A couple of months ago I made an extraordinary discovery. While sorting through some old boxes and family records I found my mother’s old mission journals, which I didn’t even know existed. There are three hardbound books which say “Ledger” on the front, but when I opened them, I immediately recognized mom’s neat, well-spaced handwriting from notes to my elementary schoolteachers about my homework and long, newsy two page letters every week during my own mission. Reading these journals has been like discovering a gold mine. I have always known my mother as, well, my mother, and these diaries provide a detailed portrait of what she was like as an adult woman, but before she met my father, got married, had kids, and became the person I knew.
The journals are also fascinating in another way. With all our current excitement about more young women serving missions, my mother’s experiences show us what it was like for a woman to be a missionary in the years after World War II. It’s interesting to notice the changes in mission life, as well as some of the things which never change. For this blog post, I wanted to introduce some brief excerpts and quotes, and follow up with commentary.
First, there are the typical parts of missionary life — mail from home, long, fruitless hours tracting, meetings and reports.
“When we got back to the apartment there were three letters from home! One from mother, one from the bishop, and one from Johnny. Hurray!”
“Tracted for five hours this afternoon in the rain and almost froze. Didn’t find a single prospect.”
“Spent two hours on reports tonight and still not finished. Sometimes it seems like we spend more effort on paperwork than on missionary work.”
“Got a phone call tonight that Elder S. (district leader) has called a meeting for 7 o’clock tomorrow morning. If there is one thing Elder S. is good at, it is calling meetings.”
Maybe one reason she wrote so faithfully to me each week was because she remembered from her own mission how great it was to get letters from home. I have no idea who Johnny was, and I am intensely curious about this man. What was he like? She refers to him all through her journals, so clearly there was a strong attraction. I wonder if she ever could have guessed that, thirty years later, her own son could have written almost exactly the same words about tracting in the rain and endless meetings and reports?
It is instructive to see ways in which missionary life has changed over the decades. For instance, the missionary handbook from this era reminds the missionaries to go to the movies once a month for relaxation.
“In district meeting tomorrow I’ll be giving the theology lesson, so I got up early this morning to study. With a bath, curlers and ironing, it was a very early morning.”
“We had the elders over for dinner. They helped us clean up, then we practiced our quartet and played some games. Elder C. showed us slides from his visit to Nauvoo, then we made popcorn and fudge and chatted. A pleasant evening, didn’t get to bed until almost midnight.”
Uh, wow! Quasi-double-dating, up until midnight with the elders? Mom was a pretty straight arrow who would not knowingly have broken rules. This is a glimpse at how mission culture has changed over the decades. And it would bolster my testimony immensely if there were a district meeting anywhere on earth right now where they had anything that remotely resembled a theology lesson, to say nothing of the lesson being given by a woman, to men. This was in an era when we took our religion seriously and didn’t hold meetings just to report a bunch of bogus, meaningless numbers and hear some rah-rah motivational sales training about the commitment pattern.
The most meaningful parts of the journals for me are the parts which reveal the unique character which I later learned to love. For instance, she recounts one P-day where the district all went bowling as an activity. She writes that she bowled the lowest score, “but I’m going to improve. Just watch me!” I can almost hear her voice saying that. She loved to try new things and she tended to be hopeful and optimistic about the future. She also tells of a dinner at a member’s home where they had a “gab and gripe session” (her words) about some of the problems in the branch. But the next day she demonstrates an unusual self-awareness and willingness to acknowledge error when she records that she feels that she has been in a negative downward spiral lately and resolves to focus on the positive and speak more encouragingly to her companion and the members of the branch.
I had to smile when I saw the page she wrote after Christmas. She wrote down each gift she received — The Larsons, $1.00, etc., — and then next to each gift she recorded the date when she sent a thank-you note. She always appreciated good manners. Some of the dinners are also very funny to read about, especially when people served her something that didn’t taste good. Now I can remember those times very fondly when she taught me and my siblings how to be good guests, to smile and say thank you and be pleasant, even if we had to gag down the meal. And speaking of Christmas gifts, Johnny sent her a new purse. Whenever I read about Johnny, I want to exclaim “Mom! In three months you are going home from your mission. Two weeks after that a young man in the ward will ask you to substitute teach his Sunday school class so he can go fishing. This will happen three Sundays in a row, then he will invite you out for ice cream to say thank you. Five months after that you will have convinced this Sunday fisherman to clean up his act and get married in the temple. Ten months after that you will give birth to my oldest brother. Forget this Johnny person!”
There are two parts which reveal her character most clearly. The first one is an entry about the wedding of a daughter of one of the families in the branch. She married a Methodist man in his church and mom and her companion were heavily involved in the wedding preparations. My nineteen year old self might have had a discouraging word or two to say about this non-temple marriage, at least in the privacy of a diary, but mom is one hundred percent positive. It was a beautiful wedding, they are a lovely couple, he seems like such a nice man, and the future looks bright and full of promise for them. That is my mom. On another occasion, she and three other sisters go to a revival at an African-American church. It is quite loud and irreverent by LDS standards and when it’s over and they go home, the conversation turns to how grateful everybody is to be able to worship in a peaceful setting, unlike the one they just saw. Mom steers the conversation just a bit by observing that there are things about LDS meetings which others might find very strange and distracting, and manages to get everybody to withhold judgement and be charitable about the practices of other Christians. Again, that is my mom. To a T.
Although I don’t remember a single formal lesson she ever taught, I nonetheless consider it one of the greatest of all my undeserved blessings to have been raised by her. Thanks, mom!