I begin to write this on a Sunday night, the night I traditionally find myself recording our missionary experiences. But now we are no longer full-time, "called" missionaries. We are home in Utah, basically unpacked, and beginning to resume a normal routine. The past weeks sped by. Our lives and spirits were significantly impacted by our mission. But ironically our mission experience already feels isolated. Like many other emotionally charged, profound events in life, it feels like a chapter begun and closed. It was real, but feels surreal. We know our missionary experiences will continue to bless us forever. We can go back and treasure and learn; we can continue to treasure and strengthen the friendships and spirit we built. We must move forward to see what the Lord has in store for us now.
Four days ago I took the plunge and friended dozens of Georgia Atlanta North missionaries and other associates on Facebook. There are others we want to stay connected with, so the list will grow. We love to see their faces, their new diversions and activities, and emerging romances. Our glimpses into their lives have removed a bit of the reluctance and writer's block for talking about endings. Missions begin, missions proceed, and missions end, and every step along the way is a shared, natural, and God-blessed event.
We found ourselves a bit blue the last weeks of our mission; a blue tinted with joy in service and the anticipation of returning home along with the sadness of leaving Georgia and our mission behind. Once we made the decision to fly home to Utah, however, we were able to give ourselves emotional permission to become eager about reunions and begin to make plans and decisions. We packed up several large boxes of clothes and shipped them home in an attempt to lighten the load for our drive home. We cleaned our apartment in bits and pieces, trying to still enjoy our Saturdays, including a drive to Marietta to have one last P-day lunch with missionaries (Sister Sanders, Sister Paepaetaata, Elder Rindlisbacher, and Elder Whedon).
We took an extended hour to visit the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Hindu temple) in Lilburn. This magnificent building awed us as we drove into Lilburn for the first time in 2012. Why did it take us so long to get there? Open to the public for self-tours, its intricate workmanship and quiet interior left us with a feeling of reverence.
We also caught a soccer game with the Obers, mowed lawns, and spent time in the mission office cleaning our work areas and finishing our now detailed desk manuals during a delightful, heavy Georgia rainstorm.
With just two weeks to go, we began our round of farewells to favorite people. We enjoyed goodbyes with Nick, our mail carrier for 18 months. His visits were a daily bright spot. He's considering moving west to Arizona or New Mexico in a year or so. We gave him a Utah calendar and Book of Mormon to say goodbye. It caught him off guard. He sent us the first "welcome home" email we received at home after leaving Georgia. We baked cookies and made a last visit to Brad and his crew at White's Detail shop.
The best of the friendliest service people anywhere, we felt like friends upon our first meeting with Brad and his crew. We found ourselves almost hoping for service time with new cars or repairs on damaged cars so we could make our car shuttles and have a conversation with Brad. The final photos and handshakes were with dear friends. More goodbyes followed, with Michael and the crew at the Lilburn post office and the team at Pep Boys. The folks in all the locations were pleasantly surprised with the donuts we took them. We have a whole new appreciation for the postal service after working with the Lilburn post office. The Nickerson family invited all the office couples to a Sunday dinner. We fed the sister missionaries and took the assistants to dinner. We bid goodbye to Sister Cefalo and two elders who departed in emergency situations. We found ourselves getting home very late and hoping we would have time to visit our investigators and converts the following week.
Our replacements, Elder and Sister Residori, arrived on Thursday, September 19. We tucked most of our items into a corner of one closet in the apartment, filled suitcases for the airplane with items that would not return to Georgia, and moved upstairs to the Clark's spare bedroom with a week's clothing. After the Residoris met with President Wolfert and enjoyed introductions that first day, we helped them unload their car. They spent the remainder of the day getting settled in the Clark's basement.
Our spirits were lifted as we knew it would be a pleasure to work with the Residoris; they are another warm and dedicated senior couple The five days of training began on Friday. They learned quickly, but like we had been 18 months before, they were exhausted after each long day. All of the office couples went to dinner at a small local eatery on Friday evening. It was the perfect quiet, linger easily atmosphere for getting acquainted.
Our last week as full-time missionaries began with witnessing a baptism after Sunday meetings for Itzees and Mortezees Walker, the 9- and 10-year old sons of Tisha Walker. Itzees entered the font eagerly. However, his nine-year old brother simply could not get in the water. Bless his heart. After several failed attempts, his family and Brother Boyd, the new ward mission leader, invited everyone except Walker immediate family to leave the room. We patiently waited back in the Relief Society room. After 30 minutes, the family returned. Frightened Mortezees would need a bit more preparation and courage before taking the "plunge" sometime in the future.
We were planning to spend every evening this last week visiting people and spending time with the Clarks. We were tiring, emotionally and physically. As anticipated, last minute invitations came, and we somehow squeezed them into the schedule and were grateful for them. We enjoyed dinner at Longhorn Steakhouse with the Wolferts and Bolts. It gave us the chance to give them a gift we had for each of our office brothers and sisters - a framed saying "When God comes first, whatever comes second will always be right," that Linda had hand stitched.
The Kotters invited us to their home for dinner, and the Halls and Atkins joined us. We visited way too late, but it was great. One evening we visited Dana Roca and the children. Dana was out of town on business, but her new friend was there with the kids so we enjoyed hugs as we dropped off some fruit and promised to send Sarai and Joanna a note when they get baptized in a year. We'll always remember those smiling faces!
We called Mercy Ansah and stopped by for a short visit. We met Mercy and her daughter, Malyssa, our first Saturday in Georgia at the General Conference broadcast. We fell in love with this sweet girl that day. Their current circumstances are one of the most heart-breaking stories from our mission. Malyssa asked Ray to baptize her, but it never happened. Temporarily away from her mom now, they will always be our prayers.
We had a great visit with the Howards, enjoying our usual laughter and love. Marcy's new job is going well; Jerry's work pressures are easing; Dale and Nick and Miriam and April are doing great. They have so richly blessed our lives; we have seen their lives blessed as they learned the fullness of the gifts available through our loving Heavenly Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our office colleagues prepared a nice Hawaiian haystack luncheon on Thursday - how yummy and thoughtful. We delivered the mail to the post office just before it closed, a fitting ending to our last day in the office - busy and happy! It was dark when we left the office. Our hearts were at peace, but we had two more stops to make. We didn't have a photo of the Chase family. We couldn't leave without expressing our love to them. Tyler's recovery from his stroke is slow; Ariel is unable to work because she's at the doctor with Tyler or one of the kids almost every day. But the family is happy and optimistic about life. Victoria and Matthew, the two older children, continue to be the spiritual strength of the home. Dad makes sure they get to their Church meetings. And little Abby, who a year ago was a 3-year old in a stroller or playpen because mom couldn't manage her, has a cute new hair cut and glasses. When we shared some apples and extras from our cleaned cupboards, she went to the kitchen and brought back a potato for us. She wanted to share, too. Bless the children!
Our last day as a mission office couple had become a 12-hour day. Sweet! We enjoyed a quiet visit with Don and Zaza upon arriving home, Yes, their home is filled with love and will always be a much appreciated, much loved home in our hearts. Don drove us to the airport on Friday morning. We arrived in Salt Lake about 1 p.m. Utah time. The air was crisp after snowfall from the prior day; it still covered the foothills. There was no fanfare, and that felt right. Son, Dave, was out of town for work; the grandkids were in school. Mike (son) picked us up at the curb. He drove us to the local shop where he had dropped our pickup truck off to be cleaned (he had been using it to haul lumber for his garage interior finishing work).
Our neighborhood and home were tidy and quiet as we opened the door. Mike invited us to share dinner with the family and left us to unpack. Wendy and Mike had made some preparations for our arrival. Our bed was clean and made; we moved boxes from our bedroom (it had been the storage area for our personal items for 18 months) with no sense of urgency. It was good to be home; but we still felt our hearts back in Georgia. After all, we would only be in Utah for three days. And a busy three days, it was.
We decided to do a bit of grocery shopping. While on that errand, we got a phone call from Leonard Tarver, the former elder in our mission who had been released on September 5. We had invited him to stay with us for several months while he attends sound engineering school in Salt Lake. He had been staying with a member in Lehi and was in Salt Lake and wondered if we were home. We had mail and a package for him. One of his former bishops from Pittsburgh (in SL on business) brought him out, and a bit to our surprise, they unloaded Leonard's luggage. He was here to stay! We made another quick trip to the store so Leonard could do some shopping and then all of us enjoyed dinner with Mike and Wendy and the grandkids Friday night. On Saturday we arose early to attend the baptism of our grandson, Ammon, and his cousin, Wyatt. Our grandchildren had grown and matured, but again, it felt like we had never been away. Got to love "love." It's comforting and amazing how it bridges physical absence. That is the nature of spiritual gifts! Grandma Witt gave the talk on baptism and Linda (Grandma Connors) gave the talk on the Holy Ghost. We enjoyed another family meal, and then we returned home to continue unpacking. We moved the spare bed down to the basement so Leonard had private space. He started job hunting.
On Sunday morning we met first with the High Council to report and then with Stake President David Webster to be released. We had a nice visit with him, making us late for our Sacrament Meeting. He kindly invited us to leave on our missionary tags until after our meetings were over. That made the release a bit easier. (Still after nearly a month home, we feel that we've simply taken them off for the evening (because we're home) and that they belong on us rather than in a drawer.) While we met with President Webster, Leonard visited with his counselors, President Gardner and President Farnes. As Leonard does with everyone, he immediately charmed them. All three of us returned missionaries bore our testimony in Fast and Testimony meeting that day. One of the best things about a mission is the way you are liberated from the fear of bearing testimony! David had been out of town for nearly two weeks and stopped by Sunday afternoon for a good visit. Leonard attended our meetings and the YSA ward that day, met David, and enjoyed another dinner at Mike and Wendy's.
Leonard wanted help buying a car, so Ray helped him on Monday morning as Linda did a bit more deep cleaning in his basement retreat. We're reminded every day of the energy and ambition of the young. By Monday, Leonard had found a good-paying security job with McDonald's and needed transportation for Tuesday. In the afternoon we made errands with Leonard to obtain car insurance.Our three days in Utah had flown by. Wendy would take us to the airport on Tuesday morning for our return flight to Georgia.
Before moving on to our truly last days in Georgia and trip home, we'll just state how wonderful it is to have Leonard with us. He's found two security jobs that allow him to work early and late and study mid-day at home or in the sound studio. He attends at least two full blocks of meetings on Sundays, FHE's with multiple Young Single Adult branches, Institute each week, dates, and hangs out with new friends. He is busy almost every evening. He has spoken in two sacrament meetings and other settings, too. With his height, color, and Cleveland accent, he loves the surprised reactions he gets when strangers learn he is a Spanish-speaking return missionary. It often gives him opportunities to continue teaching and witnessing. We enjoy our daily conversations with him; we share meals in a very casual, spontaneous way. His enthusiasm is contagious. His height and strength have come in handy for simple things like changing light bulbs and tough jobs like lifting old concrete so we can replace a broken gatepost. He's acclimating to the Utah Mormon culture, although it often surprises him how casual we are about less actives here. He gets along with everyone. It's been a blessed win/win for us.
Our story continues..... more about leaving Georgia and returning home in a few days.