My Friend—Far Away and Long Ago
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“My Friend—Far Away and Long Ago,” Ensign, Apr. 1985, 67–68

My Friend—Far Away and Long Ago

The priest flipped on a recently installed electric light, and as the naked bulb swung gently from its cord I looked around the shadowy room it illuminated. The floors were cement, and except for two ancient and sagging cabinets against the wall, all the room contained was a rickety wooden table and chairs. As the priest opened the shuttered windows for us, we saw a mixture of wild shrubs and flowers and could hear a donkey braying somewhere close by.

My husband, who had spent many hours here on previous trips, looked around with a smile of enormous satisfaction and went with the priest to an adjoining room to get the record books. I was left alone in the room, trying to get used to what I was seeing.

So—we had really made it after all! I thought of how impossible a trip to Spain to do genealogical research had seemed in the first place, how much planning it had taken to assemble a clientele, the weeks of agonizing over finances, the prayers and tears over leaving the children, and the lists and lists of things to do.

George was soon back with the records, and with excitement showed me the volumes filled with page after page of thick parchment where priests had been noting marriages, baptisms, and deaths since the 1500s. They were impressive, and I settled down to help George search them, hoping that his enthusiasm would sustain me.

Unfortunately, as the hours and days wore on, I found that what came so naturally to George didn’t come naturally to me. He could spend hour after hour poring over the pages, totally oblivious to his physical surroundings. But I found that I noticed—and responded to—every detail. The wooden chair became unbearable to sit in after a couple of hours, the shadows from the light bulb made it hard to read, and it was so cold that my back ached at night from shivering.

My reactions were both embarrassing and frustrating to me. George had always found genealogical research stimulating, and I had prayed that the experience would be just as exciting for me. But the long, cold, stiff hours seemed endless.

Finally it came time to start a new line in a different parish. Since we were working “from scratch” on this line, George searched through the marriage book while I worked on baptisms and births. Although I was looking for the children of three different couples, I found myself particularly intrigued by one family in the records. I began to feel like I knew the mother as I found the record of each of her children’s births. The spacing of her children was similar to mine, and I reminisced about my own pregnancies and the reactions of our children to each new baby. I had been away from home for two weeks now, and the memories of children’s noises, soggy kisses, and exuberant hugs were sweet to me.

Then George suggested that I work on death records for a while. Since I was still in the same period, the names I found were familiar to me, and I noted the deaths of several of the older family members. But I was not expecting so many younger deaths, and tears of sympathy filled my eyes when I recognized the name of one of my “friend’s” children who had died at the age of three. When I turned the page and found, eight days later, the death record of her six-year-old, my heart lurched and the tears spilled.

I thought again of my own little ones, exactly the same age—the feel of their little bodies nestled in my lap, the sound of their laughter and voices in the house. The distance of an ocean gave me compassion, and I continued to cry and empathize as I turned the pages.

But when I found the death of her husband six months’ time later, I was so upset I had to stop writing, and even George noticed my sobs. “I just can’t understand why she had to go through this,” I told him. “It doesn’t seem fair.”

And then suddenly a true understanding of phrases I had been hearing and saying my entire life came to me, and feelings and thoughts rushed together. “Dear friend,” I thought, “that’s why I’m here. Your suffering wasn’t without purpose; there is something I can do for you. Thanks to a loving Savior and a temple of God, I can help give you back your husband and your children. They can be yours forever now, just as I have mine.”

The tears kept running down my cheeks, but they were tears of peace and joy, a humble gratitude for temples and families and a chance to do something to help.

Since returning from Spain, going to the temple is a deeper experience for me. As I check the name pinned to my sleeve, I feel a respect for this woman. She coped with physical deprivations and a closeness with death that I have never had to experience. And although I am not able to share with her my hot water or shampoo, or the medicine I so nonchalantly give my sick children, I can share that which means the most to me, the blessings of the gospel.

  • Peggy Hill Ryskamp, mother of four, serves as Primary in-service leader in her Riverside, California, ward.