Maria’s treasure

May 30, 2006 | 28 comments
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Maria, a seventy-five-year-old widow, member of our tiny Mormon branch, had asked me to meet her at a Notary’s office. She wanted me to be the executor of her will. I reluctantly agreed, remembering the council of a friend to avoid that kind of responsibility. But since I was the branch president…

Her desire was simple: after her death, what she owned was for the Church. The Notary had made up the papers. From behind a majestic desk in his baroque office, he read us the document where words like “inasmuch” and “notwithstanding” and “within the boundaries of the law” created intricate sentences, worthy of the environment. Maria and I looked at him as if we understood everything, then signed. Two bored clerks joined as witnesses.

I appreciated Maria’s gesture, but I admit I did not pay much attention to the matter, because I thought she was not wealthy. She lived in a modest apartment, which she rented. Her husband had died many years ago. She led a sober, quiet life. Her monthly tithing brought in tiny sums, a tenth of her small pension. Meticulous in her Church attendance, she cherished, devotedly, her fixed place in our chapel, the living room of a simple rowhouse. Right side, second row, middle chair, on which she always laid a little, flat, embroidered cushion. For the wooden chairs were painful to sit on. Kindhearted, soft-spoken, Maria blended with the other older sisters who made most of our primitive congregation.

But she had a sad side to her: a divisive rift with her son and the woman he lived with. Maria turned bitter whenever her offspring was mentioned. The man, in her words, had become a rascal who was only after her money. His partner fared even worse in a description mingling greed and depravity. The son had children from a previous marriage. Maria sent them birthday and Christmas cards, year after year. They never responded, never visited.

Mormonism was the rift’s main cause. Who will ever document to the last detail the horrid divide, unwanted but real, between some converts and their families? Shouldn’t the topic be a major chapter in missionary lessons — how to soften hearts of spouses, parents and siblings, how to instill understanding, establish respect, nurture love, postpone baptism if need be? Now, as in Maria’s case, her living the Gospel had only enraged her son. All he knew about her faith was the poison from ex-Mormons and cult hunters. Maria was a forlorn grandmother who could only fantasize about her grandchildren playing in a garden and running up to her as she arrived with presents and measureless affection.

Years later, Maria, now well in her eighties, weary of a persistent pain in her back, finally went to see a doctor. He sent her straight to the hospital for additional testing. A fast and vicious cancer had already spread to most of her body. She was convinced she would be able to return home soon, but the pressing treatments lingered on for weeks. The swift decline was irreversible. I remember sitting next to her hospital bed as she realized the end came nearer:
– Next week, I’ll ask to go home. I’ll give you a box. A green metal box. It’s for the Church.

She would never return home. Her son was notified of her condition. He did not come. After her passing away, as regulations required, the hospital sent Maria’s purse and keys to the Notary. Her apartment door was sealed by the police.

A few weeks later the Notary called me to his office. There I met Maria’s son, a tough sportsman in his fifties, who refused to shake my hand. Things went differently than I expected. The Notary told me that Maria’s son had decided to contest the will. The words swirled around me – legal protection of the rightful heir, undue influence of a third party, abuse of gullibility, irrational allocation of an estate to a cult. Maria, I was told, had shut her son and her grandchildren out of her life at the instigation of the cult leaders.

I sat there, dumbfounded, struggling with the blankness of inexperience and anger. The Notary proposed an amicable arrangement, whereby the Mormon cult simply forsook any claims to the inheritance. If we still wanted to defend the will, the matter would be referred to the courts. I sensed that the presumed extent of Maria’s possessions was the major factor. Did the son know more? Cash? Capital stock? Bonds? I thought about the green metal box Maria had mentioned.

I asked for a few days to consult my superiors. One call to Church Legal Counsel was sufficient: the Church would not defend the will. I was instructed to sign a rejection of the inheritance. Legal Counsel did not even ask how much money could be involved.

I felt at peace with the decision, knowing that Maria would never have wanted her intention to become an ordeal for our small and fragile organization in Belgium.

As I remained the executor, the Notary asked me to be present at the opening of Maria’s apartment. The inventory needed to be made in my presence and her son’s.

It created an eerie feeling when a bailiff broke the seal at the door. We entered the intimacy of the place as Maria had left it to go to her doctor. The marks of her daily life were caught in time. A shawl on a chair. A dish and a cup in the sink. In a corner, on a small table, letter paper, envelopes, a pen and a birthday card ready to be signed. Her worn out Scriptures, with a bookmark to note where to continue. But also, the inexorable signs of her migration to a better world. The longcase clock had stopped, its weight having reached the bottom. A few shriveling plants in pots with dried up soil.

– We will start with the living room.
The Notary was used to such dealings. Everything was looked at, opened, checked, not an inch was neglected. A clerk took notes. Bank papers revealed Maria had only a small account, with just her pension as income. The kitchen followed, the bathroom, then the bedroom. I could not help but notice the eagerness of Maria’s son: this was a treasure hunt.

Then, at the bottom of the last closet, when the last drawer was pulled out, we saw the box. A green metal box.

The Notary put it on the bed. Five men around it: Maria’s son, the bailiff, the Notary, his clerk, myself. There was a pause. We knew this was the moment. The Notary took off the lid. At first sight, no cash, no gold, no jewelry. A jumble of papers, which the Notary started taking out. Bonds? Stocks?

I recognized each item. Primitive programs of local Church events, of firesides, district conferences, Relief Society parties, some going back to the fifties. Name cards from missionaries long gone, the kind with the Salt Lake Temple on it and the Articles of Faith on the backside. Her baptism certificate. Next, former temple recommends, year after year, and dozens of colored paper slips with names she had done the work for. Here were Maria’s memories of sacred moments. Here were, from a self-effacing Latter-day Saint, the treasured traces of her devotion to the Kingdom. I was the only one to understand the meaning of each.

All eyes were on the last item in the box, a graying envelope which had been stacked on a side, bulging, thumbed and frayed on the corners. Bulging, yes, about an inch thick. We could discern that the items inside had the format of currency bills, the kind of one thousand francs, perhaps even five thousand. There could be for more than a million in there. As the Notary lifted the envelope from the box, the excitement reached a climax in total silence. The lips of the son deformed into a triumphant grin. The notary opened the envelope and took out the packet.

I recognized it at once. Some thirty years of tithing receipts.

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28 Responses to Maria’s treasure

  1. meems on May 30, 2006 at 9:07 am

    I love it, Wilfried, I love it! (I’m left to wonder what was going through the mind of her son. Hehe.) It makes me wonder what will be in my green metal box when I’m 80.

  2. annegb on May 30, 2006 at 9:13 am

    I’ve been hoping you would post, Wilfried. I’ve been hungry for one of your stories.

  3. Ronan on May 30, 2006 at 9:25 am

    Sad story, Wilfried. It makes we wonder, too, about the relationship between converts and their families. As long as we’re considered a “cult” in Europe there will always be some tension, but sometimes we make things unnecessarily difficult. Converts should be advised to double their efforts with their families, to not place their social lives in a Mormon ghetto, and to break much bread with Gentiles. I have some specific ideas in mind, but they can wait. Anyway, this has nothing to do with Maria’s sad story, but it got me thinking about all the unnecessary schisms that sometimes raise their ugly heads.

    It’s been said before, WD, but you should collect these stories and publish them.

  4. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 30, 2006 at 9:25 am

    Thank you, that was perfect.

  5. polly on May 30, 2006 at 10:52 am

    It is a sad story, but I have to take exception to Ronans comment. I am a convert, I have doubled efforts, tripled efforts, quadrupled, I have done EVERYTHING for over 20 years to assure my father I am not brainwashed, that I am not stupid, nor I am not brain dead. Nothing will change his mind. For years I have tried to keep my church life separate from my father, but he is constantly making snide remarks. It is at the point where my children ages 17 to 11 have asked to not go over there. They are tired of the hostility he shows towards the church. To some people, even in the USA, we will always be considered a cult. Nothing we can do can change that. So if you have specific ideas lets hear ‘em. I am sure Maria would have liked to hear them too. I am also sure she did everything in her power to change the situation and nothing helped.
    PJ

  6. Wilfried on May 30, 2006 at 11:03 am

    I’m pleased to see that the comments go into the direction of the relation between Mormons and non-Mormon family members. Thank you, Ronan and Polly. As I said in the story: “Who will ever document to the last detail the horrid divide, unwanted but real, between some converts and their families? Shouldn’t the topic be a major chapter in missionary lessons…”

    I myself went through that divide as a 17-year old convert. It took my parents many years before they started to realize that Mormonism wasn’t that horrendous after all. In my opinion, some ex-Mormons and Evangelicals and all the cult hunters bear a huge responsibility in poisoning the relations and causing tragedies. Meanwhile, yes, we need uplifting counsel and hints how to tackle this major problem. And strength and consolation for those who suffer.

  7. Mike on May 30, 2006 at 11:30 am

    My wife’s grandmother tried to give the church everything when she died. They wouldn’t take it. If you want to give it to the church, you need to figure out how before you go.

    One of my friends had a rich grandmother who kept yanking her kids around with various threats of who would get her money. When she died it seems that it all had disappeared and everyone wondered who got off with it. She had gradually drained her accounts over the last years of her life and little was left. When they cleaned out her attic some weeks later, they found this little old school desk where the top lifted up. It was filled with cash, over $100,000.00 worth. And a large note in her distinctive handwriting with the words: What the hell are you snooping for?

  8. Eric on May 30, 2006 at 11:46 am

    Great story, thanks.

  9. Bookslinger on May 30, 2006 at 11:51 am

    Sometimes the issue is not over the church or the gospel. Some people are just toxic and will beat you with whatever tool is handy. In such cases it is best to not even discuss the gospel or the church, and just follow President Hinckley’s advice of being kind and loving and being a good example.

  10. Mike on May 30, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    I am not the one to tell anyone how to get along with their relatives over religious issues. I have a hard enough time getting along with my family and they are all active Mormons. I would like to point out that even within families who have all been members of the LDS church for generations, disgraceful feuds are not rare. It seems that some people have a hard time getting along with each other. If it wasn’t differences in religion it would be something else. Politics, different sports teams, etc. It takes two to fight, but usually one is about 99% responsible for the friction and the other feels powerless.

    I have one success story. One of my friends joined the church along with his brother. But the rest of the family was bitterly against them. When his brother got married in the temple, my friend wondered if it would be worth it to go get their mother and take her some several hundred miles in the car so she could sit outside the temple and not go in and be further insulted. I told him I thought he should make the trip even at great cost. Any worthy mother should be at her son’s side on his wedding day.

    I got to talk to the mother since we had them all over for dinner a couple nights before the wedding. She began the evening with the aloof arrogant certitude that I was much like all these other deluded Mormons she so detested. The tension was extreme. But then I started telling some really funny jokes, J. Golden Kimball stories, stuff like that. She started laughing and I dug out one of those old Freeway to Perfection joke books and went through it with her. She laughed and laughed. Then when she mentioned Fawn Brodie’s book, instead of defending the church, we fixed a recipe from the book No Man Knows My Pasteries. She was a great cook and got a real kick out of that. I was on the edge (some would say way over the edge) of poking gentle fun at quirks associated with Mormons with her, against her two sons who were my friends. Not ideal, but better than a repeat of a big family fight that seemed inevitable.

    By the end of the evening she realized that we Mormons are humans and not perfect and not all that toxic. I think her entire attitude changed and they have had far less trouble with her. Years later she lapsed into dementia, but I remain one of the few people she still recognized besides her children the last time I visited her. I don’t know about specific problems any of you might have, but this is just an example of another alternative when the more common approaches fail.

  11. danithew on May 30, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    Wow Wilfried. What a great post. You had me on the edge of my seat there wondering what was in the green box, then in the envelope.

  12. Ronan on May 30, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    Polly,

    Sometimes people are just ignorant, or bigoted, or both, and certainly the ex-/anti-Mormon/cult-buster crowd make things difficult. I recognise that some people just aren’t going to like us, and I’m sorry your father feels that way.

    Sometimes we don’t help ourselves, however. One example? Shutting non-member parents out of weddings. In parts of the world where a civil marriage is a legal necessity, the Church happily complies, with a civil marriage preceding the temple one. I cannot for the life of me think why, for example, a formal ring ceremony/mutual expression of love and commitment couldn’t precede the temple ceremony in the US. So long as we do this, there will always be family members who think the Church is more important than family.

  13. bbell on May 30, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    Wilfried,

    Where do you get these stories?

    My grandmother is dying this week. Thanks for the story. All we take when we die cannot be measured by earthly standards. Our rewards are in heaven.

  14. MikeInWeHo on May 30, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    re: 10 “…but usually one is about 99% responsible for the friction and the other feels powerless.”
    I could not disagree more. In fact, that belief is typically behind many of these family feuds.

    Fantastic post, btw. Just beautifully written.

  15. Wilfried on May 30, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    Thank you all for comments and additional stories. Bbell (13), you ask where the stories come from. All from personal experience, and many from my time as young branch president, at the end of the sixties. Any member who has lived in those small struggling branches, also today, has experienced similar things. Sometimes, however, it requires special attention to notice both the oddity and the beauty of small happenings. They can teach us much. I must also say I find it testimony building for myself to recall and retell those experiences, as I have done in most of my posts. I often think when I post a new one: this is the last story I can remember, and then, days or weeks later, I think of members I’ve known and there is another incident I recall…

  16. Proud Daughter of Eve on May 30, 2006 at 5:39 pm

    My husband bought me “Chicken Soup for the LDS Soul” for my birthday. Your stuff beats it all hollow Wilfried! I would love to have a copy of your book! Please publish one! (Easier said than done I know but it would be worth it!)

  17. Brian Duffin on May 30, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    As always, your posts are the ones I look forward to reading most. Thank you for sharing treasures from your green box.

  18. Aaron Brown on May 30, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    Wonderful story, Wilfried.

    What strikes me most about all this is how easy it would be to see things from the perspective of Maria’s son. And I find this troubling. Replace “Mormonism” with any number of other small religious groups, tell me a story with the same facts, but insinuate that the cause of Maria’s alienation from her family is the church (rather than her family’s reaction to the church), and it is easy to imagine that you could get me to feel indignation toward the “cult” that had presumably sequestered Maria from her family and had manipulated her into leaving it her assets. Your story is enough to give one pause when one hears the claims of various anti-cult organizations. It is so easy to assume that people are “brainwashed” when they do things that we do not understand. A cautionary tale, to be sure, as I think about the possibility that I could easily find myself in the role of Maria’s son.

    Aaron B

  19. Blake on May 30, 2006 at 7:25 pm

    Wilfried: I can’t wait for the move!

  20. Razorfish on May 30, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    Wilfried wrote:
    “Meanwhile, yes, we need uplifting counsel and hints how to tackle this major problem. And strength and consolation for those who suffer.”

    In the spirit of that last statement, I share this humble account of one part member’s struggle who ultimately replaced her isolation and suffering with that transcendent joy of the miraculous and the sublime. Not that this experience can be predicted or replicated, but rather that hope might be extended to those who suffer or bear the cruel crosses this life sometimes inflicts…that perhaps the Lord’s mercy might be extended to their loved ones (in the due time of the Lord).

    Her name was Sister Agnelot. She grew up on the tiny and somewhate isolated island of Corsica. As a teenager she came in contact with two Mormon missionaries who changed her life forever. She yielded to the inspired message she received and was baptized. Unfortunately, the missionaries were soon chased from the island due to threats and other circumstances that threatened their security. They would not return to this island for nearly 20 years. Despite this, Sister Agnelot continued to practice her faith in isolation. Although cutoff from a functioning branch, she continued to live the gospel as best she knew and as she was taught by those young men.

    20 years later, missionaries were again restored to this tiny island. Miracles followed and soon there was a functioning tiny branch (essentially a few newly converted families banding together). Sister Agnelot was thrilled at the opportunity to grow in the gospel, but also pained at her husband’s ambivalence and distrust of the Church. He was a hardworking man, who toiled long hours in oppressive manual labor to provide for his family. A chain smoker, he consistently smoked over 50 cigarettes a day to make it through the daily grind of life.

    When we started meeting with Sister Agnelot and teaching her more about the gospel and her role in Relief Society (a group of 3 sisters), Jean Luc often was there. He sometimes would sit at one end of the table while we taught Sister Agnelot the lesson or material. He was gruff, despondant, and just barely willing to tolerate our presence in his home. Only the bonds of love for his wife were able to mask the disdain he felt for these two foreigners in his home. We were like ghosts that he wouldn’t acknowledge or talk to, but was for the moment willing to co-exist with.

    After several visits a very strange event transpired. Deep in the blackness of the night, he was lying in bed when he heard a voice, “Ouvre le livre !” (Open the book). Surprised and startled he lay motionless when he heard it again. Staggering into the kitchen he saw the Book of Mormon lying on the table. He haphazardly opened the book where it flipped open to Mosiah ch 24. His eyes fell on verses 14-15. Tears began to well up in his eyes as the Spirit filled his body. He felt this was a sign from God that “he would stand as a witness for God” and that the Lord knew of his afflictions and could ease his burdens.

    But what about the Book and it’s author. His lingering and pre-existing doubts rushed back to his mind, chocking the spirit he felt. He flipped the pages again where they rested to Mormon Ch 8 verse 14-15. “For none can have power to bring it to light save it be given him of God; for God wills that it shall be done with an eye single to his glory, or the welfare of the ancient and the long dispersed covenant people of the Lord”

    Doubt was suddenly replaced by revelation. He knew the Church was true and that it’s teachings were from God, even if by miraculous means. He recounted this experience to us the following day and was soon baptized in the following weeks.

    Perhaps the faith and diligence of Sister Agnelot were responsible for that divine injunction. Certainly her faith and diligence to the gospel and her long suffering prayers and petitions (Mosiah 27:14) similiar to Alma for his son Alma the Younger, were contributing factors in the seemingly divine intervention. Maybe it was her 20 years of isolation, separated from the body of Christ, but still a practicing disciple that contributed. Only God knows why Jean-Luc was inspired to hear the voice. Maybe God needed him as an instrument to build his fledgling flock – but regardless, the voice did come, and his heart was softened.

    We do not know the times and seasons that the Lord chooses to intervene in our behalf, but we at least have the promise and hope that he can intervene and soften even the hardest of hearts. Miracles do happen. For any who bear the pain and crosses of this world for the gospel’s sake, I share this experience that they might see at least one example that the Lord does listen to our petitions and at a time of his choosing does intervene in our behalf.

  21. Wilfried on May 31, 2006 at 1:53 am

    Merci again, all.

    Aaron B (18), I so concur with your analysis. In the “cult investigations” that a number of European countries have conducted, it is sad to see how simple actions by believing people in minority groups can be twisted and represented as irrational and thus unacceptable dealings, due to so-called brainwashing or fanaticism. However, if in a devoted Islamic or Jewish community the same is done, no outsider would dare to make a remark. It’s easy to attack a fragile minority. Some people apparently carry racism and intolerance as a second nature in them and need to implement it. Then small unprotected groups are an easy target.

    Razorfish (20), what a great contribution. Your story shows that even those who seem so distant and even aggressive towards Mormonism can be touched. Basically, it’s the story of the conversion of Paul. I’ve seen similar things happen, sometimes with a partner in a couple after 30 years. One of the two who had been a faithful Mormon for decades, and finally the antagonistic husband or wife discovered the depth of the Gospel and the magnificence of conversion. But how much patience and long-suffering it required from the side of the Mormon partner! Such people are the real heroes of our faith, not those who do something spectacular just once.

  22. Space Chick on June 6, 2006 at 5:04 pm

    Ronan

    I agree that sometimes we can be our own worst enemies, especially regarding temple sealings. I like your suggestion of a ring ceremony before the sealing as a great way to include family members that cannot be in the temple. My husband and I were sealed on a Friday, and did not have a large reception that night. Instead we held a ring ceremony the following day with a reception and BBQ, which we think went a long way towards preventing any hard feelings among non-member or inactive family members on both sides.

    Sometimes, though, people simply decide to resent the fact that converts have “rejected” their birth religion. My grandmother actually disinherited my mother after my parents joined the church–I always thought it was just a figure of speech, until her will was read when she passed away. This is despite the fact that my parents always joined her for Easter and Christmas services at her church, out of respect for her and a desire to show that we are indeed Christian.

  23. NJ'sWindow on June 7, 2006 at 12:10 pm

    A very good story. Moved.(A visitor from Japan.)

  24. elizabeth on June 7, 2006 at 2:00 pm

    I was 16 years old when I converted to the lds church. My parents were against me getting baptized they wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing so they lett me wait for two years.
    All this time my parents and I weren’t at odds about the church. They did not ask and I did not tell.
    I would lett the dutch liahona laying around on the coffeetable. My mum one time said that she liked listening to the mormon tab choir. I was baptized on my 18th birthday and my mother and grandmother were there. My grandpa and dad are agains all churches so they stayed home.
    I did got married in with a nice man from Gent ( wilfried knows where that is).

    The law in Holland says that you only can have a church marriage afther a civil marriage. So we did that and all our non member family where able to come.
    We organized a small reception in our local ward in Rotterdam.
    My parents of their own invited family members and friends over to there house afther the reception to come and have a drink at their house to celebrate.
    We had left for Belgium to our new home. The next night we had a reception for the belgium side of the family and friends also in the church. My parents and brother where there also.

    My parents always loved my lds friends that would often come and spend nights at our place during young adult weekends etc..

    The only thing they hated that I , once a month, would leave the house without breakfast because I would be fasting.
    other then that I have had no problems with my parents or brother or other family,
    because I would not make a problem out of it myself.
    If you except people for who they are then they will except you aswell.

    Since last year january I was not able to go to church ( I have a burnout and a depression from the abuse of my second marriage) and slowly the intrest of the members of my ward has grown dimm.
    It took the RS president one and half year to be able to come and visit me and ask me how I am doing.
    Now over time I have grown away from the lds church because of all kinds of reasons and I find that the love of my muslim friends ( whom I call my sisters) is helping me through hard times.
    And you know what I am glad I never moved away from my family because now that my church family walked out of me I sure can use the help from birthfamily.

    Elizabeth

  25. Wilfried on June 9, 2006 at 9:55 am

    Apologies for not having responded quickly to the last comments. I was on a conference abroad, without internet connection.

    Thank you, Space Chick and NJ’sWindow, we appreciate your input!

    Elizabeth (24), first your story is so uplifting because it shows we can find a balance between Church and non-Mormon family. But the end of your contribution is a sad story. I apologize for Church members who have made you feel forgotten when you needed them. This is not how the Church should operate. Please be assured that we love you. I have no doubt your church family is still fully there, even if individuals fail.

  26. elizabeth on June 9, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    Thank you for your nice words Wilfried.
    I have found my peace with God about it all. I love to see that God still helps me trough other people.
    I still have a few close lds friends.
    I love to teach my son about God and it is facinating to see how much he loves God and thinks about it all.

    again thank you for kinds words
    dank jewel

    Elizabeth

  27. Adam Greenwood on June 9, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    What a splendid person to know, and how well we are introduced to her. Thank you, Wilfried.

  28. Wilfried on June 9, 2006 at 4:04 pm

    That’s kind of you, Adam. But thanks to Elizabeth in the first place for having briefly shared her situation and challenges. Her story also exemplifies some of the major challenges of the mission field versus places such as in most wards in Utah. In my Provo ward, I sometimes feel embarrassed by the intensity of mutual care within a ward that comprises just a few blocks and active Mormons in every house… How can we, in the mission field, sufficiently respond to the needs of our scattered, suffering members? In that perspective, to bring it back to a main theme of the post, it is indeed of utmost importance that converts keep and nurture the ties with their non-Mormon family. And that again brings us to the point of how missionary work deals with that aspect. It all ties together.