, that was South America.

And, oh! what a spiritual feast of a zone conference it was! Caught up in a wave of religious fervor, my companion, Sister Basker, and I both stuffed our backpacks plumb full of pamphlets and Books of Mormon after it was over. Even though we had two appointments (two appointments!), we weren’t going to let a minute of our missions go to waste. We had half a dozen bus rides between now and the end of the day. We thought of all those wonderful sitting ducks just waiting to bloom spiritually. We made sure we had plenty of tools at our disposal to make it happen.

As if taking our positive cue, both our appointments were not only home, but also excited and ready to meet with us. We stayed too long at our final appointment, and it was almost 9:30 by the time we were walking to the bus stop. Our appointment had been on the outskirts of town, and we needed to take three different buses to get home. But, it had all been worth it! We had return visits scheduled for both our appointments.

As we waited at the bus stop, my companion turned to me and said, “It has been such a good day! Interviews with the President, Zone Conference, I didn’t have to give a talk, I memorized Doctrine & Covenants 4, we had two awesome appointments. NOTHING HAS GONE WRONG ALL DAY!!!”

“Be careful, Sister Basker,” I replied, “it’s not over yet!” But, I didn’t really mean it. It had been a most perfect of days.

At that exact moment, I looked up and saw our first bus approaching. It was yet another good sign. We situated ourselves comfortably on the near-empty bus and reminisced on our wonderful appointments. After riding it a few stops, I looked behind us just in time to see our second connecting bus. At this time of night, it was the last bus of its kind. If we didn’t make it on that bus, we’d have a long, long walk ahead of us.

I grabbed my overstuffed back pack and jetted to the back of the bus, shouting to my companion to hurry or we were going to miss it. I waved frantically at the bus behind me to get the driver’s attention. He saw me and, instead of pulling out of the bus stop, he opened his doors again and waited for me to get on the bus. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sister Basker rumple off the bus as she tried to zip up her back pack.

I was in the middle of thanking the second bus driver for waiting for us when I realized there was no us, just me. Our previous bus was pulling away from the stop and there was no sign of my companion. Had she not made it off the bus? Impossible! I had seen her start in her seat and follow me to the back. I was sure she made it off. Where was she?

The bus driver stared at me, as I had stopped speaking mid-sentence when I realized I had no companion.

“Samo malo,” I murmured, just a second. I turned around, and started to descend the steps I had just sprinted up. And then, I saw her. She was sprawled on the sidewalk of the bus stop. Her back pack had fallen open and Books of Mormon and pamphlets were everywhere. Before I could even laugh or get frustrated with the thought of picking up all the fallen paraphernalia, I heard her cry out and I knew something more serious than scattered papers was wrong. I quickly exchanged glances with the bus driver and he nodded his understanding. I jumped off the bus and helped her gather up our supplies and get to her feet. Leaning slightly on me for support, she made her way up the stairs and onto the bus while the driver graciously waited.

It was adrenaline that had helped her up the stairs. As soon as we were safely on the moving vehicle, she sunk down into the nearest chair and clasped her ankle. I looked down and gasped. It looked as if her leg had attempted to swallow a tennis ball, but it had got stuck in the crook of her ankle.

This was no ordinary sprain. Half panicked, and half laughing at the absurdity of the situation, she just looked up at me in pain and confusion, pleading to know what to do. All I could think was ‘elevate’. Elevate. How do you elevate someone’s ankle when they are in a dress and you are on a dirty, moving city bus, full of only men, late at night? She leaned up against the window and put her ankle on my lap. I could see the pain registering deeper and deeper with each breath she took. I didn’t want to look at her ankle, but I couldn’t take my eyes of it. It already resembled a mottled palette of reds and purples.

Think. Breathe. Think.

“Is anything else hurt?”

Slight shake of her head.

“Your bleeding. Your chin and your ankle.” I had removed her shoe, as the swelling was horrendous by now and was causing further pain.

She wiped at the blood on her face and winced with the slight movement that rippled through her body.

“I’m so sorry!” I cried. The guilt for making her race off the bus swelling as much as her ankle.

No response. I wanted to pull out a vacuum and suck away her pain, and the swollen ankle. I donned the role of senior companion and resorted to figuring out our immediate plans. Even if she could get off this bus and up onto the next one, we still had a three-block walk uphill to our apartment. We were not going to make it. We needed help.

Approaching our second connecting stop, a man, as if he heard my silent plea, came up and offered his help. I knew we needed it. Disregarding the rule of not letting strange men have physical contact with us, I gladly accepted. Balancing both overstuffed backpacks on my opposite shoulder, I got one side of Sister Basker, and let the stranger take the bulk of her other side. I glanced up at the bus driver and he waved, to let us know we could take our time going down the aisle and off the bus. Those three steps down seemed like cavernous abysses. Finally, we were off the bus and on solid ground. Our assistant helped us over to a sign post indicating the bus schedule and bid goodnight. I thanked him for both of us, as it was all Sister Basker could do to grabbed onto the post with both hands to hold herself steady and try keep her weight off her ankle. Now what?

Our not-so-little adventure off the bus quickly confirmed that we would need help getting off the bus at our final stop and getting up to our apartment. Sister Basker was bigger than I was. We needed help. The Elders! Of course. There was a set of Elders that only lived one bus stop away from ours. But, how to get ahold of them? The public phones were in the post office and that closed hours ago. Nothing was open. It was almost 10:00 p.m. There would be one, maybe two buses left that could get us to our apartment that night. But we needed help once we got there. Before I could even think long enough to change my mind, I turned to Sister Basker.

“Stay here. Hold onto that pole. I am going to go find a phone to call the Elders to meet us at our bus stop.”

“Ask them if they will give me a blessing.” She said as she slumped down on the cold cement. No resistance to my abandoning her in the middle of downtown, late at night. She understood the gravity of our situation as well as I did. I waved acknowledgment and crossed the street. I looked right and left. No lights. No open doors. No sign of life anywhere. The few people out on the streets were back at the bus stop. I knew I’d have to start going down some of the dark streets to find anyone who could help me with a phone. I turned around and took one last look at my companion, gripping the pole like a child clasps his mothers leg in a crowded store. I sent a prayer out into the night, hoping she’d still be there when I came back, turned and ran away.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Three Hours

Missionary work in Europe is like plowing a drought-ridden field with a plastic fork. Some missionaries serve their entire missions without any baptisms. Ours was no exception. During a particularly parching absence of baptisms, our mission president challenged us to fast and pray to find those prepared to hear the sweet but life-altering message of the gospel. Our whole mission, comprised of over 200 missionaries, was going to fast for 24 dedicated hours. Following that simple sacrifice, we all, including our president, were going to tract for the same three, consecrated hours.

About this time, I received a letter from a dear friend. She sent me a powerful article by Elder Alvin R. Dyer, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1930s. It was so inspiring that I made a copy for everyone in my district, which included 6 Elders, my companion and me. I shared it with them at a meeting we had to kick-start our momentous mission-wide fast. (It is a lengthy article, but I need to share a taste of it to depict its flavor).

The Challenging and Testifying Missionary” by Alvin R. Dyer

“We think we learn the language and a few lessons and this prepares us to teach the gospel. This is a serious mistake. Were I a young missionary again I would challenge almost everyone I met and I would do it almost every hour of the day. I wouldn't care how many would turn me down.

“You actually do not know when you go to a door whom the Lord has prepared for the gospel. You must approach each door with the idea that here is where people who are prepared for the gospel live. You must do it without fail at every home because you do not know if these people have been chosen by the Lord.

“I remember as a young missionary we left the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to go northward. The sky was blue, it was a beautiful day. It was so still it was almost dull. We had gone about one-half mile on a dirt road when a tremendous whirlwind came up and almost turned us off our feet. I said, "Brother John Clark; we must be going the wrong way." We turned and went the other way and had gone almost a half day into the country when we turned down a farm lane. I can still hear the dogs barking as we opened the outer gate and approached the house. The man said, "I have been expecting you young men." He had a neighbor who had dropped by and left him a copy of the Book of Mormon. Some missionaries had given it to the neighbor and he was not interested in it and had left it with him. "I have been praying every day that someone would come to tell me about this." Would you go into a lengthy series of lessons with that man? We did not. We went out and dammed the creek in back of his place and baptized him before we left.

“I can tell by the look on some of your faces that this goes against the grain. You still like it nice and easy, where you go in and teach the lessons. Teach by the spirit when you go into the home, and have the spirit so strong it comes out of your fingers and they feel it so strong they say, "I know what you say is true." I think the day will come when we will go to the doors of people and testify that we are the servants of God sent to them, call them to repent and be baptized, and I don't believe that day is too far away. We must be more courageous, more definite. We must be the "Challenging and Testifying” missionary. We know it is true. We know that the Lord knows that we know that it is true.

It was such a powerful article and it just added fuel to the fire of our fasting. The excitement of knowing that everyone, everyone was going to be out tracting at the same time was palpable.

We prayed intensely. We read the article. We fasted. We read the article again. We prayed more. We pondered and deliberated about where we should spend our precious three hours. We wanted to be ‘led by the spirit, not knowing beforehand the things {we} should do’ (1Ne. 4:6).

The awaited day arrived. We arrived at the buildings we had spirit-picked. The first building was open. It was a sign. We pushed the button for the elevator and waited like kids on Christmas morning while it leisurely descended to our level. We opened up the outer door, then the inner door and got in. Would it be the very first door? Who would we meet today? Who’s life was about to change? We rode the elevator all the way to the top. No door would go unknocked today.

We said another prayer after exiting the elevator. After our ‘amens’, we looked up and smiled, scanning our cement surroundings. This was going to be an incredible, fireside-worthy experience. We had done everything we needed to do to have the Spirit as our constant companion. We were out here, as two soldiers in a literal army of God throughout Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, and Serbia. Over 200 of us were knocking on doors at the same moment. It was exhilarating.

We knocked on the first door. No one home. No matter, there were still 2 hours and 59 minutes of invaluable finding time left. We approached the next door. Joy! We could hear someone! Would this be it? No. She wasn’t interested. We took the cement stairs down as fast as we could, wasting no time on in between. We had floors and floors to go. On each floor, at each door, we’d get the same reverie of anticipation. We were lost in the Spirit. Miracles were going to happen today -- to us!

However, nothing happened in that first building. We knocked on every door, on every floor of the building. No one wanted to let us in and share our message. But, the one good thing about being rejected fast is that we had a lot of time left to seek out those who were primed. Onward to the next building we went like the Christian soldiers we were. We had prayed about the entire street; possibilities ad infinitum.

We knocked on door after door, in building after building. Nothing. We still had over an hour left. We would not loose faith. We were Challenging and Testifying Missionaries. We rejected failure.

We ran out of buildings before we ran out of time. We had knocked on every door in 7 huge apartment buildings. With about 15 minutes left of our three hour slot, we had a decision to make. Should we give up? Or, should we go to another area and start anew? Despair and disappointment awakened inside us, but I knew we would forever regret it if we went home now, without anything to report at our upcoming district meeting.

We pulled out our map and quickly relocated to another area that we had felt good about when we were initially praying. There were three smaller buildings in this area. We committed to knocking on all the doors, even if we went over our time. Each building was only three stories high, which meant no elevator. We raced up the stairs, caught our breath, and knocked. No one was home. Door after door never opened. If there was someone home, we would get one of the usual rejections through the slit of opened door restricted by chains.

We had only one door remaining...

The following day at our district meeting, I was a music box cranked to capacity. Our district leader could tell I was about to explode with enthusiasm, so he let me share our experience first. I regurgitated our regrettably typical afternoon of rejection to them and waited until they were all listening before I moved on to the final door.

“Our three hours was long gone,” I spoke in an undertone as if our lives depended on their strict attention, “but we still had one more door. The final door in the final building. We approached it. Plastered right below the peep hole was a familiar sign, “Pozor, hud pes” (Danger, Evil Dog -- Beware of Dog). We did not falter a single step. No evil dog was going to stop us. We were missionaries on a very specific and important mission. We knocked. We waited. We heard the dog barking....

“Then, the dog seemed to quiet down as we heard a young female voice approaching. She opened the door just a crack and asked ‘Who is it?’

“It was my turn to give the door approach. For what must have been the hundredth time that afternoon, I smiled and said, ‘We are missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We have an important message for you. Could we come in and share it?’

“ ‘Who?’ she repeated.

“ ‘Have you ever heard of the Mormons?’ I asked.

“‘Yes! I have!’ Her eyes lit up immediately. ‘Just a second. I have something.’

“She closed the door again. But, we were not going anywhere. We stood in silence, each with a prayer raging in our hearts. This was it!

“When she returned two minutes later, she held an English Book of Mormon in her hands. She had put the dog in another room and removed the chain on her door. She opened the door wide and stood in the doorway.

“ ‘Is this book from your church?’ she inquired.

“ ‘Yes! Yes it is!’ we both responded a little too enthusiastically.

“ ‘Oh! This is wonderful. I’m so happy to find you!’ She was hugging the book to her chest, like she somehow understood how precious it was.

“ ‘I went on vacation to California last year to see Disneyland and visit some friends that had moved there,’ she looked lost in her memories as she spoke. ‘While I was there, my friends gave me this book. I think they are part of your church now. I speak English pretty well, and so I started to read it on my plane ride home. I have now read it all the way through two times. I love this book! I have been wondering how to find out more about this church and if there was even one in Slovenia, and here you are knocking on my door!”

“We were stunned. Was this really happening?

I looked around the small room at our district of Elders. Everyone was on the edge of their seats. No one was looking anywhere but at my face. Some of their jaws were slightly open. Nothing like this ever happened to any of us. Ever.

“So,” I said to the room full of awaiting missionaries, “Do you think we wasted any time teaching her all the discussions? We did not! We went out back, dammed up the creek behind her place, and baptized her before we left!”

Silence. I struggled to hold in my laughter at the confusion that was slowly working its way over their excited faces. Our stalwart zone leader had jumped up off his chair.

“Sister Groberg! You are not supposed to baptize....”

That was when my companion and I lost it. Our laughter was enough to jolt him back to reality.

“I didn’t baptize anyone!” I explained between breaks of laughter. Everyone was either mad or laughing by this time. “No one was home at that last door. The dog barked and barked. End of story. We didn’t find anyone. But, I just couldn’t come here today and say that. I just couldn’t.”

I’m not sure if my zone leader ever looked at me the same way again. I’ve often wondered what lesson I was supposed to learn from this whole experience. We had followed every step of the law, done everything right, and yet no blessings came. It is one of those incidents that I will ask about in the hereafter. But, for now, it sure makes a good story.

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