For many years our annual family vacation each August was to drive to Utah and visit relatives (a fairly common pattern for Mormons living in the Midwest with family back West). As our kids got older, they started to rebel against doing that every single year. So we came up with a compromise: we would do Utah every other year, and in the alternate years do something else. Our first non-Utah effort would be Tennessee; two years later, we would do Washington, D.C. and Virginia. We enjoyed the change of pace, and they were fun vacations.The year we went to Tennessee, my daughter was in full-on teenager mode. For purposes of this story, all you need to know is she wore her hair in some exotic, non-natural color (purple? pink? I don’t quite recall), and she was (and is) a vegetarian. The vegetarian thing became an issue when we ate at a barbecue place in Memphis; the only thing on the menu she could eat was one of those onion blossom things.
Dollywood was fun, but also annoying. Teenage girls with strange hair are not looked upon kindly in conservative Tennessee. My daughter absorbed more stares, the occasional rude remark, and religious tracts on that one day than she probably has in her entire life. She was an object of scorn. I saw first hand that we Mormons have no corner on the market for conservative religious judginess (a la that poor recent convert with all the tattoos).
So anyway, the next year as per family agreement we go back to Utah. I forget why exactly, but for some reason we went to go see Cove Fort. This was the first and only time I’ve ever been there.
We were greeted by a senior missionary (I wish I recalled his name; I do not). He showed us around the fort, which I thoroughly enjoyed; I always love seeing Mormon historic sites. But the fort really wasn’t my daughter’s thing, and like any good teenager she was pretty obviously bored. This elder seemed to take it as a personal challenge to find some connection with her, and in the course of conversation it came out that she was a vegetarian. When he heard that, he lit up like a child on Christmas morning, and bade us come with him.
He took us out back and showed us a very large vegetable garden, which the missionaries maintained. He showed us row by row what they were growing. He was very animated and passionate about it all; I suspect the garden was in some measure his baby, and that he had done a lot of it in his lifetime. He explained in detail what they did for the different plants.
While he was showing us the various plants, he would pick samples and put them in a large grocery bag for us. By the time he was done, we had a large bag filled with fresh vegetables to take with us. We thanked him warmly and left.
I really enjoyed the personal attention he gave us. But after the way the Tennesseans had reacted to my daughter, I especially appreciated that he had tried so hard to find a connection with her and make the visit enjoyable for her. And he succeeded, big time; visiting Cove Fort turned into a highlight of our trip for her that year, something I never would have guessed would happen in a thousand years.
We were all members of record; there was no proselyting involved in our case. But that senior elder went far out of his way and gave it his all to make an exotic looking teenage girl have a good experience and find something meaningful to her at the fort for which he was a caretaker. As that girl’s father, I counted him (and do to this day many years later) as a servant of God indeed.