Letter from Home

by Kimberly Webb

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First-Place FictionThey say one picture is worth a thousand words. But the photograph that arrived with Annemarie’s letter left me speechless.

I tore open the envelope expectantly and unfolded the stationery. As I did, a small photo fluttered to the floor and landed face down. Snatching it from the shabby linoleum of our tiny apartment, I gasped in amazement.

“What is it, Sister Larsen?” my companion asked. I turned to her and beamed, speechlessly waving the photograph in her direction. That was Annemarie—all dressed in white. She stood with two sisters and two elders, one also in white. I immediately recognized the setting. It was the baptismal font of our stake center back home. My best friend had been baptized!

Annemarie and I met the summer before high school. We were the only freshmen on the varsity soccer team and had to stick together. It seemed we had nearly everything in common, until we attended our first end-of-the-season team party. It was the night after we became state champions.

“You’re not going to have a beer?” she questioned skeptically, snapping open the can of beer offered her. “Coach left already. You’re not going to get caught.”

“I know,” I replied. “That doesn’t matter. I don’t drink.” There was an uncomfortable pause as I awaited her reaction. Slowly, Annemarie put the can back on the counter as she watched me searchingly.

“Are you serious? Not even one to celebrate?”

I shook my head.

“Okay,” she conceded, “then I won’t drink tonight either. In fact, let’s leave.”

That night the two of us started a tradition of leaving team parties with the coach. Sometimes we went out for shakes instead, and often other team members joined us. But usually it was just Annemarie and me.

As high school pressed on, our friendship grew steadily. I continued to stay home from the weekend parties that Annemarie went to occasionally and missed a few crucial Sunday soccer games. It wasn’t always easy to be left out, but knowing Annemarie especially noticed what I did made me determined to remain a good example. I longed for the day she would seek to understand that part of my life, but in the meantime she was tolerant, often confused, and silent.

One March night, the phone jangled into my dreams until Dad yanked me out of a deep sleep.

“Beth,” he hissed into my dark room as a sharp shard of hallway light spilled onto my pillow.

“Mmmmph,” I growled into my down comforter.

“Beth, Annemarie is on the phone for you. It sounds like something is wrong.” Immediately I leaped out of bed, glaring at the glowing green digital clock—4:13 A.M. Something was certainly wrong. I had only gone to bed three hours earlier after returning from junior prom. I thought Annemarie and her date left around the same time.

“Hello. What’s wrong?” I said as I picked up the receiver.

There was a sniffle on the other end of the line. “Nothing,” she said finally. “I’m okay. I’m stranded though. Can you come pick me up?”

At 4:30 A.M., I pulled into the empty parking lot of Sanders Market, a small grocery store at the edge of town. Annemarie stepped out from beside the pay phone and hobbled in her dainty high heels over to my car.

“What happened?” I demanded. Annemarie wiped the mascara streaks from her cheeks.

“We went to a party after the prom. It was all right for a while, but now everyone is drunk. I won’t tell you what Kevin tried, but it definitely wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been drinking.” Annemarie sniffled again. “Beth, I used to like parties, but you and I have so much fun without them. I wish you weren’t practically the only person in our high school who understands that you don’t need beer to have fun.”

“Congratulations,” I said quietly. “It probably wasn’t easy to walk away.”

She shrugged, her voice gathering strength as she spoke. “Not really. I knew I could count on you.”

A week later, the two of us were lying on the grass of the football field staring into the deep blue expanse above. We were the only people left after track practice.

“Can I ask you a question?” she said.

“Go for it,” I encouraged, not expecting to hear what came next.

“Does your church make you happy?”

I stared at her in surprise, my heart immediately leaping into my throat.

“Yes,” I croaked nervously. In our two-and-a-half-year friendship, she had never asked me anything about the Church. It was always me offering pieces of information hopefully, never getting much of a response.

“Why?” Annemarie ventured timidly. Before I could even take a breath, she rushed on. “Is it because you have friends in your church? Ever since I’ve decided not to party with my friends, it’s been harder than I thought it would be. Thank goodness I have you.”

I sensed her loneliness. I had watched her. She wasn’t teased or even shunned, but something was definitely different between her and her old friends. A sense of camaraderie had vanished.

“It must be nice to have lots of friends who don’t resent you for your morals,” she concluded wistfully.

“Annemarie,” I began carefully, “I have made wonderful friends through church. They’d all love to get to know you better too. You’re not as alone as you think. However, the Church does not make me happy because of my friends.” Gulping, I tried to keep my voice from wavering. “The Church brings joy because it’s true.” Suddenly I was overcome with warm confidence and satisfaction at bearing such blunt testimony.

Unfortunately, her reaction was not one of tears or even strong interest. Annemarie merely smirked. “That’s what my church says too. But it has not changed my life much.” She pulled herself off the grass and onto her feet, stretching toward the sky. “We’ve been here for almost an hour!” she exclaimed. “Race you to the locker room.”

“Grrrr,” I scowled as I stormed into the house a few weeks later.

“What’s your problem?” Jason yelled from the kitchen.

“Annemarie,” I growled back, flopping onto the couch. My brother quickly slurped down his orange juice and then sat next to me, all too eager for me to beg his advice. His mission enthusiasm had not worn off in the two months he had been home, and I wondered if he considered himself my part-time psychiatrist.

“How can I help?”

“Baptize my friend,” I pouted.

“Oh … what has Annemarie done?”

The day after we first talked on the football field, I gave Annemarie a Book of Mormon, which she still hadn’t admitted to cracking open. And that very day, she had reluctantly agreed to attend early-morning seminary. It was nothing short of disaster. Annemarie challenged nearly every point covered in the lesson until, finally, unsatisfied with my teacher’s diplomatic answers, she recoiled into a shell of silent disapproval and doubt. At the end of class, she thanked me for inviting her, but politely let me know she wouldn’t be back.

After sharing the incident with my brother, I wailed, “What else can I do? I’m so frustrated! I thought as long as I did all the right things—you know, like not going to drinking parties, keeping the Sabbath day holy, bearing my testimony—as long as I was a good example for her, then she would eventually want to understand the Church. Annemarie still doesn’t care.”

“Do you care about her?” Jason returned.

“What kind of question is that?” I snapped. “She’s my best friend.”

“From Annemarie’s perspective, she may think you only care about your own church and getting another convert. The Savior loved completely. Exemplify that love in the way you treat her, no matter how she apparently feels about your church.”

“She knows I love her,” I argued. “We’ve been friends since ninth grade. And she thanks me all the time for being one of the few friends she can actually count on. I only thought it was time to start encouraging her to investigate the Church since she hasn’t exactly taken the initiative herself.”

“Okay, I have another question. Do you love Jesus Christ?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes. Why?”

“Really think about it,” he said quietly. “Do you love Jesus Christ? Do you love our Heavenly Father? Are you obedient to the commandments because you love them or because you are more concerned with Annemarie watching you?”

I was surprised. Meekly I questioned, “Isn’t one way of showing love for Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ by sharing the gospel with others?”

“Yes,” Jason agreed. “But sometimes a testimony shines through your actions because Christ has changed your heart to one of charity. It’s charity and service that touch people. Remember Ammon? His first concern was to be the king’s servant before he shared what he knew.”

I thought about that for several moments. “Are you suggesting I concentrate only on myself? Work on becoming more charitable?”

“I’m not telling you to give up,” he smiled. “But you have no control over what Annemarie decides. Maybe if you concentrate on coming unto the Savior with all of your heart, being truly meek and penitent before Him, others will follow. If not, you will have gained the charity to feel love and acceptance for Annemarie and patience about her decisions.”

I knitted my brow in thought, stewing over all he had suggested.

“One more thing,” he added before hopping off the couch. “Don’t forget that Annemarie has already chosen the plan. That’s why she’s here. Her Father in Heaven knows how she can best be touched. In the meantime …”

“In the meantime, what?”

“I’ll be eating leftover pizza. I’m starving.” He disappeared back into the kitchen.

I began serving Annemarie by praying for her nightly. I introduced her to my circle of LDS friends, where she was warmly welcomed. We shared the gospel with Annemarie when she seemed most receptive, but I couldn’t help wondering if our friendship would bring about anything more than memories to cherish. During the remaining year and a half of high school, Annemarie did not show any more interest in the Church. On the other hand, my testimony grew in ways I never could have imagined. I had always known the Church was true, but now I loved it with all of my heart. Annemarie helped me more than she ever knew.

After graduation, at summer’s end, I moved away from home to attend college as did she, leaving hundreds of miles between us. We kept in touch. It would be another three years before Annemarie would confront me about the Church.

“I’m here!” she shrieked, bounding across the crowded room and grabbing me in an enormous bear hug. I bounced up and down, laughing like a third grader, and ignoring the fact that I was not only 21 years old but at the center of attention. Friends and family members smiled in amusement at my joyous reunion with Annemarie. “I was so afraid I would be late,” she panted, squeezing into a chair next to me.

“I wouldn’t have started without you,” I assured her. Then I took a deep breath as a hush fell over the room. I carefully opened the large envelope and silently read the first few lines. “Santiago,” I whispered.

“What?” my parents screeched. “Speak up!”

I cleared my throat and announced, “I will be serving in Santiago, Chile!”

After congratulations had been given and treats passed around, Annemarie and I escaped onto the front porch swing.

“What are you thinking about?” she questioned.

I smiled with satisfaction. “My mission, what else? I’m so excited to serve!”

She smiled back, but there was sadness in her eyes. “I’m happy for you.”

“But … what?” I prodded. Only the lazy creaking of the porch swing and crickets chirping in the distance interrupted the silence. My inquiry hung in the air for several moments before she spoke.

“Do you remember when I asked you if your church makes you happy?”

I nodded, smiling regretfully in remembrance of that first time I bore my testimony to her. I had been so unsure of myself, so timid. Now, within a few months, I would be testifying to strangers in broken Spanish.

Annemarie continued, “I want you to know that you’ve proven yourself to be right. You are the most religiously enthusiastic person I’ve ever met. My admiration started that day in ninth grade when you refused that beer, and it’s been growing ever since.”

I stared, dumbfounded. “How come you never told me that before? I’ve always wondered what makes you so apprehensive to talk about religion.”

She frowned in thought. “It makes me sad,” she admitted. “Religion makes you happy, and it makes me sad.”

“Why, Annemarie? That’s not the way Christ would have us feel.”

“I’ll never be able to feel enthusiastic like you about my religion, and I wonder if it’s my fault. It’s not that I haven’t tried. What am I doing wrong? I’m afraid I’ll forever be a failure at faith. So I end up avoiding church altogether. That is why church makes me sad.”

“I am happy for you,” she reaffirmed, smiling shakily. “I just wish I could be like you. Isn’t that what you and all of our friends have been hoping for all these years? That one day I would be a member like all of you?” She winked knowingly.

“Yes!” I replied with a laugh. Then more seriously, I said, “That is what I wanted in the beginning. That was before I understood some things. I don’t want you to be like me at all. I want you to join the Church of Jesus Christ so you can come to know and to be like Him. That’s what my church is all about.”

“Mine, too.”

“Look, please don’t feel that I’m degrading the church you attend in any way, but not all Christian churches contain the fulness of His gospel.”

“And you think that is found in your church?” she asked.

I looked into her dark blue eyes, channeling all the strength and emotion of my soul into bearing witness. “I want you to know that I know The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true and contains the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“How do you know it’s true?” Annemarie challenged. “Can you tell me the exact moment you knew your church was true?”

“No,” I admitted slowly. “I don’t remember an exact moment when I knew. I think somehow I’ve always known it.”

“Lucky you,” Annemarie teased with a smile.

“You can know it too. Ask in faith and God will show you the way.”

“I’ve been wanting to find the way for such a long time,” she sighed wearily. “I don’t know what else I can do.”

Read the Book of Mormon and pray about it,” I said. “If the book is true, the Church is true. It’s that simple.”

“I’m glad that’s your idea of simple!” Annemarie burst out. A moment of indecision flashed across her eyes, and I watched her gradually relent. “Okay, Beth. I’ll do it.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.” She added, “Don’t get your hopes up. Be good out there, Beth. I’ll miss you.”

Two months later, I entered the Missionary Training Center, satisfied with the testimony I had left with my friend back home and excited to testify among my new friends I had yet to meet in South America.

Now after nearly eight years of friendship and six months in the mission field, the letter I had dreamed would come had finally arrived. I stared at the photograph. Then I began to read.

Dear Sister Beth Larsen,

Greetings to my favorite missionary! Are you surprised? I know you thought I was too stubborn for this, but I got baptized. Me, your old knuckleheaded best friend! I kept my promise to you and read the Book of Mormon. So what if it took me five months into your mission before I got around to it? After I started, it didn’t take long before I had questions, so your wonderful parents referred me to two nice young sisters who promised they could help me.

I want to share with you the story of my conversion, and it isn’t long. It’s very simple, just like you said it would be. The Book of Mormon is true, and the Church is true. You told me that you have always known these things. I can now testify the same.

As the sisters spoke, explaining my premortal life and eternity, I realized these were things I already believed. They explained the plan of salvation, the need for an Atonement, and the nature of God. Beth, everything they said sounded so right, almost familiar. I felt these were things I had already known but had never been able to put into words or even remember at times. I guess you could say it was just like getting a long lost letter from home. …

I paused as my eyes misted over. My brother was right! I had learned it many times during the past few months in the mission field, and I felt it deeply within my heart now. As much as my example and prayers for Annemarie may have assisted in fulfilling the Lord’s work, my best friend’s conversion had very little to do with me. Like every conversion, hers was an intensely personal experience that came about miraculously. A loving Father reached down to His contritely seeking child, peeling back the veil just long enough to give her a glimpse of what she already knew.

“Are you okay?” my companion asked with concern as I refolded Annemarie’s letter.

“Yes. I just received an incredible letter,” I smiled, wiping my eyes hastily.

“Who is it from?”

“Just a friend from home. She told me about an amazing message she received. I’ll let you read it.”

I had been trying for years to remind Annemarie of the gospel plan taught long ago, but in the end it was she who reminded me of one important truth. Heavenly Father knew the right timing and circumstances that would help Annemarie come into His light. How could I ever doubt that He was not equally mindful of me? Whenever I feel Him guiding me in important decisions, carefully leading me back, I remember Annemarie. She showed me that whether personal revelations come in ways great or small, they are messages from our Heavenly Father—letters from our eternal home.

Illustrated by Sam Lawlor