Last Tuesday, I attended the funeral of a long-time English department colleague, Richard G. Ellsworth, who was also in the Provo ward of my childhood: Oak Hills II. Richard was our enthusiastic chorister, the kind of conductor who invested his body and his hair (it was long enough to react to his arms’ energetic movements–and he always led us with both arms) in every phrase of music.
When I was about ten, he was my Sunday school teacher for the simple reason that his son was the most mischievous child in class. I’m sure the bishop pulled Richard out of whatever other calling he had so that the Ellsworth kid would have his father right there.
I remember several of Richard’s lessons–particularly the one on Lazarus. I remember him saying, “And they said, ‘Hold on! He’s been dead FOUR DAYS! By this time, he stinketh!” We tittered. Stinketh is a funny word to a pre-teen. Richard stopped our laughter and told us this was a sacred story.
Those years, just before middle school, were painful to me. I remember only a few of the details, mostly just the pervasive suspicion that I was ugly and nobody liked me. I was intensely aware of my own efforts to fit in (which always seemed to fail), but rarely of anyone else’s insecurities. In other words, though my life seemed awful and traumatic at the time, it was pretty normal.
Within a few years, I became more aware of the Ellsworths, whose oldest son was rebelling in the ways teens rebelled during the 1960s. Sister Ellsworth talked to me about it sometimes, always in tears. Eventually, this son left home, experienced a few degrees of Hell, and finally returned and got married.
Forty years have passed since then. He spoke at the funeral. It was one of the most beautiful talks I have ever heard. He talked only vaguely about that rough spot in his life, and said that as he came to appreciate his father, he longed to know the things his father knew and to love the things his father loved. He quoted a scripture which I have also committed to memory, found in the Book of Exodus:
And thou shalt bring Aaron and his sons unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation and wash them with water. And thou shalt put upon Aaron the holy garments and anoint him and sanctify him.
This son of Richard Ellsworth, now an ordinance worker in the Los Angeles temple, bore testimony that all of us can receive the greatest blessings known to Aaron and his sons, and which are promised to all of humanity. All of us–regardless of what sins or misconceptions taint our pasts–can be sanctified. Our minds can become more discerning; our eyes can be taught to see our own beauty and even our glory; we can quit falling for the distortions which suggest that we’re not loved or liked; we can quit paying attention to those invented mirrors which warp our reflections. We can get beyond the noise of naughtiness and hear God’s word without tittering like children when, in fact, a miracle is before us.
I had plenty of rough spots in my youth, and even beyond. I am an incredibly self-critical mother, often tormenting myself in a bad moment rather than believing in my own capacity to love my children as God does.
Years ago, at an anguished parenting moment, my husband gave me a blessing with a phrase I still repeat to myself in hard moments: ““I bless you that your memory will be sanctified as the larger picture unfolds, and you will view all of the difficulties and trials you’re enduring now with gratitude and love.”
At Richard Ellsworth’s funeral, I saw the arc of life which reminded me of my husband’s blessing. I remembered Richard quoting the New Testament and stopping our laughter at the word “stinketh.” I remember his fervent conducting of the hymns which are now a part of my life. I remember his testimony, and rejoice in what he knew and what he loved. I remember the words which come soon after “By this time he stinketh!” “Behold, I am the resurrection and the life.”
I look forward to seeing Richard Ellsworth again and telling him how much he meant to me, how sweet my memories of him are, how glad I am that he was my teacher.