“Elders, take a seat,” Ruth said, indicating a red lawn chair and a wooden folding chair that sat next to each other in her haphazard living room. I took the wooden chair, having learned months before, the hard way, to avoid sitting on furniture that was upholstered, as it was more likely for bugs, like bed bugs or lice or, worse, scabies, to have made homes for themselves in upholstered chairs and cushions. Elder Fowler sat next to me, tall and strange as usual, looking like he would rather be napping. He wore a bright yellow Tweety-bird tie.
Ruth moved about the room a bit, checking things at random, looking under a couch cushion, opening a drawer, then scampering into the kitchen to check cupboards and crannies. “I swear they were here again last night, messing with me like usual. It happens every Tuesday.”
Elder Fowler tucked his fake plastic thumb back in his backpack, having just completed a poorly executed magic trick for Ruth at the door, something she had delighted in. I watched Ruth open the fridge, where her rows of plates, cups, and silverware were stacked. She then looked in her oven, where she had rows of canned food, all of the labels removed from them, lined up. She rarely purchased perishable foods, but when she did, she kept them in a cooler in her small garage, freshly packed with ice. Her kitchen drawers were mismatched collections of pens, tools, books, and papers. She kept her keys and money under the couch cushion, keepsakes in her dresser, and her clothes folded into cardboard boxes in her garage.
“They come in every Tuesday at least,” she said, still checking her spaces for accuracy. “Last night, they changed my alarm. I’m positive I set it for 6 am, yet when I woke up late this morning, I checked and realized it was set for 6 pm. They didn’t want me to wake up on time.” She closed a cupboard too loudly, poked her head into the garage, and then rejoined us in the living room, plopping onto the sofa. “I’ve told you how sometimes they move my things around. They will hide my remote control, or place the pen I was just using in the fridge. I don’t know why they keep messing with me, and I also don’t know how they are getting in. I keep the doors locked firmly. Always.”
Elder Fowler and I had met Ruth a few weeks previously, and had been visiting her a few times per week since then. He and I were a mismatched set, a missionary companionship that never should have been. I was the Idaho Mormon kid, secretly gay and suffering through it in silence, trying my best to be a good rule-following missionary; he was a tall and obese Arizona boy from a single-parent household, likely also gay, although he never told me, with an incredibly strange worldview and bizarre habits that he regularly showcased for others. He had strange habits like making Catholic sign of the cross on doors before he opened them, singing Mary Poppins songs in evening bubble baths, kissing a purple hippopotamus that he wore around his neck for lunch, and speaking to strangers with a strange hand-puppet he called Chihuahua. When we knocked on doors, he would use Chihuahua to speak. “Hello, we are the missionaries from he Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he would say with his two middle fingers meeting his thumb as a flapping mouth while his pointer and index fingers stood straight up in the air like ears. When the doors closed in our faces, he would drop the ears straight down, making a puppy whimper noise.
Ruth herself had ordered a copy of the Holy Bible by calling a phone number set up by the church on television, and we had been sent to deliver it to her. When we had asked if she would like to learn about our Church, she had eagerly invited us in.
Ruth was in her early 80s, and she had a vibrant and complicated life. It was clear to see that early dementia had set in, but it didn’t stop her from living loudly. She volunteered at the local senior center, walked animals at the shelter, read avidly, and kept in touch through hand-written letters with many loved ones. She was Pennsylvania Dutch, and proud, and had loved religion all of her life, through her rocky but happy childhood, through her two difficult marriages, through her career stops-and-starts, and through the raising of her two children. She regularly visited different local churches, and she found solace and refuge in her relationship with God.
Some version of me felt special for teaching her, having planned out her destiny already. She would be an end-of-life missionary success story for me, something to write home about and tell my family about. I would be the one to help bring the truth to this good woman who had searched for it her whole life. Teaching her made me feel special, gave me a sense of goodness. It made me feel like my work mattered, like I wasn’t wasting hours every day knocking on doors only to have them closed in my face repeatedly.
Ruth talked far more than she listened. Our lessons with her, which might normally take an hour with someone else, would instead last for 2-3 hours. She asked questions about God and church and Mormon belief structures about family, scriptures, and the afterlife. Just as we would begin to answer, she would spout her own theories on life and religion, sharing openly about her decades of life experience. She’d been born just after World War I, and had lived through the Depression, through the Great War, through McCarthyism and Viet Nam and Civil Rights, through the hippie movement, through Reagan, through the Gulf War. She spoke on gender inclusion, on race, on being a grandmother. She was delightful, and eager, and just the right amount of crazy, and she was fascinated by us, two 20 year old boys who had set everything in our lives aside in order to live in the Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch city of Kutztown, Pennsylvania and deliver Bibles to people in the hopes that they might want to join our church. She laughed about the fact that a woman in her 80s was being asked to call boys six decades her junior ‘elder’, and she often smiled as she said the word.
That day, we taught Ruth about our beliefs on the restoration of the gospel, about how after the death of Jesus Christ, God had taken away the truth of religion from the Earth, leading men to form religion based solely on their understandings of the truth. We taught how Christian religions had formed, divided, and expanded over hundreds of years until God had seen fit to restore religion in the early 1800s to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church. We taught how while all people are inherently good, they can only receive the full truth of God by being baptized Mormon and following the Mormon teachings.
Ruth stayed uncharacteristically silent through much of our lesson that day, taking it all in. I watched her settle down from her agitated state into her deeply thoughtful self. After Elder Fowler, who used Chihuahua through part of the lesson, making Ruth giggle, finished his part of the presentation, the room was silent for a moment. Then Ruth leaned forward, speaking.
“So you are telling me that out of all the religions I have ever experienced, from Methodist to Catholic to Presbyterian, and all of the wonderful times I have had in my life with the Bible, you are telling me that it is all completely fabricated and wrong, that all along the only true religion in the entire world has been the one you two were just lucky enough to be born into?”
I smiled, my heart swelling with the holy spirit. “Yes, that’s correct. You’ve had a wonderful life, and now God has sent us here at this time in your life to help you find the true and everlasting gospel.”
Ruth gave a skeptical look. “But if I hadn’t called that phone number on my television for that free Bible, then we would never have met.”
“Yes, that’s true,” I said, as Elder Fowler watched, silent. “But God works in mysterious ways. And as we talked about the first time we visited you, if you can gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon through prayer, then you can know that everything we are teaching you is true, and then we hope you will be baptized.”
“Elder Anderson, I was already baptized.” Ruth clasped her hands in her lap, sitting back again. “When I was a baby. My mother saw to that. I have no need to get baptized again. I’ll gladly visit your church, and would love to keep visiting and talking with you both, but I’m not about to betray my mother’s wishes by canceling my original baptism with another one. I admire your convictions, but I have plenty of truth already.”
There was a heavy silence for a moment, that Elder Fowler piped in. His voice went high-pitched as he muttered the world “Awk-waaaaard,” drawing out the last syllable.
Ruth laughed, delighted. She found Elder Fowler charming, constantly. He gave me an ulcer that pulsated every time he spoke. “Don’t you worry, elders. You’ll find other people to baptize. Then you’ll have success stories to write home to your mothers. Now, enough for today. Are you hungry?”
Without waiting for an answer, Ruth got up and stepped into her kitchen, indicating that we should follow. “Let’s eat.” She opened her oven, showing us the rows of canned food, silver and label-less. She didn’t want those who were “messing with her” to be able to know what was in each can. She explained that she had a system; she kept all entree items on the left, side dishes in the middle, and desserts on the right. She grabbed three separate cans and set them on the counter, then got a can opener from the top of her fridge, along with some paper plates and plastic forks from a shelf in the garage.
As she hummed, Ruth opened the three cans, revealing the contents of our lunch. Canned salmon, pink and fleshy, in oil for the entree. Sliced string beans in water for the side dish. And for dessert? Cherry pie filling. She scooped equal contents on to three plates, zapped them each in the microwave for one minute each, then sat back down to eat with us in the living room, asking questions about our lives before we were missionaries. The salmon was terrible. The scalded pie filling was worse.
A few weeks later, I left Kutztown, and was sent to live in Philadelphia for nine long months. Ruth and I stayed in touch, becoming pen-pals. She wrote long missives about her life in lined blue cursive, generally writing on random stationery she had collected over the years. I received a letter from her every week faithfully, and wrote one back, over nearly a year. It was a strange relationship, but one I enjoyed, a bright light in my boring daily existence as a missionary. Around ten months later, after I had left Philly and moved to Delaware to finish out my missionary service, I stopped hearing from Ruth. Several letters from me went unanswered. Then I stopped writing. Three months later, after my mission was over, I had returned to Idaho and had started college. Then I received a letter in the mail.
The letter was from Ruth’s daughter, a woman in her sixties. She informed me simply and succinctly, that Ruth had died from a heart attack. She wrote: “While I’m sorry I never had the chance to meet you in person. I want you to know that my mother spoke of you frequently in our conversations. She often slipped from confusion and lucidity, and she felt your letters gave her continuity in her final months. You brought her much joy at the end of her life, and we will be forever grateful.”
I set the letter down, blinking a couple of tears from my eyes. I had tried to bring some truth to one old woman at the end of her life. And instead, she had given truth to me.