|Photo courtesy of the morgueFile|
A knock on the door around Thanksgiving isn't all that odd. Usually it's the UPS man, knocking quickly and running back to his truck. Probably cursing the housewives who sit in yoga pants and do their Christmas shopping online. But the knock kept coming and my daughter interrupted her cello practice to tell me that there were two men on the doorstep. The "men" were little more than boys, standing bright and clean with pink, smooth cheeks in their crisp white shirts, dark ties and name tags. Missionaries.
I smiled and listened and praised their efforts. My usual patter when they come to my door. "I appreciate your zeal. No, I'm not Mormon, but I am a Christian. Godspeed." My daughter stood just under my heels, peeking through my armpit. The boys outside smiled politely through chattering teeth, nodded at my own spiel meant to preempt theirs. The taller one, Elder P, finally said, "Well, is there anything we can do for you? Hang your Christmas lights?" My daughter giggled and tugged at the back of my shirt. These young Elders tugged at something less visible than my shirt.
"It's freezing out there, do you want to come in and have some coffee?" Duh. Crazy lady, offering the Mormon missionaries coffee. "Or some decaf tea?" I recovered. The boys prevaricated and the smaller one, Elder G, cocked his head, "Hot cocoa?" Deal. And I let them inside. My daughter skipped and squealed, always thrilled to have visitors. She's a natural-born hostess and would fill the house daily if she had her way. In another era, she would host a salon in our living room, I'm sure of it.
I apologized for the mess and scooped sweaters off the table and went about the business of cocoa. My daughter filled a plate with those cookies - so many cookies! - and the boys started to thaw out and open up. We chatted about their mission, about their lives. Elder P was Utah born and bred. He could trace his ancestry back to the pioneers. This was his birthright, a foregone conclusion long before he was born. Elder G was from Las Vegas, a recent convert. Raised Jewish and discontent, he searched for something to keep himself out of trouble in high school and found it in his new faith. "I think what sealed it for me were the families. I never had a family like the ones I saw among the Mormons." My little girl ran and got her Bible, read her favorite verses to the boys and asked a lot of questions while plying them with cookies. When the cocoa was gone and their fingers and toes had warmed up, the Elders stood to leave. We packed up more cookies for the road and some boxes of mac and cheese. I let them out the back door, the one for friends and family, and sent them on their way into the full dark cold with our phone number and names, in case they found themselves in need.
"That was fun," my daughter said as we closed the door. "That was good."
"Yes, it was. Now go practice your cello." Back to business as usual. I thought we'd done our good deed for the day and helped make their evening a little more interesting and that was that.
A few days later, the kids and I were waiting at a stop light, on our way to an orthodontist appointment, when suddenly, my son squealed: "Look! It's the missionaries!" And there they were, walking down a busy street in the cold. The kids rolled down their windows and hollered to them and were thrilled when they came and poked their heads into the car and gave us an invitation to the Ward Christmas party. What an odd coincidence, we marveled together. How fun.
For the next several weeks, though, it was not at all uncommon to hear a knock in the early evening and find what the kids had come to refer to as "our missionaries" on the doorstep. We celebrated Elder G's 20th birthday, we got updates on their families from their precious Christmas phone calls home; we talked about our respective faiths, about Santa Claus, about music, about flame throwers, and about their adventures in the mission field. My husband entertained them with silly stories from his childhood and commiserated about the filthiness of Paris; my kids showed them their new toys and the lizard, they talked Star Wars and Jesus and the best way to eat Ramen noodles. I mostly listened and bustled in the kitchen, because that is what I do. We always sent them home with food of some sort and my little girl tried to give them her allowance when Elder G bemoaned spending too much of his stipend on Christmas cards.
These boys. They would cringe to hear me call them that. They are technically adults, twenty and twenty-one. But so young, and so clean, and so fresh-faced. My daughter was besotted and flitted like a fairy when ever they came around. My husband called them my adopted sons. If I'd started early, I am old enough to have been their mother, I suppose. It was for their own mothers that I took these boys in. We see them everywhere, we sometimes make jokes about them. But those two shivering boys on my doorstep, just after Thanksgiving, were no laughing matter. At a time in their lives when most of us were out making a royal mess of things (or at least I was), they forgo home and security and most material things and head out to where ever they are sent, knocking on doors. Whether you agree with them or not, they show a kind of courage and a kind of steely backbone that most of us only aspire to. They believe in something, so they sacrifice. They believe in something, so they are out there getting it done. I respect that, and I respect their mothers for letting them go. For hoping their babies are all right while they disappear for two years, only to be heard from on special occasions. The faith involved on all fronts is staggering. Even the faith to step into a stranger's home and accept a cup of cocoa, when there is no reason to trust me.
My phone rang the other night. An unfamiliar, local number.
"This is Elder G. I wanted to let you know," his voice faltered a little, "I wanted to let you know that we are both being transferred. We leave on Tuesday." I knew this would eventually come, but I didn't really know that it would feel like a punch in the gut. They have both been transferred to a notoriously rough suburb south of here. "I'm a little scared," Elder G whispered, sounding every bit the young boy he is, "I wanted you all to know, though. Pray for us."
My life is littered with people to whom I've been attached for a season, never to see again. It is the legacy of my own upbringing, as the child of a different kind of missionary. I have been transient most of my life and have learned, along with how to pack a bag, how to love and leave with minimal fuss. I have rarely allowed myself the luxury of missing people. I know how to say goodbye. I am finding, though, that... is it age? is it that I'm more settled now than I've been in my entire life? I am finding that these ghosts cling to me. It has begun to sting a little to let people go, even as I know full well I must. It is uncomfortable and new and it makes me want to keep people on my doorstep with my preemptive spiel: "I have enough, thank you. Please go away."
I was all bluster and practicality when I told my little girl with her big-hearted crush that the missionaries were moving on. "It is how it works. They chose to do this and they have to go where they're told." She nodded solemnly and her eyes were just a little bit brighter, her voice just a little bit smaller as she said, "I know. But I will miss them. I hope they're OK." As always, she reminds me that my heart is not my own. If I had truly never wanted to be touched, to never feel the sting of loss, I would not have joined my life to her father. I would not have brought her and her brother into this world to pry open the parts of me that no one else is allowed to see. She is small and settled in her life. She has the security to say "I will miss them," and to know that life goes on. To give away small bits of her heart to the people she meets and trust that in so doing, her own heart will expand. I held her hand while she prayed for their safety and said thank you for letting them into our lives. And I thought of their mothers, doubtless on their knees day and night, praying for the safety of these pieces of their hearts that wander strange streets and knock on doors. I said a prayer for their mothers, too. It is not an easy or comfortable thing, letting all these strangers in.
But this is part of the promise I have made. It is a battle in the war I have declared. It is a door that must be thrown open and I thank those two shivering boys, so sweet and earnest in the gathering dark shortly after Thanksgiving, for knocking. Their faith drove them to knock that night, and I find it was my own faith that drove me to invite them all the way in.
"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."