Mary Donohue wanted to slam down her new smartphone on the kitchen counter, but stopped herself at the last instant and yelled instead. “I can’t believe this!” She shook an oven-mitted fist. “What is President Alderfer thinking? I can’t do that calling.”
The tinny sound of the oven buzzer annoyed her further. She smacked it off, opened the oven door and lifted a cookie sheet off the rack. With her other hand, she pressed a phone number her teenage daughter Becky had inserted into her “favorites.” She inhaled deeply the aroma of melted chocolate chips, but it didn’t calm her down.
“I don’t care if she is the new Relief Society president. She’s supposed to be my best friend. I’m going to give her a piece of my—”
Mary charged in. “How could you do this to me?” she demanded of Salty Webber on the other end of the line. She clunked the second cookie tray on the stove grates. “You, of all people, know how I am. There’s no way I can do that calling. It’s the hardest one in the whole Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Seeming unfazed by Mary’s whining, Salty held her ground. “You’re the most compassionate person I know. And I’m just happy President Alderfer even let me have a compassionate service leader considering how small the branch is.”
“But you know I’m. . . I’m attention-challenged—and bossy—”
“And compassionate. . .”
“And compassionate—and stubborn,” Salty added quickly.
Mary blew a raspberry at the phone.
“You’re already the first one on the scene when we have new move-ins or investigators—you and your brownies or cookies or homemade bread. You’re probably baking something right now, if I know you—did I just hear you slam the oven door?”
“You’re smart, and caring, and you know the scriptures backwards and forwards. That will surely comfort people who need to hear the gospel during their trials.”
“Plus, you’re working on that amazing social work degree and know exactly what to do in sticky situations. You’ve got experience, friend.”
“Let me get a word in!” Mary demanded. “First of all, baking is hobby. And visiting people on Sundays is a family thing we do. Second of all, I’m a book worm. I like to read. But I can’t quote scriptures. Third of all—”
“I’m sorry. Would you rather have been called as Relief Society President instead of me?” Salty asked. “Hmmm?”
Mary could picture Salty standing with her arms folded, tapping her tiny foot against the floor.
“And besides, it wasn’t President Alderfer who called you to this and you know it.”
“Oh, please,” Mary said, removing the mitt and slapping it on the counter as if challenging Salty to a duel.
“Oh, you know I’m joking.” Mary sulked, then whined, “This is one of the hardest callings, especially in this branch.” She recalled all those who got up on Testimony Sunday—job loss, cancer treatments, mental illness, divorce and all other kinds of ailments and handicaps. “And our branch boundaries are at least forty-five minutes from one end to the other. Plus the driving from one county to the next, from one township to the next borough, to a far village—to the middle of scenic nowhere. . .”
“Again, I say, would you have rather—”
“No. No. I’m sorry,” Mary said, deflating from her rant. She walked to the kitchen table and plopped down on a chair. “I should be consoling you, and here I am throwing a pity party for myself. See? I’m selfish, too, and not very sympathetic, apparently.”
Mary got up from the table and looked out the bay window. Her cock-a-poo ran around the big maple tree and through a row of forsythia bushes, his little nose sniffing the ground.
“You know you can say whatever you want to me. I’m your best friend,” Salty said. “Go ahead. Get it all out. I’m next.”
“You didn’t even notice I don’t have a secretary. I chose to have a compassionate service leader instead.”
Mary barely listened as she watched Fluffy chase a squirrel, but forced herself to focus. “You’re right. I’m glad I didn't get your calling. I guess I ought to be thankful for small blessings. Well, not that small. . .” her voice trailed off.
Her friend was called only last week as Relief Society president. Mary thought she’d dodged the proverbial bullet when Salty didn’t pick her as one of her counselors. Now the bullet ricocheted right into her lap.
“You didn't even notice my triumph,” Salty said. “Pat Wallace didn't have a Compassionate Service leader when she was Relief Society president.”
“That’s because she is the most compassionate person in the branch. She didn’t need one. Her kids are all grown and she’s retired. Why don’t you pick her? Oh, that’s right, it wasn’t you,” Mary taunted and looked cross-eyed at the phone.
“Mary,” Salty scolded, giggling a little.
“And now you can add ‘irreverent’ to my long list of immature attitudes.” Huffing out a sigh, she changed the subject. “Forgive me again. What I really meant to ask was . . . how’s it going, new president?”
Mary stepped to the counter and grabbed a cookie. She put it up to her nose, closed her eyes and took a long whiff before taking a bite.
“I think it’s going very well. I know the Lord gave me two good counselors, that’s for sure. Kyoung-mi Cole is one of the most spiritual women in the branch. And she’s so humble. And Nancy Kessler—with all her experience in administration at the nursing home, I really don’t need a secretary.”
Mary took another bite of the cookie and added, “And Nancy will be good because there aren’t many women over fifty in our branch. And now that Pat isn’t president, she’ll be snagged by the stake, so we need that motherly feel for the younger sisters.” She paused, chewed, then teased, “Oh, wait. . . that’s right, you’re the new president, so we won’t have to worry about that.”
“Watch it,” Salty warned.
“Your big five-o is on the horizon,” Mary joked, sing-songy. She licked the chocolate off her fingers.
“It’s not on the horizon. It’s way up the hill,” Salty said. “I’m still climbing the hill,” she mimicked gasping, as if over-exerted. “It’s not until next year. And besides, you’re almost there, too.”
“I am not. I’ve got a good five years before I reach that milestone. You are way older than me, girlfriend—and it’s almost next year.”
“Stop mocking me.”
“Just because I have a gray streak in my hair like Cruella De Vil—”
“Oh, psh. You can’t even see it—”
“And you’ve got that towheaded blonde hair that doesn’t show gray—”
“Why, thank you. Are you done now?”
Mary could picture Salty tapping her foot again so she walked back to sit at the table and put her feet up on another chair.
“I can’t believe President Alderfer called you so soon,” Salty said. “I just spoke to him last night. I thought he’d wait until Mutual night tomorrow.”
“Yeah. He called me all right—from the airport. I didn’t know bankers traveled. He won’t be home until late Saturday night and he wanted me to stand up this Sunday, but—”
“Great! I’m so happy. Of course, I can’t really talk to you about anything yet, until you’re sustained. . .”
“Salty. . .”
Mary blew out a sigh, but caved. She could only say, “You’re going to be the best Relief Society president the Knecht branch ever had. And I mean that.”
“Well, considering the branch has only had one other Relief Society president, thanks. . . I think,” Salty said.
“That didn’t come out right,” Mary back-pedaled. “See? I put my foot in my mouth all the time. I meant to be sincere. I really think you’ll be the best.” Mary ambled over to the kitchen and turned off the oven. “See, I can’t even remember to turn the oven off. I’m hopeless.”
“Ah-ha! You are baking something!”
Mary sighed. “It’s just . . . I think this is a terrible mistake. My A. D. D. will hinder me. I’ll get lost when I drive from town to town.”
“You have a smartphone now that can give you directions. And it’s not like this isn’t in your comfort zone. You’ve been doing it all along. You’ve just never had a formal calling to do it. Think Scarecrow.”
“Yeah. He always had a brain. The Tin Man always had a heart. They just didn't know it. You know what I mean.”
“So, you don’t sound the least bit nervous—”
“I’m out of my mind and shaking like a leaf inside,” Salty said with a shivery voice. “But Jim gave me a blessing and after that, I just knuckled down.”
Mary admired her friend. Thank goodness Jim’s a supportive husband, and Chloe’s a wonderful daughter. Mary looked outside her window again and chuckled as she saw several squirrels gang up on Fluffy by the pin oak trees. He barked and whirled around as they jumped from tree to tree, acorns falling all around the dog.
“Mary? Mary, did you hear me?” Salty asked.
Mary shook her thoughts back to the conversation. “Wha-? What?” she asked.
Salty laughed and started singing, “Hummingbird, don’t fly away, fly away. . .”
“Very funny,” Mary said, though she had to agree. Her mind flitted from one subject to the next like a hummingbird pausing for nectar, then flashed to the next flower. Salty always kept up with Mary’s random contemplation, guiding her thoughts like a string tethering a kite, gently tugging her and keeping her on course. I feel like I want to fly away right now.
“Hyper-verbal” was the phrase in one of Mary’s psychology text books that explained Salty’s non-stop dialogues. We teach each other patience, I guess. She reels me in when I lose my train of thought, and I wait for her to stop talking . . .
“I was saying, I really wanted you as a counselor. I prayed and prayed about it. I kept coming up with compassionate service. I know—I mean, I really know—this is what you’re supposed to do. In fact, I’m considering you my third counselor.”
Lovely. . . Mary pinched her eyes closed and wrinkled her nose.
“After speaking with Pat, you know, changing of the guard, she told me there are a lot of sad cases in our little Knecht branch.”
Yeah, I know. . . Mary rubbed her temple.
“But . . . connected in love, right?” Salty reminded Mary of the tagline branch members used to instruct new move-ins about how to pronounce the Knecht branch, named for the Knecht Covered Bridge down the serpentine country road from the chapel.
“Yes, friend, connected in love. I’m glad we finally remembered the code words.”
When the two hung up, Mary thought she pressed the red button on her new phone to end the conversation, but must have missed it somehow, or pressed another button, and the phone automatically started dialing Salty again.
“Oh, shoot!” Mary cried, and kept pressing the button. Green and red. Green and red. Finally, in a panic, she remembered to press the button at the top to shut the phone off entirely.
“Ahh!” She dropped the phone on the table and threw up her hands. “Oh, she’ll know what happened,” Mary said and rolled her eyes, thinking Salty was probably laughing out loud. “I’ll never get the hang of that thing. Sorry, but give me my land line any day,” she said as she looked at the phone on the wall above the counter.
She thought of what her daughter Becky said last week, “Mom, it’s the twenty-first century. Come for a visit sometime.”
The sound of exuberant scratching at the family room sliding door summoned Mary to let the dog in. But, distracted, she took a detour to turn on her ancient five-disc CD player. “I barely know how to work this thing and Becky the Techy wants me to play music on my smartphone? She’s crazy,” Mary said to herself.
"There is beauty all around. . ." resonated as she opened the door. “Good boy,” she told the little dog, bending down to rough up his curly hair. “You sure are fluffy, Fluffy,” she told him.
The dog romped past her and over into the kitchen to his water dish. Mary followed him into the room and picked up the spatula to slide the cookies onto wax paper. Setting the cookie sheets in the sink, she decided to let the cleanup go for a minute. She grabbed her water bottle and sat back down at the kitchen table to contemplate her predicament.
Feeling overwhelmed, she folded her hands under her chin and let out, “Oh, Heavenly Father,” then collapsed her upper body on the table, laying her head on her arms. “I know how hard that calling is. It would be all-consuming.”
She sat up and sniffed, but determined not to cry. One sister from a previous ward who got that calling left the church shortly after. Everyone was shocked, but convinced it was because she was Compassionate Service leader and couldn't find anyone to help her do anything. Could that happen to me?
She checked her testimony in a split second as if her life flashed before her eyes—her baptism when the water was warm even though the hot water heater was broken, the priesthood blessing that healed her son Josh when he was a baby, her experiences in the temple. No. No way.
Maybe Salty’s right. I’m in a comfort zone. I’m content being behind the scenes teaching early-morning seminary with Dave. Mary and her husband, Dave, live right down the road from the high school. The kids walk to school after seminary. They’ll never release us from that.
“Father, I know this calling is exactly what I want to do with my life. I do want to help people. Why am I so scared?” She shook her head. “Maybe it’s because of Regina,” Mary reflected about her high school best friend. “I tried to help her and she never spoke to me again.”
Looking for validation, she raised her eyes heavenward. “But I did help my sister during her divorce, right?” Bittersweet. Mary remembered her sister’s divorce that led to her subsequent conversion to the gospel.
Alcoholism. Abuse. It was the first time Mary had actual experience with someone with a pornography addiction. That situation, more than fifteen years ago, was the reason why Mary settled on social work as a final career path in her never-ending stab for a Bachelor’s degree. After five years, she barely scored an Associate degree in psychology, taking one class per semester, whenever she could find time. Even after ten years, she still had thirty-odd credits to go for a Bachelor’s. That calling would make it impossible for me!
Mary ended her disjointed prayer as her thoughts raced back and forth. “Oh, what am I worried about? I like helping people,” she said to nobody in particular, but Fluffy wagged his tail, thumping it on the floor. “But what if it’s more than just helping? What if I get entangled in their lives? I just want to enjoy everyone. I don’t want to . . . know things.”
She leaned down to stroke the dog as he lay at her feet beside the chair. She glanced outside again. A random red maple leaf fell through the air right in front of the window. “Even though it’s still pretty warm out, autumn’s coming on, Fluffy. And you know what that means,” she said. “Fall is new beginnings,” she whispered to herself. Back-to-school, raking leaves, hayrides. . .October next week.
She turned her gaze from the window and looked up again. But not this new beginning. I can’t do it. She shuddered. A sigh burst through her lips, pushed from her diaphragm like a bellows. She upended her water bottle in long, nervous swallows as if the clear liquid would cleanse away her guilt.
I should have told her. I’m such a coward.