My rock-toting attire draped over the clothes hamper in the garage. For the last several days, I’d worn the same outfit (if you could call it that) to haul rocks. I pulled them on again, the old jeans cut off and rolled at the knee. After all the squatting and bending, the seat bottom bagged like a plumber’s. The long-sleeve pullover, sporting the word simplify, had endured many years and was the perfect fit for manual labor. A layer of fine dust covered it now, neck to hem. A tiny silver clasp held my white hair back in a shallow twist and pewter earrings, ones I had worn night and day for most of COVID, dangled like frills from my lobes. Black anklets covered my feet under my ecco sandals, the ones that had seen me through two summers and owed me at least a couple more.
The leather gloves I had sent to the gardening pile a couple seasons ago were now in their last days. The rock work had ripped their fingertips clean open, dirt dusting the deep brown grain, and the inner lining now traveled through fraying seams. I applauded their service. What a way to go. So many years hidden in coat pockets for months at a time and then stuffed into the glove compartment for chilly morning drives and now here, at their end, helping me move earth, something I had learned long ago was the biggest business on the planet. There might be truth to that.
The side yard by the road is a swath of ground big enough to host a tree we call Mama Burr, as she’s the most mature oak on our corner lot. A few feet from her, a pile of delivered river rocks waited to be moved into the backyard. The yellow wheelbarrow had been the only witness to the deal I had made with myself to do five round-trip hauls per session, two sessions per day. I had kept the schedule for the past seven days, so this was my fourteenth go. With my honey’s labors added to mine, the shrinking pile was a walkable flat-top now and not a volcano.
I secured the speakers in my ears and opened an app on my phone to the podcast I was dying to continue — Old Gods of Appalachia, recommended by my daughter. What better time than October to listen to chilling stories of the strange and supernatural. For a child raised on Bible stories about the fiery furnace and blood sacrifice and the raising of the dead, I welcomed healthy doses of the confounding and mysterious.
I was bent over one of the larger rocks jutting from the center, my legs angling against slippage, when a car stopped on the street a few feet away. A young woman, her dark hair in a bun, said through an open window something about “help” just as the ending chord of the theme music for the podcast trembled in my ears. I raised my pointer finger in a “gimme a minute” sign, pulled my phone from my back left pocket, then twisted the right speaker from my ear. “What?” I hollered, replying to the cry for help I thought I heard.
“Do. You. Need. Some. Help?” the driver said, separating each word like she was giving me a clue to a puzzle. My assumption spun around like a u-turn. SHE was offering to help ME!
“OHHHHHH. How nice of you! I have plenty of help in the house,” I replied. I flung my left arm toward the garage as evidence. A closer look inside the vehicle revealed a passenger, another twenty-something woman, strawberry blond, leaning toward the steering wheel, smiling and nodding away.
“Can we give you a card . . . . from LDS?” I didn’t catch the whole pitch, but the last three letters were not lost on me.
I paused. In the past, I had gently closed the door on members of religious groups of any kind. Raised as a Southern Baptist, I had been coached to avoid all that foolishness. Don’t entertain their evils, I was told. Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most persistent. Then there were the Pentecostals, holy rollers, some called them, who made invitations for their revivals and who sometimes walked with their children. The Mormons were a whole other story, misguided souls of magnificent proportions, my denomination had warned. (My parents owned several Christmas albums by the renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir, complicating the matter.)
I learned that it was easy to spot the LDS pairs, young men on bikes who wore white shirts, black pants, and neckties. But times were a-changing. Here were two women in street clothes driving a car! They took me by surprise. What would my next words be? For a good three decades, I had formulated my own version of a spiritual life that focused more on learning to listen in the here and now and less on fearing those who might threaten to steal my soul. Would I default to my historical habits or not?
“Sure, I’ll take a card from you,” I said, surprising myself, as I stepped down from the cobbles and met the visitors in the middle of the street. “Are you on your mission?” I asked.
“Yes! We are!” they said in unison, grinning and interested, their faces fresh and glowing.
“Nice!” I replied.
We stood in a curious triad on an asphalt island outside of space and time. I forgot all about my smelly clothes and the dusty sand that must have coated my exposed skin. And maybe they forgot about their official name badges or the fact that there had to be about four decades between us.
I removed my tattered gloves, arranged a few fly-away strands of hair behind my ears then commenced to tell the Sisters (as their name tags labeled them) about why I could suddenly see them as more than the generic nuisances that in the past I had judged their kind to be.
“Let me explain why I am standing here talking to you.” I took a breath, told myself I needed to be brief and began with a dramatic twist of my body toward them. “So . . . . I spent the month of August in Sweden as a cast member filming for a television series that focuses on finding the Swedish roots of North Americans.” My eyes gazed toward the sky. I folded my hands and brought them to my chin. Sweden was still in my heart yet so very far away. The tenth season of Allt for Sverige wouldn’t air for months, so contractually I couldn’t go into detail.
Their eyes grew wide. “Wow. You’re a star!”
“Not quite a star, but it was an amazing experience.” I considered how to proceed. “I was one of ten cast members, the only one from California. Two were from Utah and I grew close to both of them, a young man and a young woman. The woman, whom I’ll call Joy, is a wife and mother, an educated, professional woman, and a proud member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We often sat next to each other in the van that took us all over Sweden on our genealogical adventures. In those long hours on the road, we talked about our lives and our beliefs. Through Joy, I learned that there is more to your faith than I had learned from the Baptists or Big Love or Book of Mormon or even Terry Tempest Williams. I learned how much Joy cares about her ancestors and helping her community and that she is a strong, outspoken feminist. Because of her, I am speaking to you right now.”
I didn’t stop there. I told them about how open and welcoming Joy had been to hearing about my life. They listened intently as I explained to them that my life partner was a woman. They nodded in understanding. Then I jumped topics and told them that I was more interested in my genealogy than ever and had been thinking of visiting the Family Search Library at their local temple.
“We can go with you!” Sister Driver offered, earnest and excited.
I bristled for a moment, the offer feeling a little more like a shove than I liked. But I inhaled and exhaled. These women were not the enemy. “Okay,” I said. “It’s a deal!”
I gave them my email and was handed the promised card.
“You know, we didn’t even plan to be in this area today,” Sister Passenger explained. “It just happened!” She threw up her hands as if manna had just floated down from above.
“And if you would have come by earlier, I would have been inside.” I laughed, waving my ragged gloves in the air.
We agreed that this was more than a happy accident. “It’s like a revelation,” I said, remembering a conversation with Joy. If we pay attention, revelations are all around us. Approaching encounters from love and not fear is a good start to apprehending them. Learning to listen is, too.
Before saying our farewells, the Sisters agreed to take a selfie with me. I pulled my phone from my back pocket and held it aloft as we sported spontaneous smiles.
In a few short minutes, a whole history of resistance tumbled away, the wall of ignorance and trepidation about the missionaries suddenly transforming into curiosity and welcome. I couldn’t wait to share the photo with Joy, my newfound friend.