Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Dad and the missionary

My late father, Jess Puente (1924-2016), was a bit of a flirt. On more than one occasion I’ve observed in embarrassment as he charmed waitresses, tour guides and others working in customer service positions. He had charisma, was generally very friendly to strangers and I suppose the Castilian accent helped to pique interest and keep their attention.

Washington, D.C. LDS TempleCC-BY-SA 3.0 Joe Ravi
In October of 1996, Dad—who was 72 at the time—and my step-mom, Gayle, accompanied me to the Washington, D.C. LDS Temple where I received the “Temple Endowment” in the faith. This was when Washington, D.C. was the closest temple for Mormons to attend from Maine where I was serving in the U.S. Navy. Traveling to the temple with other members involved riding in a chartered bus for several hours. As of 2017, church members in New England are able to attend the temple at five additional locations from Boston to Philadelphia. Dad and Gayle traveled from their home in Alabama to meet me there. It was a very special experience and I was glad that Dad was able to be with me for it.

When traveling an extended distance to visit a temple, members may participate in multiple endowment “sessions” in a single day. I think I attended two or three sessions in addition to the one in which I received my own endowment. As wonderful an experience as it is, it can also be very exhausting.

After completing our “temple work” for the day, Dad and I decided to stop by the Visitor’s Center where we spoke with a Sister Missionary that I can only describe as “bubbly.” I don’t recall where she called home but she was a lovely girl, very friendly, engaging and had a sense of humor that made her really fun to talk to. Dad, being Dad, took an immediate liking to her. It should be noted that Dad and Gayle were serving as Stake Missionaries at the time and he wore his missionary badge proudly.

When she learned that I had just received my endowment that morning, she didn’t hesitate to say to me, with an empathetic laugh, “It was kinda weird, right?” I had to agree. For anyone going through the temple for the first time, the experience can be as unusual as it is spiritual. The more often one attends, one realizes that the spiritual element to the endowment is key to having a worthwhile experience that can be comforting and enlightening. Without that spiritual component, what one is left with can still be described in many positive and uplifting ways but the adjective “weird” can be difficult to avoid, if not also apropos.

After sharing a pleasant talk with this young lady, we said our goodbyes and then Dad did something that was totally unexpected. Especially by the Sister Missionary.

It’s generally understood that when interacting with missionaries, any physical contact with them should be limited to a friendly handshake. Anything more intimate would be considered inappropriate. That being said, with a smile on his face and even a tear in his eye, Dad—having truly enjoyed the time we shared with this sister—leaned over to the girl, put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

Her reaction to this display of sincere affection indicated that she was—to use a word that feels both archaic but absolutely most effective—flabbergasted. She blushed intensely, her face becoming a bright red as she continued to smile and laughed with what appeared to be a rotating mix of embarrassment, flattery and awkwardness, for a lack of knowing what else to do. She knew the rules. This was way more than a friendly handshake; my old man not only skipped that, he combined half a hug with a peck on a cheek that changed color before our eyes from pale pink to crimson as she tried to process what just happened.

My thoughts in this moment—which I was too shocked to put into words—were something to the effect of, “Dad! You can’t make a pass at a sister missionary! Sure, we might really want to and I’m even a little envious that you’ll probably get away with it, but there are some things that just aren’t done!”

I imagine that this sister missionary is still laughing—and getting laughs—as she relates this “on my mission” story to family and friends. I wonder how many times she’s told it? I also wonder if she’ll ever stumble upon this account and share her memories of that encounter. I’m reasonably sure it would be one of those things that stands out in her memory, difficult to confuse with the many other interactions she had as a missionary.

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