Empty Sea

Photo credit: Michelle Lehnhardt

“Hey, hi, sister. Let’s give ya’a hand there with those bags, huh?”

She has two, and since I helped pack and load them, I know they could break any ex-high school wrestler’s back, a back the boy speaking to her seems to have. With two hands and a nod of the head, he blithely snatches one of them out of the back of our car and plops it curbside.  My eyebrows lift and drop just as quickly.

“Big day ahead,” the young man next to him wearing glasses adds. “And I know. Been here three weeks. Still remember my first day. Whoah.” which last word could be commentary on her second suitcase, the one he’s heaving with a grunt and both hands.  Or he’s commenting on that first day. Both are weighty.

“But hey, welcome to the M.T.C.! You’re gonna totally love it.”  He has a look of such earnestness — he must have been captain of his high school chess team — I want to vote for the kid.  Don’t care if he doesn’t happen to be running for anything.

There are at least thirty like him: all young men in white shirts, striped or spotted ties, dark pants, practical shoes.  Black name tags with white print.  Big smiles with white teeth with which they are greeting the 400 missionaries (100 of whom are “sisters”, like our daughter) arriving curbside that day at the M.T.C., or Missionary Training Center.  We are finally here, at this compact and concentrated compound situated halfway between the Provo, Utah temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the outer edge of the campus of Brigham Young University, the nation’s largest private learning institution, and, like the M.T.C., one of the grand jewels of my church.

The stickers on their shirts say they’re playing “Host” for the day. They could be playing computer games in a lightless basement.  Or riding their motorcycles up a mountain trail. Or cashing in on a once-in-a-lifetime scholarship.  Or cutting another album with a major record label.  Or sleeping to this hour, 12:35 p.m. on a Wednesday after having hit the midnight premier of Spiderman with the girlfriend.

But they are here.

No computers. No basements.  No motorcycles. No spontaneous mountain trails. No prestigious university studies or fame and fortune.

No movies. No midnights. No girlfriends.

Instead, they are standing here adding to midday  brightness, hosting a stranger, hoisting her baggage, and calling her “Sister.”

That one thought, and I’m instantly, hopelessly verklempt.

Claire stands between the two crisp youngsters like an awkward queen flanked by footmen, and glances back at us, her family. We’ve left the engine running like our emotions, which idle in high gear. Our tanks are low.  We’ve emoted ourselves almost dry over the last 24 hours. Saying goodbyes are painful for us since we are an extremely close family, and her brothers cling to her in all ways. I watch Luc trying to stay lighthearted, his preadolescent mouth curling and pursing.

Good thing we have a narrow designated drive-thru delivery slot. The whole passage I describe here lasts no more than five minutes, in fact, which skims off the maudlin slosh, leaving us crammed-with-happy anticipation we’ve all had in our hearts for some time now.  We’re being tugged along by the friendly efficiency of the “Elders”, a foreshadowing of the well-greased but warm regimentation to come.

“So, where you going?” the eye-glassed boy asks my daughter, adjusting his tie after pulling out the handle on her rolling case. “I’m going Iowa. Des Moines,” he says.

“And I’m Vegas,” the stocky partner pipes up, wheeling alongside Claire, who is half looking over at us, half looking ahead down the sidewalk where her footmen escort her. If they’re decoys to keep us all from getting soupy in our farewells, they’re at least darling ones.

“I’m going to Italy,” she says, “to Rome, Italy,” and those are the last words I hear from her as she turns shoulders and body fully to them, hefting with one jerk her bookbag higher onto her shoulder.

“Okay, whoah. That like totally beats Vegas,” Elder Wrestler says.

She is turning from us.

“And crushes Iowa, man,” Elder Chess adds. “Pretty cool.”

She is smiling and laughing, walking at their pace.

Their voices grow indistinct as soon as I climb back into the car, and although I have the window rolled down as we stealth coast behind the trio, I can’t make out the exchange that keeps Claire nodding left, smiling right, nodding again, adjusting her bookbag.

Then she turns with them, up a pathway toward one of the many brick buildings that compose the training campus. We hang our arms out the window, yelling obnoxiously, “Arrivaderci, Sorella!”, waving in frothy desperation, turning our car left. And I watch her talking and walking head-on into a new life.  Apart.

That life apart means, first, that she’s no longer Claire Bradford. She’s “Sister Bradford”— or the Italian, sorella.  And the wrestler is no longer a wrestler, but an “Elder.”  She will be in the M.T.C. for 8 weeks, like all the missionaries who are there to learn a foreign language.  (The wrestler and chess captain and others speaking English, leave earlier).

There are regularly 2000 L.D.S. missionaries at the M.T.C., 50,000 in the world— most youths, many seniors, some married couples of which there are dozens who will serve as the president and matron of the 340 LDS missions around the globe.  All, young or older, have lived in a way to qualify themselves to represent their church, family, country and God in whatever part of the planet they happen to be assigned to.

They do not pick their missions or have, really, much say as to where they would prefer going, but apply, only to receive a letter assigning them. To Vegas. To Iowa. To Rome.  To Ukraine. Nigeria. Vietnamese-speaking Sydney. Mandarin-speaking Paris. The Amazon jungle. The Gobi desert. The favelas of Sao Paolo.  The slums of Detroit.  The ruins of Athens. The islands of Philippines. The yurts of outer Mongolia.

Missions last from 6 months (for seniors) to up to 3 years (for presidents), and are benevolent service, meaning they are both unpaid labor and are paid for by the missionary. For the duration of their service, they will have limited (though consistent) contact with their loved ones by email, letter or a couple of phone calls. They will grow exponentially. They will sacrifice much. They will gain much, much more.

On the first day — within an hour or two — Sorella Bradford meets her partner, another newly arrived “Sorella”, to whom she’ll be assigned for the duration of the M.T.C., the first of a long string of companions with whom she’ll spend every hour of every day in intervals of a few weeks to a few months each, for the next 18  months. Sometimes they will have serious challenges getting along. Sometimes, they will become best friends, true sisters.  BFF, like the companions of my mission I still love so deeply.  Most of the time, they at least work things out and then watch miraculous things occur in their little lives. Some of the biggest miracles are those companionships working out.

She (and her luggage) will be in a dormitory room with three other female missionaries (and their luggage) with whom she will work and pray and struggle and learn Italian as well as other missionary essentials for the next 8 weeks. The intensity, starkness and newness of the experience coupled with the tight quarters, lack of privacy and drive to learn quickly tend to be some of the hardest aspects of M.T.C. experience.  There is a reason some people call it Spiritual Boot Camp.

There’s a reason, too, why some call it incredible. Or heaven.

On that first day, she’ll sit through various orientation meetings, including those with her group (called a district, which normally has about 6-10 members) of Italy-bound young men and women, and their teachers.  Claire’s teachers are returned missionaries themselves, having come with high recommendations not only as strong speakers of Italian, (or any of the other 50+ languages taught at the M.T.C.), but as examples of good missionary service. They must be students at the nearby B.Y.U. and must make it through a series of interviews and teaching modules to get their coveted jobs. They’re paid standard pay. But when I was a teacher there, I think I would have done it for free. Next to my mission in Austria, my years at the Provo M.T.C. were two of the most fulfilling of my life.

(I still wonder how I got hired there, but realize I had to be in order to fall in love with and marry Randall,who taught there at the same time. Another reason I think the M.T.C. is holy ground.)

When the missionaries — bewildered, homesick and jet lagged as they might be — gather with their district that first day, they’ll hear endless much of their mission language. By the end of that first day, in fact, they’ll already have the most essential words of their mission language down pat: a basic prayer.  Because more than perhaps ever before in their lives, they will pray. On knees. In circles. With companions. With their three roommates. With every missionary in the M.T.C. With their teachers. At the crack of dawn. At the end of the day. In the cafeteria. In the gymnasium. In their closet. In their bed.  In the shower. In their heart.

From that hour on, they are challenged to begin praying and reading their scriptures in their mission language, and after the first weekend, they are challenged further to live S.Y.L., “Speak Your Language” with their companion.  That means trying to stop speaking their mother tongue altogether.  This makes the M.T.C. a quiet place for a while. It’s also a source of great humor and pain.

You try, after a few hours of instruction and with a person you’re suddenly sharing air with 24/7, speaking only Hmong.

Funny?  Infuriating. Faithful.

They follow a rigorous hour-by-hour daily schedule, which begins at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 10:30 p.m.  They will study, exercise, eat in a big cafeteria while practicing their language with their district, will review and solidify what they’ve studied in their classrooms, have personal gospel study, have companionship study, have district devotionals, attend M.T.C.-wide devotionals, sing a lot of church hymns, go to the Provo temple for weekly visits, and have one day set aside (besides Sundays) for practical preparation like doing laundry, writing letters to family and friends, cleaning up their room, going to permitted cultural events, getting out into nature, shopping for food, fixing their bikes (many missionaries bike for transportation once they are in their areas of service), or getting a nap.

After their training in the M.T.C., they’ll load their learning and luggage and fly to, let’s say, Rome, and they’ll probably think, as they look out the airplane window and hear the flight announcements, that these people speak faster than they’ve ever heard their language spoken, and with accents that make the warp speed language unrecognizable anyway, and so as they fidget with their seat belt and touch their name tag, they’ll feel woefully underequipped for the challenge that lies ahead. They’ll maybe want to bail. They might cry into their airplane napkin, wishing for a parachute.

And then someone will be at the receiving end, probably two guys, one with a thick wrestler neck and his companion (maybe with glasses), and they’ll be standing there in white shirts and ties and practical shoes, name tags and white smiles, singing in the most beautiful tones ever heard by mankind,

“Benvenuto en Italia, Sorella!”

And right there, an astonishingly vivid life begins.

Given all that inestimable goodness, I do not feel empty — or depleted or robbed or abandoned —  while my daughter serves a mission. On the contrary, I feel as my great-great-great-great grandmother, Sarah Sturdevant Leavitt, felt:

To write my love of God above it would drain the ocean, though the sea was ink, and the earth paper, and every stick a pen and every man a scribe.  When I try to praise him in beauty, to honor and magnify the name of God, I find I have no language at my command that will do justice to the case.  But when I lay aside this weak, frail body I expect to praise Him, in beauty of holiness.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.