That’s what Paul Thompson said to his wife, Marba, as they watched my mother, then a 20 year-old BYU co-ed, stop to pet a dog outside of her apartment complex. Yet he’d never actually met her… Paul and Marba had pulled up to that same apartment complex to pick up their daughter who was also a BYU student. Paul got out of the car, walked past my mom to go to his daughter’s apartment, and looked back at my mom several times. Mom watched him from the corner of her eye, wondering why this stranger kept looking at her.
Finally, Paul asked her “Are you from Rochester, Minnesota?”
“Do you have aunts named Pauline, Margaret, Barbara…” and proceeded to name all of her maternal aunts – five in total.
Mom looked at him a little warily, wondering how in the world he knew the names of her family members. “Yes…”
Undaunted, Paul continued, “Are your parents Merle and Genevieve Wiskow?”
Completely amazed, Mom replied, “Yes.”
“Well,” Paul grinned at her, “I am the missionary who baptized them!” Mom looked exactly like Grandma did at 21 years of age (the age at which she was baptized), so that’s how Paul recognized my mother. Note that my grandparents, Merle and Genevieve, were baptized in August 1949. Mom was born in 1952. Neither party had had contact with the other after Paul was sent to work in a different area of his mission. Paul didn’t even know that my mother had been born. Yet there he was, more than twenty years later, talking to her and telling her things that she didn’t know about Grandpa and Grandma’s conversion story. Talk about a coincidence.
And so began the Thompson/Wiskow/Porter saga.
Growing up I don’t really remember Mom or my grandparents talking about Elder Thompson very much. They probably did, it’s just that I was too young to really grasp what they were talking about. But I do remember when Paul called my grandparents when he was up at the Mayo Clinic with his son who had cancer. I sat in the kitchen and listened to Grandma’s side of the conversation and I remember how big her smile was as she talked to them. They talked about family, health, church service, and whatever else people talk about after nearly 50 years of no contact. Ever the missionary, Paul encouraged my grandparents to start going back to church and to work toward getting sealed in the temple.
Our families kept in closer contact after that, and that’s when I really remember hearing the previous story more frequently. What touched me the most was hearing, seeing, and feeling the love that Grandpa, Grandma, and Mom had for that man. His encouragement and support continued and even increased, especially after Grandma was first diagnosed with cancer. He stressed the importance of receiving temple blessings, specifically being sealed as a couple and as a family. Over the years my parents had been encouraging them to do the same thing, but it wasn’t until Grandma had cancer that my grandparents really took their membership in the LDS Church more seriously. They attended their meetings, and at the age of 66 Grandma read The Book of Mormon all the way through for the first time (and in one week!). We were all very proud of her! She wasn’t about to quit, so she tackled The Doctrine and Covenants.
One day during my summer vacation when I was around 12 years old, Grandma called me into the living room. She was sitting in her recliner and despite the hot summer weather, she was dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants and covered in a light blanket. She was very weak from her last chemo treatment, and I could tell that she was about to fall asleep. When I reached her side, she tapped her blue quadruple combination that was sitting in her lap and said, “Come read to me, Sweetie. Grandma is so tired.” So I sat next to her and read from the scriptures. Every once in a while I’d look over at her to see if she was sleeping. For the first 10 minutes or so she wasn’t. She rested her head on the back of her chair and she watched me intently – albeit a little sleepily. So I kept reading. I don’t remember what I read, but sometimes when I looked over she’d have a peaceful smile on her lips.
Eventually Grandma’s cancer went into remission – the doctors were amazed at her recovery but we weren’t. All of us, including the Thompsons, prayed mightily in her behalf. Grandpa and Grandma’s friends at Church were very supportive and they all helped them as they prepared to go through the temple and be sealed as a couple. I remember one time when my parents and I were visiting the farm and I saw just how much Grandma’s desires had changed in regards to her activity in Church. I’d just come downstairs and was walking through the living room on my way to the kitchen, and I heard muffled sniffles coming from Grandma’s room. Concerned, I walked towards her door. Grandma had had a hard day health-wise, and she was laying in her bed. Momma was kneeling at the bedside, holding her hands. I looked for tears on her face, but she wasn’t the one crying. Grandma was. That made me freeze in my tracks because it was the only time I remembered ever seeing her cry. Grandma turned to my mom and said, “Sometimes I’m afraid that I won’t live to make it to the temple…” She had a coughing spell before she could continue, and I left because I was aware that what she was saying was meant only for my mother. Neither of them ever knew that I was there.
I never told either of them that I witnessed that.
I wasn’t alarmed that Grandma was talking about dying, although for as long as I live I will never be able to forget seeing my poor, weak grandmother clasping my mom’s hands. I will never be able to forget the concern and sadness that masked Momma’s face. I will never forget that the earnestness with which Grandma expressed one of her life’s last – and greatest – desire: to receive the blessings of the temple.
Unfortunately, Grandma was right. Her health deteriorated and she wasn’t strong enough to make the trip to Chicago, let alone Salt Lake (her favorite temple) to go through the temple herself. The cancer came back with a fury. Grandma never recovered from the surgery, and she passed away in September 1997. She was 69 years old.
I remember watching Grandpa and Mom cry on the phone when they called Paul and Marba to tell them that Grandma had passed away. They expressed their condolences most eloquently, and once again they encouraged my Grandpa to receive his temple blessings as soon as he was able. He did. December 6, 1997 – the day my brother would have turned 17 years old – he received his endowment at the Chicago Temple. My sisters had received their mission calls, and they went through the temple in January 1998 just prior to entering the Missionary Training Center (MTC). Grandpa flew out to Salt Lake for the big day, the Thompsons drove up from Richfield, Utah and it was then that he and Paul were reunited for the first time in 49 years.
Paul and Marba have been involved in our family’s major life events ever since. They had my sisters speak in their Church services down in Richfield just before the twins entered the MTC. In September 1998, one year after Grandma passed away, Grandpa, my parents and I traveled out to Salt Lake to do Grandma’s temple work – including Grandpa and Grandma’s sealing. My mom was finally able to be sealed to her parents. Amber was serving her mission on Temple Square and her mission president gave her special permission to participate in the ceremonies. The Thompsons also drove up to spend the day in the temple with my family. Since I was only 15, I was too young to participate but I met everyone when they came out of the temple. That was when I met the Thompsons for the first time. I remember being impressed with how kind and gentle Marba was and I laughed as Paul scooped me up in an enormous bear hug. Holy cow, he was strong for an “old man”!! 🙂 I loved them instantly. How could I not?
They served a couple of missions together. Paul was a counselor in the Ohio Columbus Mission and then they were called as missionaries to the Illinois Nauvoo Mission. My sisters and I drove to Richfield for their mission farewell and sang with their family during their special musical number. They left for their mission and later the whole Wiskow clan – my aunt, her sons and their families, my uncle and his family, Grandpa, and all of the Porters – went to Nauvoo to attend the Nauvoo Temple open house over Memorial Day weekend in 2002. The Thompsons were still there, so after we toured the temple we all went to their house and reminisced about old times, laughed, talked, sang, took pictures, and had a fabulous time. Unfortunately I don’t have any of those pictures on my computer. We attended Church with them that weekend, too. It was a really awesome experience to be on temple grounds with the whole family – and while no one openly talked about it, it was evident that Grandma was there, too.
Later that same summer I returned to Nauvoo with the Madison YSA group for our annual Nauvoo trip, and just before we left to go home we happened to walk by the Lands and Records Office (our car was parked near there). Marba just happened to be locking it up for the night. I was so happy to see her that I yelled “HI MARBA!!” I scared her, poor thing – she jumped about a foot off the ground. I really shouldn’t have called her by her first name since she was a missionary, but I was so happy to see her. The Thompsons didn’t know that I’d be there, and I didn’t know if I would see them that time around. I ran over to her and practically picked her up off the floor as I hugged her. She was laughing and crying at the same time – it was so cool. I didn’t get to see Paul because we were literally on our way out of town, but it was pretty awesome to see Marba.
You’ve probably noticed a pattern – most of these stories revolve around missionaries and missionary work. Yeah, well that’s because neither Paul nor Marba have ever stopped being missionaries. But the story and the pattern doesn’t stop there. While all of these memories are very dear to me, my favorite “Thompson Experience” occurred in 2003, not long after I’d decided to serve a mission. My sisters and I had invited the Thompsons to visit us at the twins’ apartment. Amber was about to leave for boot camp and she wanted a blessing before she left. Since Dad was in Wisconsin and Grandpa was in Minnesota, the obvious choice was to ask Paul. Fortunately they were in the Utah/Salt Lake Valleys visiting family that weekend, so they dropped by on their way to one of their children’s house. Paul gave her a beautiful blessing, and we enjoyed a wonderful conversation afterwards.
Near the end of the evening my sisters turned to me and said, “Well, are you going to tell them or not?”
The Thompsons looked at me and Marba said, “Tell us what?”
“I’m going to serve a mission.”
They were both very quiet and almost immediately, tears rolled down their cheeks. They didn’t talk for several moments – they just cried. That made all three of us cry, too. (If you haven’t noticed, we’re ALL criers in my family!!) After a couple of minutes of complete silence, Paul stood up and beckoned me to him. I went over to him and he pulled me into his chest and hugged me tighter than he’s ever hugged me before. Neither one of us spoke. Marba came over, too, and embraced both of us. After a little while Paul turned to my sisters and said, “Come here, you girls,” and he held out one of his arms and wrapped them into our group hug.
After hugging all of us for a little while, he said in a voice cracked with emotion, “Who would have thought that I would live to see the day when all three of Merle and Genevieve’s granddaughters would tell me in person that they were going to serve missions? If someone had told me that back in August 1949 when I was a young missionary, I would never have believed it.” Marba wiped her eyes and said, “You know, we just love you girls like you were our own granddaughters. And we count ourselves so lucky that we have the relationship with you that we do. It truly is a blessing from God that He has allowed us to be involved in your lives so many years after Paul served his mission.”
We have often said the same thing in my family. We still do.
Just as they did for my sisters, Paul and Marba drove up to Salt Lake to attend a session with Mom, the Nielsons, and me in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 2004, the night before I entered the MTC. They wrote to me on my mission and offered council and advice. They wrote me one of the most beautiful letters the month I served in Atlanta, Georgia (my visa took a while to come through) – it arrived during a really trying time with my companion. The thing that has remained with me from that letter is the following : Lark, you are one who does missionary work with your eyes. The light of Christ and His happiness shines through them and because of this, you have a unique ability to touch other peoples’ lives. Always remember that this gift, the ability to bear testimony through your eyes, is very special. Be happy, and people will be drawn to your eyes, to your happiness, and to your message.
That advice came rushing to the fore one rainy night in Bordeaux, the first area I served in as a missionary in France. My trainer and I had had a discouraging few days – we were opening a new area for sister missionaries and we were literally starting from scratch. That particular day we’d literally spent all day out in the rain and no one allowed us to talk to them – and the incessant rainfall didn’t help assuage our feelings. We were pretty discouraged. I plopped down on a bench at a bus stop and put my head in my hands and said to myself, What in the world did I get myself into? Maybe I should go home.
But then the following thought came quite forcefully to my mind:
Paul Thompson didn’t quit when things got hard. He pushed through. If he had gone home early, your life would have been very different. You wouldn’t have the parents you do, and you wouldn’t have the blessings of the Gospel. Paul Thompson didn’t quit and neither should you.
That kicked me into gear and helped me put a smile on my face. That was the last time I entertained the idea of not finishing my mission.
So you see, Paul and Marba Thompson have been an integral part of my life and the life of my entire family. We still keep in contact, and we still make the special effort to attend important events in each of our respective lives. Just after I returned to Utah after my mission, Marba and their kids invited Amber and me to Paul’s surprise 80th birthday party – little did any of them know that my mother, aunt and grandfather would fly out and add to that surprise. I will never forget seeing Paul and Grandpa cry as they embraced – and I will always remember how Paul clasped Grandpa’s arm and said, “Merle, I knew it way back then, but I know it even more now – the Gospel is true!” They attended Amber and Mark’s wedding, they celebrated my BYU graduation with me, and they’ve “adopted” my nephews as their great-grandchildren.
That means that they have touched the lives of 4 generations of Wiskows/Porters. Well, 5 generations if you include my great-grandmother, too. Think about it – isn’t that amazing?!
Somehow I managed to slip through the requirement of speaking in their ward before leaving on my mission… but just a few weeks ago Paul reminded me that I’ll have my turn when I get back from Senegal and that I’ll have double duty – a mission report and a research report!
We always try to call each other on our respective birthdays… I called Marba a few days early this year for hers, and well… today is Paul’s birthday. I’ll be calling him a little bit later during the day. But I wanted to do a little something special by taking both him and Marba on one more stroll down memory lane.
And last but not least, I wanted to echo what my mother said the first time I asked her how she feels about Paul. She said, “It’s really hard to express how I feel about him, not because the emotions aren’t there, but because they’re so special. I have so much gratitude towards him for serving a mission and teaching my parents. I could cry every time I think about it.” On other occasions she has said, “Whenever I’m around him, I’m amazed at how much love emanates from him and how powerful it is. I’ve never felt anything like that around anyone else… When I imagine what it would be like to meet the Savior, I often think of how it feels to be around Paul.”
And that, Paul and Marba, expresses what all of us feel about both of you.
Always always remember that I love you!