‘The Real Difference’

It was hot–no, no (that doesn’t quite describe it). The torrid ocean wind blowing in our parched faces was the fiery column of air that shoots out the back of a 747 jet engine and makes the scenery on the other side dance the Brazilian samba, the wind that makes people see mirages and go a little crazy, the heat that really does fry eggs on the sidewalk. We invaded the casainha, eager to defy the blazing sun with a relaxing lunch-break.

“Lunch is ready,” Linete hollered, smiling as she parted the kitchen drape that should have been a wall. “Come and eat!”

Linete was a beanpole, tall and lanky with jet-black hair and an enormous grin. She taught me the difference between a pair of shoes and a smile. Worn shoes ware, but time only strengthens a smile. Thanks to years of exercise, Linete had one of the most powerful smiles I’d ever seen. She always made sure we had lunch, always gave us water when we visited, and even organized a Relief Society service project to clean our house. She was my Brazilian mother, a welcome friend at a time when my real mom was thousands of miles away in the land of pasteurized milk and Snickers candy bars.

As we entered her tidy kitchen a table full of rice and beans greeted us. Though poor, Linete always gave what few mites she had; her big heart seasoned food better than black pepper. The food spread before us was a king’s banquet, and the aura of happiness and hospitality that Linete wore as an extra layer of clothing made me a king.

“Grandma’s been asking if the missionaries would come today. Boy’s she excited!”

“Grandma? What grandma, irmã? Oh … you mean that elderly lady we met last week? She’s your grandma?”

I remembered her now, the tiny-framed, frail woman with hands I was afraid to shake for fear I’d break them. Years had wrinkled her skin like seran-wrap on a hot stove, but she still radiated happiness. No one was sad when Linete was around. This woman was the constant benefactor of Linete’s grand-daughterly devotion. She’d spoken in a quiet, raspy, hard-to-understand voice, and I’d just nodded, smiled, and moved on without a second thought.

But I was thinking twice about her that day two weeks later! She was all I thought about as I feasted on rice and beans, this small, wrinkled lady I hardly knew who was so excited to see me.

“Do you suppose we could move our seats to her bedroom door, Linete?”

“Sure. That’d be great! You can all eat ice cream together. In fact, I’ve got some maracujá syrup you’ve got to try, Elder. Just one taste and you’ll never want to leave Brazil!”

We moved our chairs into the doorway of the woman’s tiny room. A medication-laden nightstand stood next to a rusty chair. Linete had been sitting there a few minutes earlier, hand-feeding her elderly grandmother.

“How are you, irmã?”

I frantically analyzed her raspy, impossible-to-understand response, desperately hoping to comprehend just enough so she’d think I’d caught everything.

“Aral gnar flam grandson trel served good mission.”

“Oh! Your grandson served a mission! That’s great! How long ago did he serve?”

“Lecern matergen smin.”

I pulled a face that implied comprehension.

“How do you feel about the gospel, anyway, irmã?”

“Lanterk frem soler son-in-law halnen bishop.”

Hers were the eyes of a pound-bound puppy-dog on adoption day. Finally some attention!

“Oh, so you’re Bishop Vital’s mother-in-law! You know, he’s a great man.”

Our “conversation” continued for ten minutes. Her frail body kept her from expressing much excitement, but the sparkle in her eyes shouted “hallelujah” louder than any Pentecostal believer in the church down the street. Our schedule demanded we leave, but, when we did, that sweet grandma was overjoyed, thrilled that two American missionaries took the time to chat with her.

Is power in money or property? Humanity will forget even the richest men. How many people recognize “Rockefeller” as anything but a New York skyscraper mentioned occasionally on TV? How many recognize “Vanderbilt” as anything but a “cool party school back east?” History writes the transient power of wealth in pencil. Time erases it from humanity’s memory.

Is true power in politics, then? How many remember the names of the Roman emperors or the Russian czars? How many Americans know the names of all the U.S. presidents? Time writes political preeminence in pencil, too, and one hundred years from now no one but the historians will care.

But how many people remember their first best friend? How many people remember a mom who put a band-aid on a three-year-old finger and comfort into a three-year-old heart? How many people remember the insecurity of leaving for college and that one special friend who smiled and made it all bearable? Power is in the little things because when we do the little things the angels in heaven record our good deeds in pen, a celestial register that’s never forgotten, never erased.

Power is not in money or in politics or in any mundane thing. Power was when I leaned over to my companion and whispered, “You know, if we’d take ten minutes out of our schedule to talk to that old lady, I bet it’d make her day.”

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