A Kiss on the Cheek in California

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“A Kiss on the Cheek in California,” New Era, May 1975, 28

A Kiss on the Cheek in California

The room was small. Mirrored darkly in the panes of a tall china closet, it seemed even smaller. The deep afternoon hinted of spice, cedar, and old wool. The creak of a rocking chair and the ticking of a clock seemed quieter than mere silence.

Serious young men in the uniforms of two wars, flanked by snapshots of lacy babies and an embroidered rose, looked down out of their gilded frames onto a couch overflowing with pillows. The room was full of time-worn furniture and the dainty odds and ends a woman can accumulate in a lifetime.

Two windows spread sunlight through white curtains covered with moving leaf-shadows, highlighting here a ceramic ballerina on her crocheted doily, there a white pin jar, elsewhere a flight of plaster angels flapping up one wall toward a high ceiling.

In the best light a white-haired lady sat working, her knitting on her lap. She hummed softly to herself and glanced from time to time at the hands of the clock. When the door chimes sounded, she soon had the door open. “Come in,” she said warmly to the three smiling girls who stood outside, “I’ve been expecting you.”

She was expecting them because weeks earlier Laurel president Donna Muir had suggested that something should be done for the elderly. The young people of the Culver City and La Cienega wards, who meet together for activity night, agreed, and so they sought and received inspiration. The result was an innovative service project that would allow some of the widows and widowers in the area to give just as much as they received. Small groups of young people would visit selected oldsters and chat with them about their lives. The interviews would be recorded and preserved as a contribution to oral history. They decided that each group would take a small present to those they visited to show their love and appreciation.

And in other houses, other cassettes turned, other pens scratched, and warm, old voices escorted other young people into the heart of other times and other lives. It was a guided tour of history—not embalmed textbook history, but history still alive and breathing. Horizons of time, space, and personality were broadened, and everyone, young and old, knew that they were co-citizens of forever.

Several weeks after the last stop buttons had been pushed and the last goodbyes said, the young people hosted their elderly friends at a dinner where each of them was presented with a typed transcript of what he had said. It had nothing to do with a service project anymore. It was a get-together between friends.

The young men and women involved in the visits speak glowingly of the experience. Brother George Mitchell, an immigrant from Bulgaria, was visited by Alfred Griffith, Bruce Wright, Sandra Tong, and Myra-Lynn Jensen, who took an apple pie as a gift. Sandra later commented, “He talked for two hours, and when we left, he had just made it up to 1945. He has lived an interesting life. I never realized what a struggle immigrants to our country experience.” Myra-Lynn added, “The thing I remember is that he said that the apartment he lives in at the low-rent housing project is like a palace compared to the tar-paper shack he lived in when he first came to this country.”

Donna Muir, Mary Synold, and Diane Muir visited Sister Ruth Yancy, an elderly widow in poor health who devotes all the time she can to visiting disabled veterans at a veterans hospital. The young ladies, who took along a plate of cookies, were amazed at the amount of information Sister Yancy had given them. Diane said, “Older people seem so quiet, but they really have a story to tell. I didn’t know Sister Yancy at all, but I appreciate her as a person now. I can see the good she has done throughout her life.”

Sister Hazel Gotts, a widow who is a recent convert, was visited by Gerilynn Price and Mark Packard, the priests quorum group leader. They took her a cake. Mark reports, “I enjoyed talking with a person who has been around so long and seen so much. I think it’s a good way for the youth and older people to get to know and understand each other better. I had a very nice feeling when I left, knowing I had made someone happy, and I know she was very happy to know that someone cares about her. She enjoyed telling us about herself. I think it would be nice if the youth could establish a close relationship with the elderly people in the ward.”

The bishops of both wards suggested many people who would enjoy a visit, and five were chosen for the initial project. Youth leaders contacted each of these people to see if they would be willing to be visited. One elderly lady burst into tears and said, “Visit? With me? I’ve been so lonely.” Another replied, “The young people are so beautiful! I’d just love for them to come.” All five were eager to participate.

So the visits were scheduled, the preparations made.

Inside the house of the white curtains, the three young ladies complimented their hostess on her hand-painted china, broke the ice with a little small talk, and again explained their mission. Soon the tape recorder was set up, one young lady had her pen poised above a notebook ready to take notes, and the good sister started talking about her girlhood and her life. On the rare occasions when she ran dry momentarily, the girls were ready with well-conceived questions to start the flow again.

As they listened and the cassette turned, a wonderful thing happened. Years blurred and ran together, and the Laurels were no longer in the little house of sunlight and painted china. They were in Heber City, Utah, around the turn of the century, seeing life through the eyes of a young Mormon girl. They knew the bitterness of the winters, the headiness of mountain springs, the crushes, hopes, and secrets of being young. They met and loved all the old forgotten people, old and forgotten no more, who had filled a girl’s childhood. They visited a sawmill on the Utah-Wyoming border where she had spent some summers and smelled the sweetness of clean-sawed pine. They lived with her her first time away from home.

“It’s an awful thing to be homesick,” she said, closing her eyes and remembering, but with a smile. And then, in the present again for a moment, she leaned forward and asked, with a twinkle in her eyes, “Have you girls ever been homesick?”

Suddenly there was no generation gap—no time barrier between Utah then and California now—as the girls realized more fully than ever that people don’t stop being people just because they grow old. They forgot all about tape recorders and oral history for a while and talked friend to friend about homesickness, and family, and love, and all the other things that never stop mattering, and for a moment they glimpsed a more eternal perspective of existence and saw time as the sham it is.

Randy Tong, Gayle Allen, and Susan Langford visited Sister LaVern Brown who had suffered several severe falls and couldn’t get out much, and they presented her with a potted plant. The youth unanimously reported that it had been a delightful experience. Sister Brown later commented, “Oh, those young people were just so nice, but so quiet. I had to do all the talking.”

Sister Louella Norberg was visited by Kathy Peterson, Joele Chafant, Deanna Peterson, and Kiku Okauchi. Kathy said of the visit, “Joele, Deanna, Kiku, and I met outside her apartment and were standing there wondering how we should approach her when she stuck her head out and called, ‘Yoo-hoo, girls! Here I am!’ and invited us in to see her. It was fascinating. She told us things that happened over the years, and I really enjoyed it. I know she liked it a lot too because she kissed us all before we left.”

A kiss on the cheek in California—it’s a little thing, but it’s the sort of little thing that’s teaching youth all over the Church that service is truly its own reward.

Photo by James Christensen