This is part 2 in a series of posts about my post-mission trip back to my mission in Argentina. Part 1 is here.
The Bandar family loved me like a son. At least that’s how it seemed to me. And I really loved them back. A pleasant, unassuming married couple with two teenage girls, the Bandars were baptized 3 or 4 years before I served in their area, and they remained stalwart, committed members of the faith ever since. They were not high-profile members of their ward, and they didn’t serve in any notable callings. I never taught any missionary discussions to them. But they were beloved by many missionaries who’d known them, much more than most other member families in the ward. The obvious joy they derived from every waking moment spent with the elders was the reason why. Typical evenings at the Bandar house consisted of the four of them plus two of us, sitting around the dining room table, eating and drinking, chatting about everything under the sun into the wee hours. They often liked to break out the family atlas. They’d ask us where we’d lived, where we’d traveled, and my companion and I couldn’t seem to say anything that wasn’t treated by the family as absolutely fascinating. Our visits were long, but we were never made to feel we’d outworn our welcome. And in truth, we really hadn’t. We could have stayed all night with the Bandars, and they undoubtedly would have remained chipper as can be. As a missionary, it’s really hard not to love a family like the Bandars.
Before John and I returned to our mission, I wrote to the Bandars to tell them I was returning to visit the area. They had already written me several times since I’d returned home, so I figured they were good for another letter. I was not disappointed. Sister Bandar and her older daughter, Liliana, wrote me back separately, both pleased as punch that I was returning to see them. Sister Bandar insisted that John and I stay with the family when we were in town. I was not expecting such a kind invitation, but I was happy to accept it. John and I planned to spend more time in their area than any other in the mission, for I had many old friends there. Staying with the Bandars would really help us cut costs.
After we landed in Buenos Aires, we immediately hopped on a bus headed straight for the Bandars. Our reunion was a joyous one, and it played out just as I imagined it would. Brother and Sister Bandar were both thrilled to see me, and seemed just as I remembered them. The girls were both a bit older, and more outgoing, but they seemed equally excited about my visit. John and I spent a leisurely evening around the same old dining room table where I’d spent so many hours two years earlier, and we all consumed a large meal and caught up on each other’s lives. As the evening drew to a close, Brother Bandar stood up and announced that he needed to leave for work. (He apparently worked nights in his new job). After he left, Sister Bandar showed us to our room.
I didn’t know what to expect of our sleeping arrangements, but my expectations were not high. The Bandars didn’t have much money, nor much extra space in their small apartment. So I was surprised when Sister Bandar offered us her girls’ bedroom. And I protested vociferously:
“No, no, Sister Bandar. We don’t want to put your daughters out! We can just sleep on the couch, or the floor. Let your daughters sleep in their own beds!”
Sister Bandar would have none of it. “Absolutely not!” she exclaimed. “You are our guests, and we’ve made up the bedroom and the bathroom just for you! My daughters will sleep in the family room, and they’ll share the other bathroom with us.”
I capitulated. John and I now had comfortable beds to sleep in during our stay, and this was wonderful. Frankly, I felt a bit guilty about it though. It didn’t seem appropriate to occupy these young ladies’ bedroom, while they slept elsewhere, on the floor. John and I were young and hardy, and we certainly had more money than the Bandars did. This whole arrangement seemed a tad unseemly, perhaps even shameful. Maybe we should have just stayed in a hotel. But I knew better than to argue too strongly with our hostess.
Using the Bandar residence as homebase, John and I had a fantastic time around town, visiting all sorts of friends and former investigators. In fact, it was so much fun, we decided to come back and visit the area in a week for New Year’s! When we informed the Bandars of our plan, they of course demanded that we stay with them again. They also insisted we dine with them again, at least once. They wouldn’t hear otherwise. So of course, we had to accept.
On the first night of our return visit, we were treated to an even bigger, more elaborate dinner than before. But this time, the Bandars didn’t throw the dinner party for us at home. Instead, we all traveled to the nearby apartment of Sister Bandar’s non-LDS parents, who were visibly pleased to host a pair of American elders so beloved by their daughter. The evening was as enjoyable as ever, with one small exception. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was a slight tension in the room that I couldn’t explain. Sister Bandar was as upbeat as ever. Brother Bandar was his consistently jovial self. The girls seemed happy enough. So I was forced to conclude that the aura of awkwardness I sensed must be emanating from Sister Bandar’s parents. It was slight, almost imperceptible, but it was definitely there. So I started to worry and wonder. Despite their welcoming us into their home, did they secretly resent us? Did they dislike Mormons generally? Perhaps they felt we were taking advantage of their daughter’s hospitality? Did we come off as two wealthy Americans shamelessly living off the undeserved charity of those more needy than ourselves? I was a bit insecure about all this, but I was determined to enjoy my evening, so I did. At a certain point, Brother Bandar arose and headed off to work, leaving the remaining seven of us in the apartment. Eventually, the evening drew to a close, and John and I headed for home with the three Bandar women in tow.
John and I spent another day or two visiting more friends in the area, but our final night in town was yet again spent with the Bandars. We were scheduled to take an overnight bus to a distant city, and it wasn’t leaving until midnight, so a typically late evening with the family was in store. As these would be our last few hours with the Bandars, I knew it would be an emotional evening. I don’t remember what we discussed that night, but the love I felt from everyone in the family was as strong as ever. As the night wore on, Brother Bandar finally arose to depart for work, but he wanted to say his good-byes. We embraced, and he told me how happy he was that I’d visited his family. I knew he meant it, and I told him how happy I felt to be able to reunite with all of them. After Brother Bandar exited, John and I passed another hour or so with the Bandar women, but eventually, it was also time for us to leave.
We all walked toward the front door. I expected we’d all engage in tearful good-byes, but I honestly don’t remember if we did. What I do remember is that after I hugged Sister Bandar, she unexpectedly grabbed my hand and held it tightly.
“Elder Brown,” she said. “I really need to tell you something.”
“Mother!” exclaimed Liliana, standing a couple feet behind her. “No, no, no!”
I looked at Liliana. She had turned white, and she had this horrified, embarrassed look on her face, as if her mother were about to say something awful. Then Sister Bandar began to talk. Bluntly, very matter-of-factly. She wasn’t emotional or hysterical or even particularly somber. But her words hit me like a ton of bricks. I frankly wasn’t even sure what she was saying, or what I was hearing. It all happened so fast. Something about her husband. Phrases that I couldn’t quite make sense of: “No trabaja.” “Me golpea.” And then, all of a sudden, it was over. John and I left abruptly. I can’t even remember what I said in response. Only as we walked away from the apartment did I start to process what had been said to me.
Sister Bandar was a victim of domestic violence. Shortly after I’d left the mission, Brother Bandar had lost his job. Unemployment was depressing, and it lead to bouts of drinking. In turn, his drinking sent Brother Bandar into a downward spiral, eventually leading to spousal abuse. I don’t know how long Sister Bandar had to endure the regular beatings, but eventually she found the courage to throw her husband out. The Bandar marriage had, for all intents and purposes, ended more than a year ago. This seemingly loving, happy family had long ago ceased to exist.
But then my letter arrived. And whatever else their differences, both Bandar parents agreed about one thing: They loved me and cherished the time I’d spent with their family. So they made an excruciating decision. Despite their separation, they would bury whatever feelings of animosity they felt towards each other, and pose as a happy Mormon family for Elder Brown. Brother Bandar would return to his own apartment each evening, but tell us that he was going to work. Even Sister Bandar’s parents were made to play a part in the illusion (though they were not entirely successful at masking their contempt for their son-in-law over dinner). Everyone worked hard at this charade, and it worked. Had Sister Bandar not blurted everything out that evening, I would never have been the wiser.
I have never felt so flattered, and yet so horrified at the same time. I simply didn’t know how to process the Bandar family revelation, how to feel about our time together. Should I be grateful that Sister Bandar had faked a relationship with her abuser for me, despite the tremendously difficult toll this must have taken on her and her daughters? Should I be flattered by the Bandars’ desire to help recreate a compelling picture of familial bliss that had long since ceased to be real?
But then I wondered if the charade hadn’t really been for my benefit at all. The Bandars were the quintessentially happy Mormon family for years. Perhaps they were ashamed to admit that the dream hadn’t lasted. Perhaps they feared I would judge them, that they would lessen in esteem in my eyes, that their family’s distintegration proved they were failures at living the Gospel they once exemplified. Or perhaps my visit reminded them of what they once had, and they just wanted to briefly live out the fantasy, one last time. I don’t suppose I’ll ever really know.
Sixteen years have passed since the night Sister Bandar revealed her terrible secret to me. A week hasn’t passed since then that I haven’t thought about what she said. I remain perpetually haunted.