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.


16 thoughts on “Empty Sea

  1. Melissa, Two things–first, in all your blog writings up to now, I have noticed an undercurrent of water, turbulence, bedrock. And I get it. And thank you for this well thought out imagery, which so beautifully describes your personal and family experience. So when I lit up my iPad this morning and saw your entry entitled “Empty Sea” with a photo of Claire, I smiled. Got it.

    Secondly, memories of our first MTC day together flooded (tee hee) my brain. Extreme joy, Spirit, and intellectual effusion, with new friendships formed, a din of strange foreign words stream-running through my ears, and lying on the top bunk in our dorm room at day’s end thinking this was the happiest day of my life. So far.

    I can’t wait to send a daughter or son into this “Empty Sea”.

    • Lori, Astute. You are right. You could say I have water on the brain. I am transfixed and terrified by water since July 2007. Have a hard time, even, in shallow swimming pools, and have had mild anxiety attacks while watching youth gatheirngs in open water. Part of me is trying to work through it—I’ve river rafted and jumped into mountain pools —but only to have post-anxiety attackes, to be honest. I don’t want to push that new phobia on my living children. When I write, though, I plunge head long into water metaphors. I go there seeking bedrock. Sometimes I hit it.

      And I will always be grateful, Lori, for an MTC roommate and MTC co-teacher as excellent as you. Those were some tender and extraordinary days!!

  2. Så fantastisk at Claire skal på misjon til Roma! Den lille, gode jenta jeg hadde i Barnestuen og Primær i Sandvika menighet! Jeg er så utrolig stolt av henne! Jeg husker så godt at Claire sang solo på nadverdsmøtet. Hun hadde hvit kjole på, sang vakkert og så ut som en engel! Hun hadde bestemt både kjole og parfyme for dagen lenge i forveien! Jeg husker også at Claire holdt en lang, fin tale på norsk, uten manuskript. Hun hadde øvd på den utenat, men la til mange egne tanker mens hun sto på talerstolen! Talen var flott av en uredd pike! På norsk! Helt utrolig! Det er så fint å vite at når jeg ber hver dag for misjonærene i hele verden, så er søster Bradford en av dem!!!
    Klem til deg, Melissa!
    Fra Anneli.

    • (This is such a nice comment, I have to translate it for the rest of the readers whose Norweigan might be a bit rusty):

      So fantastic that Claire is going on a mission to Rome! This little, sweet girl I had in Nursery and Primary in the sandvika (Norway) ward! I am so incredibly proud of her! I remember as well that Claire sang a solo in Sacrament meeting. She had on a white dress, and sang beautifully and looked like an angel. She definitely had the dress and perfume ready long before that day. I also remember that Claire gave a long talk in Norwegian, without text. She practiced to memorize it, but added a lot of her own thoughts as she stood at the pulpit! That talk was great from a fearless little girl! Incredible! It’s nice to know that when I pray every day for missionaries in the whole world, Sister Bradford is one of them. Hugs—Anneli

      Anneli, takk så mye. Dine kommentarer betyr så utrolig mye for meg, saerling når jeg tenker på denne sangen du husker. Sangen var noe jeg skrevet for Claire for å synge på dåpen til Parker, og het “Dear Brother.” Hun sang samme sangen (med meg) på begravelsen. Uff dah. Vanskelig men betydningsfyllt å tenke på.

      Takk for at du be for henne. Hun kommer til å trenge din styrke!—Melissa

      (I explain to Anneli that the song she recalls Claire having sung was a piece I wrote, entitled “Dear Brother”. She sang it again at her brother’s funeral.)

  3. This opened the flood gates of my mind…back to the day when I entered the MTC and became a “sorella”. Thank you for helping me remember and for sharing your feelings.

    • Judi, Well, that makes me so happy. It’s valuable, I think, to return there in memory, and retrace all the blessings that have followed that small period of consecration. I know your mission rooted and routed your life in ways you probably could have never foreseen. Once a sorella, now una italiana authentica. (Which I’m not, so I hope that stab was close to right. . .?)

  4. My dear friend……I’m so happy to think of beautiful Sorella Bradford in the MTC now, preparing for such a fabulous next 2 years! I envy her and also envy your family the blessings that will certainly come with a family member on a mission. Thank you for sharing this special experience so well! Much love to you…..

    • Geri, I’ve had a battle with my server trying to reply to some comments, and I’m so sorry I didn’t get back to you here. Thank you so much for the love and attention you showed Claire in Singapore. It may seem natural and insignificant to you, but there’s not question you have influenced her life in a lasting way. You have that kind of Spirit. I’ve been blessed by you, and know the influence runs deep and long! Always attached at the heart. . .

  5. I enjoyed reading your account nearly one year after dropping off Hna Dalton. I was dreading the curbside drop off. But found it to be a positive change. I liked that Hna Dalton was swept into her new life, with fellow missionaries. It seemed preferable to the long goodbye, followed by standing in a line, all by yourself, for who knows how long. Hayley stepped out on the curb the same time as another Hna. heading to Barcelona. She wrote us about this Hna. It was only one minute after we left her, but she was already on her mission, making connections that we were unaware of. Best wishes to Sorella Bradford, keep us informed.

    • Shauna, Your Hermana Hayley Dalton has been so lucky to have you as a mother. And her Dad, as you know, is one of my all time favorite people on the planet. I wish-oh-wish I could get to Spain in the next few months to bump into Hermana Dalton at some street display, but can’t make any promises at his point. (Up past my eyeballs in moving boxes in Switzerland even as I write this. I’ve hidden myself in a bathroom to check my lap top. Shhhhhhhhh. . .) So glad we are connected by missionaries as well as family.

  6. Beautiful, Melissa. And, after reading the last paragraph, I now know where you–gorgeous writer that you are (in many ways: writing style, looks, spirit)–come by your skills. Thanks for teaching me and touching me.

    • Monique, how beautiful of you to write so generously! I found that quote form my ancestor, Sarah Sturdevant Leavitt, in Santa Clara, Utah, on a plaque at a stunning memorial site erected to her by her offspring. It ripped my breath away. I want to write and live like her, don’t you? Thanks for coming by here, my friend. I love your careful mind and roomy heart.

  7. Ah, I love your imagery and your faith. Claire is a great blessing to Italy and to everyone she meets.

    I’ll admit, my attitude about sending off my children is not as good as yours. My darling boy will come home from Italy just to send off the next and then the next and the next. But you’ve been through worse, so much worse and kept your faith. I’ll lean on your faith for just a bit while I grow mine. Love you.

    • Michelle, dear you, I cannot wait to accidentally drop in on Anziano Lehnhardt at some street display in Turino. Google maps says I’m a morning’s drive away. Can you fathom?! Incredible. Also, I have to tell you that knowing your family now as I do, its your collective faith I love.

      And to be honest, I haven’t really kept my faith. It has kept me.

      Love you and all of yours.

  8. Thanks for recommending this post to me. My kids are to young to really feel what you experienced, but it’s coming.

    I also love the description of SYL. I need to try that here in my life.

    One practical question. After SYL started, how did you ask for a word you didn’t know?

    • Richard, if you didn’t know a word and you’re SYL-ing, you do what you do when you’re stuck in any country and can’t communicate. You speak semaphore (with your arms and legs),and draw pictures with a ball point pen on the palm of your hand. You’ve done that,right? 🙂

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