My friend Rick and I were talking the other night about things we don’t want to write, but how it’s often a good exercise to force ourselves to it. It got me thinking over the weekend about what the one thing was that I totally did not want to write; I very quickly decided on the essay I wrote for a Creative Non-Fiction class at Pitt. The assignment was basically to interview a stranger and then shadow them for a small amount of their day. I really, really, really did not want to do this, to the point where I was practically vomiting up fear and insecurity.
I ended up choosing to write about a Mormon missionary; at the time, we had them by the bushels over in Brookline, so I called the church and got it all set up.
It wound up being one of the coolest things I ever got to do, let alone write about, and there are days when I think about lassoing another stranger and pumping them for their story, just for the hell of it.
Anyhow, here it is. It was originally written October of 2007.
“It smells so good! Doesn’t it smell so good? I can’t wait for tonight. I’m so hungry!” She closes her eyes and takes another long drag of the aroma wafting toward her from the adjacent kitchen, where caterers are bustling around in preparation for the Women’s Conference being held in the gymnasium later that evening. The lobby of the Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints church where we sit is small, but cozy. Sister McRae casually leans forward across from me on a mauve-cushioned chair. “People just don’t understand what we’re here for; they don’t understand what we’re coming to share because they think we’re selling something, but anything we do is completely for free – books about Jesus Christ and free videos about families – and people just don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense to them that we would come out here and be so happy and have something to share; they say they have enough and don’t want anymore. I don’t even have enough!” Sister McRae gestures a lot with her hands when she speaks, throwing them up in the air and curving her fingers into air quotes; the sunlight streaming in from the front doors makes the two chunky silver rings on her fingers sparkle and the highlights in her long brown hair glow.
Her companion Sister Mordue and I share the cushy tapestry couch. I try not to be too distracted by the larger-than-life portrait of Jesus emerging from his tomb, which adorns the wall to the right of Sister McRae while she tells me that Sister Mordue was just assigned four days prior as her new companion. I’m slightly surprised, what with the way she playfully slaps Sister Mordue’s thigh every time she ends a sentence with, “am I right?” I assumed they had known each other for awhile. Sister Mordue is the perfect portrait of what a stereotypical missionary should look like: frumpy, quiet, and squeezed into a celery-colored button-down blouse.
But Sister McRae only looks like this from the waist down. She has little need for makeup, close-set eyes (but not freakishly so) and a narrow chin with a slight cleft; she’s the kind of girl you expect to hate in high school – upbeat, popular, and pretty without trying — but then she shocks you by offering you the seat next to her in the cafeteria. Her long brown hair has a bit of wave to it and is equipped with just the right amount of scrunch. A small front section is clipped back, creating a cute bouffant. Her speech is peppered with “like” and “you know.” She’s wearing a wide-striped navy blue and green fitted polo shirt with sleeves that stop just below her elbows. But below the waist, her attire becomes more pious. Her legs are swathed in what appears to be an entire bolster of wool, stopping just short enough to skim her ankles, and her black thick-heeled clodhoppers look more suited for a femme Frankenstein. Other girls her age might still be home, sleeping off Friday night benders and recharging for another night of whirlwind barhopping and random hook-ups, but Sister McRae doesn’t let bars and current fashion tempt her. When she turned twenty-one last November, it was a no-brainer for her to trade in her life in Highland, Utah in favor of becoming a Mormon missionary.
“My dad wasn’t a Mormon and you know, in Utah there’s a ton of members, but my mom didn’t want to nag him and tell him to go to church. She was like, ‘Let’s just be a good example.’ So after being a good example, well, my parents were married for twenty-five years and then he knew that it was true and he decided to join the church. Twenty-five years later! Watching that happen, it was so amazing to see and I wanted to go out and share that with other people, and be able to show that families can be together forever.”
I want to not like her. She’s one of these people who cement themselves to my front porch, waving Christ pamphlets at me through the screen door. They catch me when I’m in the middle of changing my baby’s diaper and they catch my boyfriend lounging in his boxers. You say “I love Satan” and they say “I love you.” You call them names and they still come back. But Sister McRae has a slight naiveté about her that makes her charming. She likes Magic Eight Balls and Hershey Kisses and she takes pride in the fact that she’s never wrecked her car; in between repeated outbursts of how delicious the food cooking in the kitchen smells, she complains of Pittsburgh’s signature humid summers and she grew up watching the same television shows as I did: “Family Matters,” “Full House,” and “Step-By-Step.” I start to think that she’s an awful lot like the girls I used to be friends with — in middle school.
She carries a tan messenger bag with her, bounteous with copies of the Book of Mormons and pamphlets on Tithing and Chastity. Her voice – peppy, confident and sweet – becomes just the slightest bit robotic and artificial when she talks of the Church. At first I think this might be an opportunity to expose her as a fair-weathered Mormon, to corrupt her with my atheist influences, but then I realize that she still believes in what she’s preaching; she’s just so used to saying it over and over that it’s essentially been turned into that loathed spiel that gets front doors slammed in faces.
Mormons pay for their missions on their own, and Sister McRae is no exception. Back in Utah, she went to cosmetology school and got a good job as a hair stylist in order to save up the money to come to Pittsburgh for an eighteen-month long mission. (I’m always glad to see a hair stylist with nice hair. It reassures me.) Once here, Sister McRae relinquished all contact with her family back home, save for a phone call on Christmas and Mother’s Day.
After piling a mound of pamphlets and a Jesus DVD on my lap, Sister McRae asks, “You are coming back for dinner, I hope?” After sitting with the food’s personal street team for thirty minutes, how could I say no? She has me convinced that it really does smell like the spread of Utopian delicacies.
When I return to the church two hours later for the Women’s Conference, Sister McRae is sitting at a yellow clothed table in the back of the gym, and she’s still referencing how delicious the yet-to-be-served food smells. Branches, dried flowers and a ceramic bird candle holder serve as the centerpiece of each table, with cherry cordial Hershey Kisses strewn about. Since many of the women don’t know each other, everyone is assigned to “birthday tables.” This separates Sister Mordue from us, but she’s close enough for Sister McRae to tap on the back repeatedly – her signal that she wants all of the candy Sister Mordue can wrangle from her own table. “I just love candy. I could eat it for breakfast,” she chirps as she concentrates on disrobing a Kiss. “I’m healthy like that.”
There are only fourteen female missionaries in the Pittsburgh area, and most of the women here tonight are just regular parishioners so the room isn’t suffocating under yards of wool like I had expected. Non-missionaries are dressed casually in pants and blouses, and I’m shocked to see one woman wearing a denim skirt which put a lot of exposed leg on display. However, one woman in a black jumper stands up at about 6’5” and looks out of place without a plow to follow and another is the spitting image of Chloe Sevigny from “Big Love,” so much so that I give her a good triple-take. She has long blonde hair, the sides of which are pulled back tautly and secured with a metal clip; an ankle-length denim skirt keeps her legs hidden from Satan’s eyes, and the rest of her body is kept chaste and pure by a white, high-collared blouse with short and puffy sleeves. I’m satisfied that at least two women confirm my preconceived notions of what I’d find at this Mormon dinner fest. (I consistently confuse Mormons with Amish, and expected to walk into an oil lamp-lighted corn husking circle.)
Before dinner, one of the church women queues up a video for everyone to watch. It’s a Pixar short, something to do with birds, but the TV is small and positioned at an angle that make my eyes throw up their hands in defeat. The rest of the room is enrapt, though; they laugh and sigh in unison and at all the right moments. Sister McRae, however, is not one to forgo conversation for television, so she continues to hold court at our table, speaking in hushed tones. Mostly, she reminds us all of how hungry she is, and snatches more Kisses from the center of the table. She pops one in her mouth and her lips curve into a devilish smile. Glancing down at her stockpile of sweets, she reconsiders and slams down two next to me.
The video lasts only a few minutes, after which we’re given the green light to rush the buffet. Sister McRae gives her hands a childlike clap when the woman in charge suggests that the tables in the back go first. As we rise together, I’m enveloped in the familiar notes of Sister McRae’s perfume. I don’t know what she wears, but I distinctly remember it from the time I first met her last spring, when the sight of my child in the doorway lured her from the sidewalk to my porch – she said seeing his face was a sign that she had to come talk to me. The aroma reminds me of youth and Sunday school and scented plastic baby dolls. My inquiry is on the tip of my tongue, but I stop myself. I prefer to retain my blissful ignorance by thinking that it’s the scent of some divine marriage between the skin of baby angels and a bouquet plucked from the Garden of Eden, not something that the likes of Lindsay Lohan can walk into a store and purchase.
Even though she’s carried on for hours about the severity of her hunger, Sister McRae pauses and lets the occupants of Sister Mordue’s table and our own go ahead of her. I watch from further up in the buffet line as she socializes and doles out hugs to the women she knows. And if she sees someone she doesn’t know? She stops to meet them. I feel like she’s the Prom Queen of the congregation; or at the very least, student body president.
I’ve already begun eating by the time she weaves and winds her way back to the table. “Did everyone get something to drink?” she calls out to the two back tables, waving a bottle of water in the air. Not everyone did, so she sets down her food and returns to the buffet table. When she returns for the second time, she makes it as far as sitting down and forking in a few small bites of her salad before finding herself on a new quest after a harried middle-aged woman at our table makes the mistake of trying to share her own plate with her two-year-old son and muses aloud that she should have gotten him his own. Without needing to be asked, Sister McRae and her long wool skirt swish their way back up the buffet table. She comes back with a plate and a married missionary in her sixties. “Look who I just met!” she exclaims, before introducing Sister Mortenson to our table. She’s not from the area and doesn’t know anyone; I’m not surprised that Sister McRae took her under her wing.
Throughout the meal, Sister McRae pauses with her fork mid-air to act as the self-appointed go-fer girl and facilitate conversation (I have a sneaking suspicion that the soundtrack of our table would have been the song of needling crickets if it wasn’t for Sister McRae and her melodious voice). When she asks everyone around us if they’re enjoying their meals, it’s as though she cooked it herself from her very own recipe – she really needs the answer to be positive. She’s able to polish off most of her chicken, but the salad in the small Styrofoam bowl has gone limp under the weight of the dressing, and her potatoes have drowned in a sebaceous pool of congealed butter. But there’s still dessert for her to anticipate.
I keep waiting for the women I’m sitting amongst to converge upon my blackened soul with their Books of Mormon and Joseph Smith sound bites, but they mainly talk about normal things, like computers and Halloween costumes. I tell everyone of the pageantry-level abuse I endured as a child from my mom, who insisted on crafting elaborate costumes for me from cardboard boxes, such as a Monopoly game board and a Hamburger Helper box. Sister McRae erupts in giggles and leans forward against the table. “That’s hilarious!” She says this genuinely, and often, to everyone, even when the punch line is only marginally funny; but they believe her, I believe her. She tells us she was always girly things, like princesses. I’m glad, because I can’t imagine her as a hooker or vampire.
She doesn’t know what a blog is, so I, along with several other diners at our table, explain the concept. She shakes her head and her eyes are wide. “I just can’t imagine doing something like that, for any one in the world to see!” But she is current with burning CDs, enough to teach her mother how to do it, also. “Now my mom burns me copies of CDs, which is just so nice. I really appreciate it.” She goes on to explain that as a missionary, secular music is out of the question. “I can only listen to church music,” she says as her nose crinkles.
Sister McRae has a plan for life after her missionary work: get a job at a salon and go back to college for Spanish and maybe to brush up on her sign language skills. She’s never seen the show “Big Love,” and doesn’t even flinch while reapplying her lip gloss when I ask her about it. I imagine she has to deflect that question a lot while soliciting. “That’s a different branch of Mormonism,” she calmly explains. “We don’t believe in polygamy. It’s illegal.” I think to myself that I wish it wasn’t.
In the center of the room, she spots her friend Sister Tsunoda and rushes to greet her, nearly tackling her with a hug. They talk animatedly to each other and I feel like I’m watching two Sorority sisters, not Mormon sisters. A few minutes later, Sister McRae smuggles Sister Tsunoda back to our table and another of their friends, Sister Davis, gravitates over too.
The room gets quiet as the Mormon with the dangerously short skirt announces that they’re going to be scrap-booking before it’s time to watch the national broadcast of the Prophet. Sisters McRae and Davis pantomime exaggerated and over-the-top motions to each other from across the table while the woman is speaking. They roll their eyes and throw back their heads in a silent show of theatrical laughter. It was an entertaining display, but if this was a high school cafeteria, I’d worry that they were talking about me. And they were, but only because Sister Davis was trying to ask her who the hell the sinner was.
“I’m really goofy, I know,” Sister McRae says to me through laughter when we are able to talk again. She has just finished showing Sister Davis the sign for ‘bored,’ which involves her grinding a finger into the side of her nose. Sister Davis opens her mouth and simulates an expression of incredulity, reminding me of a mother interacting with a baby. “That is not the sign for ‘bored’!” she screams. “You’re so making that up!” But Sister McRae insists that it really is the sign, and Sister Davis cracks up and says, “I can’t believe that’s real! It’s so you!”
“You sure picked the liveliest one of us to write a paper on,” Sister Davis later laughs. “Did she even tell you her name?” I toss Sister McRae a sidelong glance and admit that I wasn’t sure I was allowed to know. All of the missionaries refer to each other as ‘sister’ without falter, as though it’s a credo bestowed unto them by Jesus himself.
“Well, we’re really not supposed to use our real names,” Sister McRae stalls. But as I gather my purse to leave (the broadcast is about to begin, and that’s my cue to bolt), she stops me and says, “It’s Hayley.” Maybe she felt she owed it to me for warning her of the unhinged man who lives down the street from me (“Don’t knock on 3017’s door. I’m pretty sure the man inside is featured in several Psychology text books.”), but in my own little way, I feel accepted.