Jessica first introduced me to George MacDonald back in 2002. I was in the habit of borrowing books from her and reading them as quickly as I could, so that I could return them to her and discuss them with her. We weren’t yet officially dating, but in my heart I was dating the crud out of her. She leant me a lot of books, but none more memorable than one entitled There and Back by George MacDonald. The story itself was interesting, but what grabbed me was the way MacDonald described his characters, and the way he preached a gospel of obedience that was so simple and pure, and also so profound, in every chapter of the book.
Over the years, I have at times read and enjoyed a lot of MacDonald’s works. I wrote papers on him and his life for a class at BYU. I have told countless peers and coworkers about him, and talked him up as C.S. Lewis’s spiritual tutor. But none of these times has compared to that original exposure to him and his writing that I experienced in the early spring of 2002. His words had a transforming effect on my life, and I drank them in heartily.
I have always wanted to capture that again. And so I’m giving it another try now. I’m reading a book that I haven’t read before, Mary Marston is the title. I’m trying to just let it sink in, the way I let There and Back sink in, so that it affects every part of my life. I know I can’t re-experience the magic of my first exposure to his writing, but I also know that I can experience it in a way that can have a greater effect on my life now, a life that is very different from the one I was living twelve years ago, and that it can make of me a better person.
Because that is what George MacDonald wanted more than anything: to be a better person. At least, that is what I gather from his writing. What convinces me of this is the fact that nearly every antagonist in his stories will have the same first name: George. He writes about a lot of different characters, and nearly all of them are sympathetic to a degree, and nearly all of them come to be much better people in the end of the stories than they were in the beginning, Nearly all of the characters, that is, besides the ones named George.
George will not really have any redeeming qualities. George will be self-satisfied, cruel, thoughtless, and greedy. George will consider himself to be smarter than everybody else around him, and more righteous. George will not be humble.
George will be the character that the reader looks forward to receiving some kind of comeuppance.
Why he wrote this way, I can’t be sure. But the fact that George MacDonald gave all of his most despicable characters his own name tells me something about the author. I’m not entirely sure what, and I probably won’t understand it very well for years to come, but it makes me all the more intrigued in his writing.
MacDonald had a very clear perspective on what made a person a good and decent human being, and he went to great lengths to express those sentiments in his writing. But lest we assume that he viewed himself in any way to be one of these truly humble and obedient followers of Jesus, he reminds us that George is very far from where he wants George to be.
Also, he had an awesome beard.
This one hearkens back to the original intent of this blog. Here goes…
I’m confident that these angles have been touched on, and maybe even expanded on, by plenty of others in the past. But these thoughts are all coming to me in rapid succession, and so I’m trying to get them all down before I lose them. There will be no citing of specific verses, and no mention of other research or writing on the subject, because, again, this is all coming very quickly and I want to be able to remember it.
I just finished reading about the war in the early chapters of Alma that was between the Nephites and the Amlicites. The Amlicites were able to get the Lamanites to join with them in the war. This is where all of the thoughts I had began: First of all, up to this point, the Lamanites were unaware of the exact location of the land of Zarahemla. The text indicates that those in the land of Nephi had attempted to find the land of Zarahemla at different times, but were not able to do so. It would seem, then, that the Amlicites were the first to lead the Lamanites to the land of Zarahemla. This would explain one reason why the Lamanites would be willing to join forces with the Amlicites, because they were able to show them the location of the Nephites, something the Lamanites had been unable to do since the time, a couple generations before, when the Nephites had left the land of Nephi and settled in Zarahemla.
Other potential reasons the Lamanites would be willing to fight with the Amlicites: The Lamanites felt that it was their right to rule over the Nephites. This is clear from Zeniff’s explanation of the Lamanite hatred of the Nephites, when he indicates that the Lamanite tradition held that their fathers had been wronged by Nephi in three specific instances: while in the wilderness, when on the sea, and when in the land of promise. The wrong that the Lamanites believed had been committed was that Nephi had unjustly robbed Laman of the right to rule the people. This is clear through the fact that Nephi possessed some emblems of kingship: The sword of Laban, the plates of brass, and the Liahona. Each of these objects indicated power and authority over the people, and Nephi held them all. Nephi became the king of a separate group of people from the people of Laman, and Laman and his descendants all felt that it was their intrinsic right to rule over the Nephites. Over the hundreds of years of history leading up to this point in time, the Lamanites had attempted often to defeat the Nephites and bring them into bondage, albeit unsuccessfully.
Imagine the case Amlici could have brought before the king of the Lamanites. He could have explained that, not only could he lead the Lamanites to the land of Zarahemla, but that the Nephites had completely changed their political structure recently, and that there was no longer a king over them, but that they had changed their government to that of a series of judges. He could have convinced the king that this was the ideal time to go to battle, because without a king, the Nephites would be much less likely to be able to unite and defend themselves. Also, he could have made the offer to the king of the Lamanites that once they had defeated the Nephites in battle, that he, Amlici, would gladly be a vassal king over the Nephites, and that the Lamanite king could be his sovereign. Two things make this possibility likely: first, becoming the king of the Nephites was what Amlici wanted in the first place, and second, the Lamanites already had a political structure that included vassal kings. We know this because it was during this time period that the sons of Mosiah were preaching to the Lamanites, and there are accounts of them preaching to lesser kings, such as Lamoni in the land of Ishmael.
So it would make sense, then, that the king of the Lamanites would have been willing to unite with the Amlicites and go to battle against the Nephites at this time. He was motivated by centuries of tradition that he felt he could avenge once and for all. THIS could be the time that they could finally make right all the wrongs that Nephi committed against Laman. And so the king himself joined the Lamanites and the Amlicites in the battle. This is mentioned briefly in the text when it speaks of Alma fighting face to face with Amlici and killing him, and then fighting with the king of Lamanites, who eventually lets his guards fight, and he is not slain.
Now, at this point in the text, there is a break where the Lamanites are not really mentioned again until many chapters later, chapters that include such things as Alma’s preaching in the land of Zarahemla and Gideon, and then his experience in Ammonihah with Amulek and the preaching that takes place there. But really, chronologically, the narrative could go straight to discussing the missions of the sons of Mosiah, and it would be cohesive. So that’s what my brain has done, and some questions have arisen, such as who was the king that Aaron taught? The king who is referred to as Lamoni’s father. (As an aside, the text does not indicate whether this king is Lamoni’s biological father or simply his political father. The latter is possible, because in the ancient world vassal kings were referred to as children by their sovereigns, so it is possible that when Lamoni speaks of his father and of his brother, who is another vassal king, that he may not be talking about specific biological relations. Anyway…) I think that it is very likely that the king Aaron preaches to is the same person as the man who Alma fought with face to face. And this makes the conversion story all the more compelling.
When the king is first made aware of the the Nephite missionaries, it is on the path when he meets Lamoni and Ammon. The king’s first reaction to seeing Ammon is to command Lamoni to kill him, because he is the son of a liar. If the king was indeed the same man as the one who fought with Alma, that would explain in part his immediate reaction to want to have Ammon killed, because he would still feel the bitterness of the the defeat that he suffered in the war against the Nephites. He also would have had more than one reason to call Ammon the child of a liar, because not only was he a Nephite, and therefore a descendant of the one who lied to take control of the emblems of kingship (Nephi), but it was a Nephite detractor, Amlici, who had lied to the Lamanite king and convinced him to go to war against the Nephites, a war that cost tens of thousands of lives of the Lamanite people. So the king had a lot of reasons to want Ammon dead, but Lamoni refused to kill him, so the king threatened to kill Lamoni. This seems like a very serious reaction, unless he had some very personal vendettas against the Nephites, which, if he was the same man who went to battle, he would.
We know the story, Ammon intervenes and saves Lamoni’s life, and the king’s heart is softened. This is a critical point in the narrative, because it says a lot about this man. Even though he had so many reasons to hate the Nephites, he was able to see the compassion and the love that Ammon and Lamoni had for each other, and he was able to be affected by that, so affected that he is willing, in fact he demands, to be taught by the Nephite missionaries. It is Aaron who fulfills this responsibility, and that is an interesting point to the story as well. Aaron is the rightful heir to the Nephite throne (though he declined it). So the man who rightfully could wield the power and authority of the Nephite kings, including the emblems of kingship, is the one who teaches the Lamanite king the gospel. In this context, the king’s conversion is even more impressive, because during the course of their discussion, the king becomes so eager to know the truth of the gospel for himself that he expresses first his willingness to give up half of his kingdom, then a willingness to give up all of his possessions, and finally a willingness to give up all his sins. This is remarkable, because it was the king’s life’s ambition to gain more control, more lands, more power, and more authority. But when faced with the reality of his mortal state, he understood what was really valuable.
There is so much more, but these are the sort of preliminary thoughts on something that I found very interesting.
Today, December 21, 2013, is a really important and big day. It’s the eleventh anniversary of the day that Jessica and I were married. So much has happened in eleven years, we have both grown and changed in lots of ways. Five amazing children have joined our family. We have both finished school and begun careers (more in this later). We have bought and sold a condo, and bought a house. We’ve filled that house with books and toys, and also pets; over the years we’ve has one dog, two cats, three birds, and three mice.
Eleven years ago, as we prepared for this day, I think we envisioned our subsequent anniversaries as days that we would spend together, doing things as a couple all day long and reveling in each others’ company. Of course, eleven years ago, we didn’t know that I would be pursuing a career in management with See’s Candies. We thought that I would be working as a teacher, and that I would very likely be done with the semester by this time, and that would afford us an anniversary that would begin an annual break from work.
Instead, our anniversary falls on one of the busiest candy shopping days of the year, and therefore, today, instead of hanging out with Jessica all day, I am at See’s. Right now I am on my lunch break, blogging on a cell phone, and singing Jack Johnson’s “Do You Remember” to myself, as I look forward to this evening when Jessica’s sweet mom will watch the kids so we can go to dinner and celebrate.
This is, by far, not the idealistic way to celebrate that we dreamed of over a decade ago, but that shouldn’t be surprising. I don’t think any of the details we dreamed our marriage would be have really played out the way we imagined. But what has happened over these years is so much more, and in reality so much better, than those dreams. Our love for each other has grown, it has evolved, and has been refined. We are stronger and more sincere in our affection for each other. We count that among the greatest blessings that we could ever have.
To quote the always inspiring Jack Johnson, “Over ten years have gone by. We can’t rewind, we’re locked in time, but you’re still mine.”
Love you, Jess. See you tonight.
In the Michigan Lansing Mission, there were three levels, or degrees, of music; Approved, Unapproved, and Gent.
Approved Music was music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, hymns and other reverent music recorded by LDS musicians, and EFY albums from 1995 and earlier. This was music was was valiant in its testimony of the restored gospel, and kept the commandments of not being too loud or having a heavy beat. It took me a while to get introduced to the full selection of approved music as a missionary, inasmuch as Elder Staker was not a fan of many of the contemporary LDS artists that were on the approved music list. Elder Staker did, however, have a recording of an album by the BYU Choirs and Orchestra, an album called A Thanksgiving of American Folk Hymns. Included on this album was a version of the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” as arranged by Mack Wilberg. I had never heard this hymn before, since it is not in the current versions of the LDS Hymnals, and I very quickly learned to love the message and the melody of the hymn. For your listening pleasure, here is the very version he introduced me to:
(Aside that has little to do with music in the mission field): Later in life, through correspondence with Elder Staker, he introduced me to a musician who wrote an entire album of songs inspired by the great state of Michigan. The artist’s name was Sufjan Stevens. A few years later, Jessica would purchase Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas album, which featured a beautiful version of none other than the song “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Here you go:
Unapproved Music was music by LDS artists included on EFY albums from 1996 and later, Greg Simpson, and any music that was loud or had a heavy repetitive beat. It was music that’s glory differed from that of Approved Music, it was music that was the honorable music of the earth, but not deemed appropriate for listening to by missionaries in the Michigan Lansing Mission. I would have to wait until after returning home from Michigan to hear these tracks. Tracks such as this one:
Gent (short for Gentile) Music was music that was not by LDS artists. It was music that’s glory differed from that of Approved and Unapproved Music, like the stars differ from the sun and the moon in glory. In fact, it was music written and performed by stars of the music industry. It was music that had its place in life before and after serving a full-time mission, but was absolutely prohibited by the rules of missionary life. It was music that was as numerous as my personal CD collection back in Utah, and way way beyond. Um, as an example, here’s something by one of my favorite bands:
Then there is the not-so-frequently-mentioned Outer Darkness Music. This is music that has no glory whatsoever. It is music written in boardrooms by record producers and then pitched to different artists who then use auto-tune to record it. It has no heart and no originality. I will not force any of this terrible product on you with an example.
Three other things I want to note about music and my mission: First, at some point, President Church began to emphasize with the missionaries the power of music as a teaching tool, and he encouraged us to utilize it in teaching. Specifically, he encouraged us to sing frequently. He said that as missionaries in the Michigan LanSING Mission, it was important for us to use the unique influence of the hymns and primary songs to invite the Spirit into homes and meetings. There were so many times that this occurred during my two years there, that it feels impossible to remember them all, but I want to mention just one experience. It happened in the Grand Rapids Airport on September 21, 2001. We went to the airport to drop off the missionaries who were on their way home, and to wait for the arrival of new missionaries on their way to Michigan from the MTC. Before the departing missionaries went through security, we decided it would be appropriate to sing a few hymns, specifically patriotic hymns. We sang one or two, and then Elder Jenks, a very charismatic and inspired missionary, invited everyone in the waiting area at the airport to join with us in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Everybody joined in, including all of the airport employees. This was, as noted by the date, ten days after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The Spirit was tangible.
Second, while serving in North Muskegon, we had somehow arranged to do service with a group of elderly ladies who tied quilts. Every week as we tied quilts with these ladies, we would talk with them and we discovered a number of shared common beliefs. The ladies were Seventh Day Adventists. At some point, and I really don’t remember how it all came about, they discovered that one of the other missionaries who would do service there, Elder Mahana, and I, liked to sing. We must have sung for them while quilting, because they talked with their pastor and arranged to have us come and sing as a part of their Sabbath services. These worked out for us, because they met on Saturday, so it did not interfere with our own worship services on Sunday. Elder Mahana and I decided that we wanted to sing “My Redeemer Lives,” (hymn #135), a hymn written by Gordon B. Hinckley. It gave us a lot of pleasure knowing that we were going into a Seventh Day Adventist Church and singing the words of the living prophet. We attended the service, which was well attended; it felt like a very large LDS ward, and listened to the pastor offer his sermon. When he finished, it was our turn to sing, and sing we did. When we finished the hymn, a chorus of “Amen!” echoed from the congregation. A lot of people made a point of talking to us to tell us how much they enjoyed the hymn. We were invited back two more times to sing in their meetings, and each time had a similar experience.
Lastly, during the time I served in the mission office, we held meetings called Half Mission Conferences. These meetings were similar to the once-every-six-weeks zone conferences that we held, but they had a few unique features, such as a morning session that was lighthearted and fun. As a part of the morning session, we held a mission talent show. There were some impressive talents displayed during the talent show, and one of the highlights was a companionship that had written a song about missionary life. They called the song, “Knocking Doors.” It was clever and catchy, and everybody loved it. A few weeks after the conference, President Church asked my companion and I to do him a favor. The missionaries who had written “Knocking Doors” were offered an opportunity (I think by one of their investigators) to record the song in a recording studio that was located outside of their area. President Church wanted us to attend the recording session with them. This was one of the greatest assignments of my mission, and I selfishly made the most of it. At the studio, they recorded the guitar part first, and then the vocals. While the elder was in recording the vocal part, I was in the sound booth with the engineer, and I began to sing a harmony part to the chorus of the song. The engineer heard me and did exactly what I hoped he would do, he told me to go in there and record my harmony part. The recording turned out great, and President and Sister Church made a copy of it on CD for each missionary in the mission.
There is an aspect of missionary life that, at least from my experience, is not discussed very much outside of missions themselves, but that plays a HUGE role in the life of every missionary. It is the fact that every few weeks (in the case of the Michigan Lansing Mission during my two years there, every six weeks), major changes take place within the structure of the mission. These changes are called transfers, and they are an extremely underrated subject of conversation of missionary life, in my opinion.
Consider this: On a given day, once every six weeks, every missionary companionship in the mission is instructed to be at their apartment so that they can answer a potential phone call from the mission president. If the mission president does in fact call their apartment, it means that things are going to change for the companionship. It likely means that one of the missionaries is going to leave that area and a new missionary will be replacing him or her. Those missionaries who are leaving an area are given just over a day to prepare for their departure; this preparation includes the physical preparation of packing up all of their belongings and getting ready to move everything they own to a new location, and the social preparation of informing those who they care to inform of their departure. In some cases, this is a long list of people, including members of the church, individuals who are investigating the church, and recent converts who just joined the church. It can be a profound emotional experience.
Sometimes on this day of receiving transfer calls, the mission president does not call a companionship’s apartment, and that means that nothing is changing with that companionship for the next six weeks. The missionaries are informed of this non-change through a phone call from their zone leader who has been called and informed by the assistants to the mission president of all of the changes that have occurred in the mission. This is how the information is communicated to each of the companionships in the mission. Or, at least, this is how it was done in the Michigan Lansing Mission over a decade ago. It could very well be different now, what with new forms of communicating and stuff. Transfers are probably tweeted now-a-days.
The feelings of anxiety felt by missionaries on these mornings cannot be overstated. Every single elder and sister knows that their lives could change dramatically in the next 48 hours, and they have absolutely no control over it. They trust that whatever happens is the will of the Lord, and that brings a measure of comfort, but it doesn’t eliminate the feelings of not knowing and of anticipating what might or might not happen.
I remember my first transfer day well. It was early February 2000, and Elder Staker and I sat in our apartment, reading our scriptures, writing letters, and talking with each other about transfers. Elder Staker had been transferred twice before, once from his first area of Mount Pleasant to North Muskegon, and then again from North Muskegon to the area we served in together in Lansing South. He explained to me what it felt like to leave an area, to have to leave behind the people who he had given so much of his heart and efforts to try and teach the gospel. He was the kind of person who felt things deeply, and these transitions were very difficult for him. I imagined what it would be like to leave Lansing and the people we were teaching. There was Bridgette, the young woman who we had been teaching for weeks and who was trying to quit smoking so she could be baptized. And there was Nathan, the man who was engaged to a member of the ward, and who was a quiet and sensitive man, and who deeply wanted to be a part of an eternal family. The thought of leaving was scary to me. Eventually the phone rang and my heart began to race. It was Elder Adcox, our zone leader. No changes to our companionship. Sigh of relief.
This experience would prove to be the exception and not the rule for me. Over the next twenty-two months, there were only two other transfers that nothing changed within the companionship I was serving in, and they both occurred within the first eight months of my mission. Also interesting is that it wasn’t until my fifth area that I had the experience of being the one in the companionship to stay in the area, instead of the one to leave. Up to that point, if there was a change to be made in my companionship, that change involved me packing my things and moving to a new area. Once I reached my fifth area, North Muskegon, that changed dramatically, as I saw five companions leave during my seven months serving there. I began to get very comfortable in North Muskegon; I was there so long (relatively speaking considering the brief stays I enjoyed in my other areas), that I felt as if it were home. I loved the ward and felt like I was around family. Therefore, it should not have been a surprise that after my fifth transfer (this is what the period of six weeks between transfer days is referred to, incorrectly I suppose) in North Muskegon, I was given a new assignment, to serve in Harrison.
That was easily the most difficult transfer of my mission. For the first few days in Harrison, I felt physically ill, and I could hardly get out to work very much because I was so devastated at having to leave my beloved North Muskegon. Eventually I got over the sorrow of having to leave that I was able to get to work, and I enjoyed my time in Harrison just as much as any other area.
When President Church made the transfer calls, he often used a little lighthearted humor to ease any tension that might be felt. The most memorable of these calls for me came when he called me to serve as one of his assistants. The conversation went something like this:
President Church: Elder Holdaway, how are you?
Me: Good, President, how are you? [Of course my heart is beating fast, as it always is when I'm speaking with President Church on transfer call day.]
President Church: I’m doing well, thanks. Elder, the Lord has a new assignment for you.
President Church: I’m calling you to come down here and be my assistant. You’re companion will be Elder Munoa. You two will do a lot of good together.
President Church: Do you accept this new assignment, Elder?
Me: Yes, President. Of course.
President Church: Good! Because if you didn’t, I’d have to come up there and ring your neck!
I think I expressed to him later how much his little joke helped me with the shock I felt. The assignment gave me an opportunity to learn about transfers from the other side. Elder Munoa (then Elder Eales) and I would meet with President Church in a series of meetings in which we would consider all of the missionaries in the mission, and discuss what changes to make. We met three times total, and the last time would be at the tail end of a 24 hour fast. Once we had everything arranged, we would pray and ask for confirmation that the changes we were proposing were in accordance with the will of the Lord. Those were powerfully spiritual meetings. The impression I came away with after experiencing those meetings was that each and every one of the missionaries was remembered, and no moves were ever made arbitrarily or without sincerely considering the good of the missionaries involved.
I have tried to convey this feeling on many occasions when talking with new or prospective missionaries. Transfers can be difficult, they can be exciting, they can be frustrating, and they can be bewildering and unpredictable. But they are an integral part of missionary life and missionary work.
Elder Holdaway in President Church’s office with President’s official laser pointer. During transfer meetings, we would discuss potential transfers and President Church would point at the missionary cards with the pointer and indicate where to move them.
I left the zone. I was in the zone for several weeks, months even, but then I left it, and I want to get back in it. It was fun in the zone. It was gratifying in the zone. I’m going to try to get back in the zone.
But that’s a tricky thing, you see, because the zone took me through the year 1999, and that was what I originally set out to accomplish. As time went on, though, I knew that I wanted to do more, that I wanted to go beyond 1999. I wanted to chronicle my mission, but I had not found a satisfying format in which to do this. Originally, I thought I would follow a similar format to the one that I used in writing about 1999, which was a loose kind of chronology, looking for distinctive events in time that separated one group of events from another. This was an interesting exercise for 1999, because the time breaks were ambiguous and therefore had to be created literarily. I began to write about my mission with this format in mind, but I wasn’t feeling it. The breaks in time on my mission were too easily distinguishable, what with transfers that brought new areas and new companions. I chose not to publish any of the posts that I started because they just didn’t come together the way the stories about 1999 did.
So I’m trying something a little different to write about my mission. Instead of going chronologically, I’m going thematically. Each story will cover a certain theme or idea, and I will pull experiences from different times within my mission to illustrate them. I’m feeling much better about this approach, and I hope it is as interesting as I feel it can be.
What follows in this post, then, is a list of the areas I served in as well as the missionaries I served with in those areas, so that all of the experiences I write about can be placed within their respective context (and as all missionaries know, context is REALLY important):
1. LANSING SOUTH (December 19, 1999-March 23, 2000), Elder Staker
2. JACKSON EAST (March 23, 2000-May 4, 2000), Elder Sanders, Elder Nelson
3. JACKSON NORTH (May 4, 2000-July 25, 2000), Elder Gregersen
3a. Somewhere in Kalamazoo, with Elder Strong and Elder Gibson. I was in limbo between the time I was given a new assignment and actually began serving in the assignment. This lasted for two days from July 25, 2000 to July 27, 2000.
4. GRAND HAVEN (July 27, 2000-October 16, 2000), Elder Merritt
5. NORTH MUSKEGON (October 16, 2000-May 14, 2001), Elder Henrie, Elder Ashby, Elder Peterson, Elder Olson, Elder Hatch, Elder Leavitt
6. HARRISON (May 15, 2001-August 7, 2001), Elder Andersen, Elder Boyle
7. MISSION OFFICE (August 7, 2001-October 30, 2001), Elder Munoa, Elder Eales
8. OKEMOS (October 30, 2001-December 11, 2001), Elder Fagg
That’s right, 8 areas and 16 companions (not counting the brief stint in Kalamazoo). I don’t have the data to analyze this accurately (nor do I have the patience, or even the skills, to analyze it), but I’m confident that serving in 8 different areas and with 16 companions is on the high end of the average missionary experience. Probably in the 80th percentile, at least, if not higher. I don’t know why I’m bothering to mention this, though, because it really doesn’t mean anything. Looking at a missionary’s mission as a whole presents a difficult phenomenon to assess, because each of the transfers (changes of companion and/or area) is, for the most part, a self-contained event that has little to do with what was in the past, and almost nothing to do with what is in the future.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I plan on writing about transfers in a later installment (maybe even the next one!!), so for now I’ll just show you a map of Michigan with each of the areas I served in:
Today’s my dad’s birthday. His 70th birthday. When I think about birthdays and my dad, I think about this song. For years, I had no idea this was a Beatles’ song. I just thought it was the Holdaway family birthday song that Dad would play whenever it was somebody’s birthday. He’d play it on the stereo in his studio, and he could really turn up the volume on it, and we would rock out. It just feels right to hear this song on this day.
Dad isn’t around to celebrate his 70th birthday. On Friday, May 15th, 2009, he passed away. He was 65. This is still a raw thing to process. It’s one of those things that I can’t really get used to, even though it has been over four years …
Dad’s funeral was held on Saturday, May 23rd, 2009. During the days leading up to the funeral, as a family, we discussed what the service should be like. Ultimately, we decided that each of the five kids would speak for a few minutes, and share our memories about Dad. When this course was agreed upon, I immediately began to feel concerned, because I’m not very good at conjuring up memories, and I’m especially not very good at articulating those memories. To do so, as I have discovered with the project I have been doing on this blog, I have to work very much chronologically, have a starting point and an ending point, and have a very specific purpose in mind. It’s the task of recalling random specific moments, and elaborating on those.
I’m much more inclined to think of ideas or themes that center around a subject. For example, when I think about Dad I think about sketching, about back rubs, about his singing the bass line of the hymns in Sacrament Meeting (and how I have always felt that the bass parts of the hymns belong to Dad), about the smell of rolls and reams of unused glossy paper, about the red tiles on the downstairs bathroom floor–Dad’s bathroom, about the nobs and levers on the thing in the dark room that was kind of like a copier, and about so many other things. But I didn’t feel like that was the right way to go about sharing my memories of Dad, just listing stuff.
Finally I had a burst of inspiration. I would kind of cheat, as it were, and let Dad write the memories for me. I dug around and found a number of letters he wrote to me while I was on my mission, and I quoted from those letters in my talk. The excerpts captured a number of different things about Dad, and articulated those things, in a way that I could not do myself. Following the funeral service, Mom and Dad’s bishop approached me and asked if I would make copies of my talk for each of my family members, and I agreed to. But I didn’t do it in those first few days, and I still have not done it. And I cannot find my copy; I must have put it some place so secure that it’s safe from me.
I searched through shoe boxes and files and in my suit coat pockets, and I could not find it anywhere. This troubled me for days, because I really wanted to be able to share those memories on his 70th birthday, and the weeks were slipping by too quickly. Then one evening while I was racking my brain a thought occurred to me (Jessica would call this process critical thinking, a talent I’m still very much in infantile stages developing) to see if I had saved a copy on my computer. After a few minutes of searching I found it. And so, finally, I can make good on my promise, and I can share these excerpts that are so very much Dad.
What follows is the talk in its entirety; the excerpts from his letters are italicized:
When Dad first started dialysis, I was serving my mission. I remember well the letter he sent me describing what he had to do every day to keep his kidneys clean. He compared himself to an upright tire pump with a hose coming out the side of it, and even drew a picture to help me visualize what he was talking about. I wanted to find that letter, but couldn’t. However, I did find a number of other letters he sent me while I was gone, and I want to share some of the things he wrote me with you today.
This first one comes from a letter he typed rather than wrote by hand, the only one of its kind that he sent me. Interspersed through the letter were two photos that he put in the document, one of Grandma Jessie driving a convertible he bought not long after returning from his mission, and the other one he took of me in my black hair days. He writes:
Mom is at the gym. She likes to work out on the treadmill and do weights sometimes. She showed me that she can touch her toes without bending her knees. She was surprised to discover this new trick. She says she is getting stronger. I’d better watch out.
This next one comes from a letter with a homemade letterhead, something that was very common among his letters. The letter head consisted of a photo I sent home of me standing in a green field looking upward in a setting that reminded me of the depiction of the Sacred Grove in the old First Vision church video. He photoshopped a UFO in my line of sight, explaining that he had enhanced the photo and discovered what it was I was looking at, and that it now made more sense to him. He mentioned in the letter that Mom was going to send me my favorite cookies and then included this anecdote about receiving a package from a girl back home while on his own mission:
It was May or June and our district went into Paris for an all mission conference. Someone there told me that I had a package from home. I was many miles from Paris when it arrived around Christmas. Even if it was 5 or 6 months later I was still happy to have it. … It was quite solid. I wondered what the heck it was. … When we were settled on the train I decided to open it. Sure enough, Christmas paper. Then a plastic bag with a …what?—a crusty brick? Oh I see a raisin, and what’s that? A rock-hard cherry. There are many, all embedded in a … a … fruitcake! Hard as a rock. We used it for a tire chalk when we parked our VW van on a hill. It was indestructible. Sad thing too was that it was not alone in the plastic wrapper. Out came a skinny necktie that more resembled a shoelace. Dang. I could have used that—as a necktie anyway. I think my companion did use it as a shoelace.
And this one from “Saturday June 20-something—maybe the 26th. I can’t check the date cause I’m hooked to a bag.”
Dialysis time. Every 5-7 hours, sometimes 6-10 if I forget or busy at work or in SLC… -FLASH-the phone just rang and I answered it sitting here with my drain going… Summer is oh-fish-ally here! … I guess Mom told you about the party/picnic we had last week … I sang barbershop style with the big Ogden dude, Terry Hatch, and bro. Benson. I thought Jeff was going to explode—he had to hit some really high notes and then went up from there. He must have lost 10 lbs by sweating and forcing the moisture out straining to break glass with those piercing high notes. He was about 6 octaves above the rest of us. All the neighborhood dogs high-tailed it in a hurry… Hayley’s having a birthday party today [for her fifth birthday]. Only girls she informed me. Kristin came over to borrow a table cloth this morning for the party and brought Hayley and Alyssa. Hayley told me to call her Sally. Then she heads for my markers and starts drawing whales at the bar. I’m making pancakes so I make her one that looks like Minnie Mouse. Then I put a candle in it and light it. And Hayley blows it out. When she saw it she said something I can’t repeat. She didn’t eat the mouse head.
Included in the text of this one were pictures of the Minnie Mouse Pancake complete with burning candle.
I ought to make mention of the letter he wrote me while I was in the MTC. The letterhead was of a hand holding a rubber chicken by the neck, and he said the chicken was a bird left over from Thanksgiving because it was scrawny enough or green enough to be overlooked. There was also a photo of a pumkin pie frosted with a portrait of me. He was an expert cake (and pie) decorator.
Not long into my mission, when I was experiencing some disappointment with people not keeping commitments, he wrote me this:
It’s easy to be discouraged—but remember—discouragment is only a tool of Satan—nothing more. Understanding what discouragement is really helps because in understanding you can overcome it because you see the source and know you are stronger than an evil influence.
He would have ample opportunity to live this profound principle through the last nine years of his life.
And finally, toward the end of my mission he wrote:
You’ll look back upon the days you are really living this very moment … for strength, direction and comfort … The people whose lives you’ve touched—and helped change for the better. You’ll probably do a lot more of it throughout your life. It will be before mission. During mission & after mission. Too bad the time goes so fast but it’s what you do with what time you have that’s important. But remember to get enough sleep too!
Dad’s life was one that touched many. He made the most of the time of his life, that did go by too fast. He was always willing to lift and bless those around him with his quick and unique wit and charisma. And now is his time to get enough sleep from his tired mortal tabernacle.
How grateful I am to have the restored gospel and to know that through the grace of God and His Son Jesus Christ, “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory” (D&C 130:2).