Here is an example of just how swell my post-divorce home teachers were. During one Sunday afternoon visit, they asked for and each ate a large bowl of spaghetti and homemade vegetarian sauce made with soy instead of meatballs – and they claimed they COULD NOT TELL THE DIFFERENCE. My own children could hardly choke it down, but these guys cleaned their plates.
These men brought that same good cheer and enthusiasm to all their visits. One of the home teachers was a psychologist in training and a child of divorce himself. His compassionate wisdom meant he know how to talk to and how not to be bothered by my wiggly, giggly kids. He invited the whole lot of us – me, my kids, the other home teacher and his family – over for dinner and homemade beignets cooked by his talented wife. Our children enjoyed play dates together and this home teacher knew my kids. He really knew them and got them, if that makes sense. He was encouraging and warm to all of us. In short, heaven sent.
In all seriousness, I think clinical psychologists make good Mormons, and though I’ll admit that my sample size is small, having both a mother and a sister in that biz have made clear the merits of spending time and receiving counsel from people who have been trained in human nature and behavior. What I like about many of the psychologists I know, LDS and otherwise, is that sense of unflappability – and my home teacher possessed that trait in spades. He was okay with who we were and who we weren’t. I suppose that most importantly, he was okay with who he was. That self-acceptance radiated outward.
His home teaching companion was a magician. Literally. He performed magic shows at ward activities. He taught the Cub Scouts and Activity Day girls how to pull quarters from their ears. He promised my kids various magic tricks if they would listen to the home teaching message – and listen they did. They could not wait to see what item he would make disappear or reappear next! Professionally, he was an economist in training, and possessed some of that same unflappability, err, objectivity that put me at ease. And the magician’s wife, a dear friend, and I served together in the Young Women’s auxiliary and knew each other well.
All of this is simply to say that my home teachers were a blessing in my home. They offered friendship without judgment, conversation without agenda, and acceptance without conditions. They were doing it right. It was a lovely arrangement, a happy mix of “The Office” viewing parties, some traditional Mexican food feasts, attendance at a Little League game to cheer for my son, thoughtful messages geared toward the three of us, the whole kit and caboodle. “Please don’t hesitate to ask us if you need anything,” they reminded me each month. And I believed them. Most of the time I didn’t have something to ask for, other than that they reach out to my kids. And they didn’t need to be asked to do that.
A few months later, smack dab in the middle of my busy semester, there came hurtling toward me like a small wooden car embellished with lead an event that I had sort of forgotten about and realized too late that I was ill prepared for.
You see, in my ward, the Pinewood Derby has grown year by year by year into a fantastic family affair, often held on Saturday mornings to maximize donut and orange juice consumption and to emphasize the festivities. There are banners and trophies and a giant whiteboard bracket updated in real time and an M.C. on the mic. It’s a par-tay! It’s also open to Scout siblings and ward members and anyone who has an itch to relive his derby triumphs of years gone by. After the for-keeps races for the official Pack members, our Pinewood Derby tracks are opened up to the spectators. Scouts run cars from previous years, leaders trot out cars from their youth, and siblings bring in new cars to race in exhibition.
Let me repeat that: siblings were encouraged to bring in new cars made just for this event.
Oh, snap! I had forgotten! My daughter needed a car too. And it was the day before. And my son’s car was already going to eat up what little time/energy I had to give to Pinewood Derby car work that night. I know that in other less frazzled, more with it families, sisters and brothers had worked side by side to prepare cars for the big day. In theory, I applaud that equitable ideal. In reality, such a task – TWO CARS! – was impossible. As it was, my son’s car that year was decorated with leftover red spray paint and a black sharpie marker. I’m not kidding you – he drew Mario and Luigi with a sharpie on the sides of his unsanded car. The only reason the car was even cut into a car shape was that some of the Scout dads had brought a fancy saw to pack meeting the previous month. Had they not offered their cutting services, my son would have been sliding a plain rectangular block of wood down the track, I’m sure. And had a visitor to our ward stumbled into that derby and seen my son’s car that Saturday morning, that person could have sensed in less than a second that “there’s the kid with a single mom.” Let’s just say that 2010 wasn’t my finest moment, creatively speaking.
So I took the sibling car conundrum to Facebook. I knew that somebody in my ward or stake had to have an extra car or three, maybe one shaped like R2-D2 or a cute purple Crayola crayon-mobile, stashed in a shoebox in the back of a closet. I posted a request that my daughter be able to borrow someone’s Pinewood Derby car for the festivities of the next day. I was willing to come pick up the car and return it immediately after. I was desperate.
Almost immediately, I received a message from the magician’s wife offering his help. But he was at work. This was a Friday morning. People had lives. Other Pinewood Derby participants had been ready for days, I’m guessing. It was a little late to ask someone for help making a car.
And yet, he made my daughter a car.
He took off from work much of that day and he hand-carved my daughter a princess crown Pinewood Derby car with her initial centered in the delicate crown. He painted it too, a glossy, shining white. He put on the wheels. He adjusted the various parts. He delivered it to the Pinewood Derby the next day, where said car promptly smoked all others in the exhibition races. In fact, I had to pull my daughter aside and ask her to tone down her celebratory rhetoric in light of her brother’s crushing humiliation. She couldn’t stop grinning, however, or squealing with happy satisfaction. As the story worked its way around the crowd of kids, she was proud to show off the pretty car to everyone. Not too many Pinewood Derby attendees had their own handcarved, personalized cars!
Are you thinking that happy Saturday was the end of the story? Get this: the story wasn’t over at all.
Ten months later, this home teacher suggested that our families plan a couple of FHE so that he could help my kids get their Pinewood Derby cars ready in plenty of time. He was diplomatic and no mention was made of last year’s Nintendo fail. He interviewed both kids about desired designs, showed them how to trace those designs on the official wooden blocks, helped my kids safely cut those blocks of wood, and then finished the work the kids couldn’t do (read: most of it!) so that both of my offspring had personalized, non-loser cars on the big day. No more dead last, soul-crushing finishes for us! My son had a respectable run that second year, including coming in first in one of the qualifying heats. And my daughter was thrilled with her new Pinewood Derby car, a bright pink wooden ballet slipper that our home teacher had – again! – hand-carved for her.
All four of our family’s Pinewood Derby cars are on display in the wooden hutch I keep in my bedroom. They sit beside a set of family china from the former Czechoslovakia, behind a pink Depression era glass bowl gifted to me years ago, under a shelf with framed pictures of my children, and above a shelf with a silver wedding bowl my parents received 41 years ago.
Those cars, minus a few wheels, are every bit as precious as the rest of the hutch’s contents. They remind me of a time when I was given help I didn’t even know to ask for. They remind me of the good that can come from a ward family and the magic that a kind home teacher created for me and my children.