“Don’t Call Me Sister Schiess!” Ensign, Aug. 1988, 47
Death never comes without sorrow and loneliness, but the passing of my mother in my nineteenth year was especially devastating. Shortly after my mother’s death, my father left the Church and married a woman of another faith. He, my four brothers, and one sister were baptized into that denomination. Only I remained a member of the LDS Church, and the loneliness that overwhelmed me plunged me into a bitterness and despair that nearly cost me the faith I once cherished.
Also, my husband was inactive, and without Mother’s influence, making myself attend meetings alone was difficult. Slowly I began to withdraw from activity in the Church. My inactivity led to rebelliousness, and I felt rejected by the members, who, I thought, frowned upon my worldly attitudes.
During this period of emotional stress, my stepmother suggested that I join her church—the faith my family had embraced. I was aching to belong somewhere, to be accepted and loved, yet deep within I was unsure of her offer. “Before I leave my church,” I told her, “I have to prove it is wrong.”
Six years of inactivity had hardened my spirit, but I could never bring myself to reject the Church entirely.
One day there was a knock at my door. I glanced out the window and saw two men on my porch. One of them, I recognized, was the bishop. I wanted to run into my bedroom, but I realized that they had seen me. As I opened the door, I knew they had come to ask for something.
“Are you Sister Schiess?” the bishop inquired pleasantly.
Sister Schiess? I muttered to myself. It sounded so stupid and stuffy. “Don’t call me Sister Schiess!” I retorted.
“I’ve come to ask you if you would work in the Primary organization,” he said cheerfully.
I laughed. “You gotta be kidding. I’m not gonna give up my weekends to teach kids.”
He wasn’t even ruffled. “I feel inspired to say that you are the person the Lord has chosen. To prove how much confidence I have in you, my boy is in the class.”
I could tell by the look on the bishop’s face that he wasn’t going to leave until I accepted. So I said yes, thinking that I would teach for two weeks and then tell him I had to quit.
The next Sunday, I sat on a tiny chair, uncomfortable and leery. But I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. During the opening exercise, the boys in the class put their feet under the bench in front of them and lifted it right off the floor. Something akin to indignation arose inside me, and I surprised myself by saying, “You don’t act that way in the Lord’s house.”
In class, the children were no more reverent. I told them, “Hey, I’m not getting paid for teaching; if you don’t quiet down and listen, you’ll be sitting here until nine o’clock tonight with your parents outside honking for you.”
The kids told me all the other teachers had let them out of class early. But I had prepared a lesson, and I wasn’t about to waste the time I’d put into it. To my surprise, they were so entertained that they brought their inactive friends to see their “funny” teacher the next week.
Over the weeks, I grew to love those kids, partly because they accepted me without reservation. They would tell me such things as, “My mom says you’d be prettier if you didn’t wear so much makeup.” I’d ask, “Well, what do you think. Do you like me?” The answer was always yes. I stopped thinking about backing out of my assignment.
After a few months, the kids calmed down. The Primary president was amazed, and the bishop smiled knowingly. And I was changing.
I didn’t realize how much I was changing until one day, as I walked down the street, my stake president greeted me with, “Well, Sister Schiess, how are you?”
As he said those words, a flood of emotion welled up inside me. All of a sudden, “Sister Schiess” sounded wonderful. I felt accepted, and the spirit of love he conveyed brought back memories of my childhood faith.
Nevertheless, when the Relief Society president asked me to be a visiting teacher, I answered, “No way, absolutely not.” I felt I wasn’t ready for full-fledged commitment to the Church.
She implored me to reconsider, and I relented halfway, saying jokingly, “Maybe, but only if you give me someone who is totally incapacitated who would be a captive audience and who couldn’t kick me out.”
To my surprise, there were three women in the ward who fit that description.
On my way to work about a week later, I grudgingly visited the first woman on the list. She was elderly and bedfast (her legs had been amputated), and she had been given only two months to live. I took her a flower, not knowing what else to do.
After a few minutes of idle chatter, I excused myself, saying that I had to go to work. The frail woman said wistfully, “I wish I could go to work.”
All day at the job, I felt a deep gratitude for my health—and a refreshing happiness. I decided to visit the other two women, both of whom were at a rest home. Though I visited only briefly with each of them, a spirit of love lingered with me all week.
I called the Relief Society president and asked, “How often am I supposed to visit these women?”
“At least once a month,” she replied.
Instead, I decided to see them once a week. Each time I saw them, I gave each a fresh flower. Gradually the ache of loneliness for my mother softened as I laughed and cried with my aged friends.
But it was the acquaintance of a feisty old woman who shared the room with one of my friends that influenced me the most. “Be quiet!” she would snap. “Turn out that light!” Her face was covered with warts and moles, and her hair hung in dirty, straggly strands. I noticed that her side of the room was bare. There were no signs of visitors. I figured I knew why. “Mrs. Sunshine” (as the nurses sarcastically called her) was just too ornery.
One day I had an extra flower and gave it to her to brighten her side of the room. “Why are you bringing me that thing?” she griped.
“I thought you needed some color in here,” I replied.
The next week she was one degree warmer. “I guess you can push me to lunch,” she said.
One morning as I entered her room, I found her asleep. I tiptoed in quietly to place a fresh flower in the vase. As I reached over and held her hand, the Spirit whispered, ‘Kiss her cheek.’ I hesitated but felt the Spirit’s urging once more. I bent down and kissed her cheek.
Abruptly “Mrs. Sunshine” threw her arms around my neck. Oh no, I thought, she’s going to strangle me. But then I noticed her tears.
“No one ever kissed me before,” she cried. “I’m so ugly.”
“Why, you’re beautiful,” I said sincerely. Suddenly all the bitterness and resentment and loneliness I had been harboring for years melted away. I felt pure love pouring into me, healing my heart. For the first time, I saw “Mrs. Sunshine” and myself through the eyes of the Savior.
When I came to visit the next week, “Mrs. Sunshine” was waiting for me. She had combed her hair and perfumed her hankie. Her wrinkled lips parted in a smile. No longer was I hesitant to approach her.
In the weeks that followed, we developed a deep acceptance, trust, and love. Her personality changed from grumpiness to friendliness. Instead of sitting alone in a corner of the room with her head down, she sat in the midst of others, conversing freely. The nurses were astonished at the sudden, seemingly impossible, transformation. She had truly become “Mrs. Sunshine.”
When she died a year later, I felt a great loss. I was comforted, however, by the thought that perhaps I had helped her enter the spirit world better prepared to meet the Savior with hope and love.
Our relationship, though, had not been one-sided. She had helped me grow closer to the Spirit, and I had developed a greater capacity for love. No longer could I meet someone without seeing some of his or her worth and potential. As a result, I had begun to understand and appreciate my own worth in the eyes of God, and my confidence had grown stronger.
With my newfound self-esteem, I desired to reach out to others. I received a firmer testimony of the gospel’s power to change hearts and minds.
I will ever be grateful for the four simple words, “Are you Sister Schiess?” I know that the Lord can, through his servants, quietly and surely bring miracles to pass.