Sunday, Dec 20th Our Christmas sacrament meeting was the Pagedale branch Primary program. We have precious few Primary children, mostly two multi-children families plus a few single children families. But the children and their parents did fine work recording talks and songs, and the segments were strung together nicely for the branch members to experience. A Primary program with no interaction outside the family unit—happy and sad. So 2020 goes. Annie Stewart is looking much better today. She has some of her vigor back after her battle with COVID. That afternoon we join the Pres and Sis Bell and the office staff in a get to know you video meeting with the missionaries that will be coming next week after Christmas. These missionaries have the blessing of being with their families for a few more days so as not to disrupt their Christmas. Then its off to the mission home to gather groceries and to the St Louis stake center to set up for Christmas zone conferences. Pres and Sis Bell have other commitments, so Sis Hatfield must take the lead. We have recruited the Frontenac sisters and the housing elders and a few others to help. We set up tables and chairs, decorate our new gleaming white table clothes with colorful bows and ribbons, set out mail and left over winter clothes for missionaries to claim, and interestingly, boxes of white shirts donated by the temple. We carve four hams, fuss over the serving line flow, the audio system, tomorrow’s kitchen tasks, and other things. I am amazed again at Sis Bell’s and Sis Hatfield’s skill at weaving color and beauty into an event, even a Spartan missionary gathering. It is a lot of work, but it will be fun and rewarding.
Monday, December 21st starts early to head to Christmas zone conference. It will be painful this week eating too much and not exercising with our early departures to the stake center. Nine zones will take turns attend three at a time over the next three days. There are some great spiritual experiences to look forward to, but for the office staff, today we will stay at our stations behind the scenes while we learn what is working well and what is not, what we will do again, and what we can do better in rounds 2 and 3. We will serve the same food and have the same list of activities each day. The menu will be ham, cheesy potatoes, green salad, green beans, jello salad, rolls, and cake. Oh, and Fitz’s bottled root beer, another delicious St Louis tradition. Sis Bell has worked hard in the mission home kitchen putting together the potatoes and jello salad, as well as purchasing many of the other items. Sis Everton and Sis Jacob lead the charge on chopping salad. I oversee the ham carving, Sisters Mahaffey and Heinze have been recruited from the local ranks to bake rolls. And Sis Hatfield orchestrates it all. While she holds down the fort, I dash off to Costco for holiday sheet cakes, the one prepared menu item we allow ourselves. We seniors, glove and masked, serve the 90 or so missionaries in the cultural hall after the morning’s teachings and presentations in the chapel. After lunch is served, I dash off to the airport. Ancsi and Gareth have generously come to spend Christmas week with us, even though we told them they needed to dress like missionaries and be prepared to serve along side us. They have been working hard for the past two weeks to prepare themselves by staying away from crowds, including their beloved morning workouts. It is so good to see them. After cleaning up, resetting tables, various food preparations, including carving 4 more hams (my contribution), we head into the office. Once there, we are sucked in and cannot leave before 10:30 pm, when we tear ourselves away so as to have some rest for tomorrow.
Tuesday, December 22nd is Christmas conference, round 2. Ancsi and Gareth take the morning office duty to receive packages and by afternoon bring them to the missionaries. I’m afraid I’ve asked a bit to much of them. Sorting mail for a list of 240+ missionaries into nine groups and bring the correct three sets is not so easy. They take much longer than I expected, missing most of the afternoon skits. That’s too bad. The missionaries are masters at acting caricatures of the office staff and especially Pres Bell. Workout Wednesday was demonstrated several times, complete with Pres Bell’s character with swollen arms. One gains insight into the challenges of a missionary watching them make some fun of us, themselves, and their circumstances that would hardly seem rational to someone not of our traditions. We laugh with gusto. Then the missionaries divide into three circles and exchange white elephant gifts. They seem reenergized by the spiritual outpouring and sociality. They have a hard time saying goodbye and leaving each other for their teaching areas.
Last year, we very nearly had no Christmas dinner because we didn’t think to go shopping until late Christmas eve when the grocery stores were closed. We made do with what we could find at Walgreens and what the other senior missionaries planned for our shared meal. This year, we remembered our lesson learned and went shopping for Christmas two days early. It has been difficult to plan, because our limited cooking capacities make it difficult to want to try to replicate poorly what we are accustomed to eat for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. So, we decide to not try to. We buy some nontraditional ingredients and so we will not make ourselves homesick over food, or so we hope.
By Wednesday, December 23rd, we have our Christmas conference lunch procedures sufficiently practiced that we will get things started in the morning and then take an hour or so to go in with the missionaries to soak in some of the spiritual blessings of the gathering. Pres Bell has a beautiful presentation on the Atonement that is very touching. One activity involves writing on a piece of paper the biggest sin you have committed, the largest hurt you have suffered, the most painful experience you have had, and the worst thing you have done to hurt someone else. Then one by one, everyone in the room crumples up their paper and one by one we deposit the crumpled paper in a large vase. The Pres Bell pours grape juice over the papers in the vase, and explains that the harm, injury, pain, and uncleanliness represented by all of these papers have been expunged, paid for, redeemed, and made whole and clean by our Savior, for each of us, and for everyone that has ever lived, now lives, and will yet live. It was a powerful object lesson. Ancsi and Gareth were there to be with us, and Ancsi remarked afterwards that the lesson was the best Christmas present ever. When all was finally said and done, the Christmas zone conferences were a great success. It is one of the best events we have been part of on our mission for a lot of reasons. The Spirit was strong and we feel so much love for the missionaries and had a chance to serve them in our small way.
And of course there was a big clean up of the church. There were dishes to do, tables and chairs to put away, counters to disinfect, and floors to vacuum and mop. Just as I thought we were done, Elder Buck, who was mopping in the bathroom, sheepishly came and found me to say that the bathroom toilet was “destroyed.” By that he meant, clogged and completely unmentionable. Bless his heart, he could not get the plunger to clear the problem. On investigation, I concluded that the clog had been there at least since Monday, our first day, and maybe Sunday, before we came. Regardless, I could not walk away from the problem and let the mission be blamed. I put my mad plunger skills to work and busted the clog and scrubbed the porcelain spotless. I could not wash my hands long enough, and I felt like I needed a shower. I think I just created an episode for “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel. Yep, I’m the Housing Coordinator and Chief Plumber, Missouri St Louis Mission.
But the day ended better than that. We had reservations at Garden Glow, the holiday light show at Missouri Botanical Gardens. It was particularly cold this night, but we bundled up and made sure we knew where the hot chocolate would be served. The lights were beautiful. There was so much color and interesting design strung around the trees, shrubs, and garden structures. The fading, rising, and blinking in time with music was amazing. But the light projection off the face of founder Henry Shaw’s 19th Century mansion stole the show, in my opinion. It reminded me of Disney’s almost forgotten Fantasia, except at four story scale. It might surprise you, but after warming up in the car for a while heading towards home, we voted unanimously voted to stop for ice cream at Andy’s. It is just too good not to share it with St Louis visitors, regardless of the weather.
December 24-25th. We had a lovely Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, spent mostly in the quiet of our apartment with Ancsi and Gareth. We did a lot of cooking, especially Ancsi, who made Hungarian sour cream infused rolls and poppy seed sweet rolls, many of which we delivered around town to our fellow senior missionaries and the Bells. We ate too much ourselves. We exchanged gifts and had calls with our parents, kids, and grandkids, which might have served mostly to make us miss them all. Yet mixed with the somber realities of being away from family, there is a simpleness and sweetness to Christmas in the mission field that is hard to find anywhere else.
On Saturday, December 26th we decided to go to the Missouri Museum of History located in Forest Park, St Louis. Surprisingly, tickets were available the weekend after Christmas. The tickets are free, but they control the crowd by requiring reservations. It is a stately, grand building in the Greco-Roman style. We experienced great presentations on women’s suffrage, the rivers of the region, and of course, St Louis-region history. Finally, we wended our way downtown to Fitz’s Bottling Company, another St Louis tradition, and had hamburgers and root beer floats. We tried to sit on the patio, but we were just too cold, so we ate in the car as we took Ancsi and Gareth to the airport for a melancholy goodbye. We love those kids, and are so grateful