Friday, January 29, 2010

My Early Years

Escape Artist

When my children were growing up one of the banes of my life was my inability to keep track of them. They were born with no fear. It didn't matter where we were, they wanted to be somewhere else. If I turned my back for even one second, they were off running to some new adventure. I can't tell you how nerve racking it was or how many times my heart failed me while I frantically searched for a lost child.

Even worse than losing them in public was their ability to escape from their crib. They could climb out of their crib by time they were 18 months old. I remember when Jami was barely two, we found her at 2:00 a.m. watching the snow on T.V. with the volume full blast playing the Star Spangle Banner, after wandering through the house for who knows how long! It was because of our fear for their safety that we ended up using the legendary "harness" tied to the side of the crib to keep our toddlers safely in bed during the night. (The harness became the brunt of many family jokes.)

All this caused my mom great delight and satisfaction!! She gloated over the fact that I was finally getting some of what I deserved.

It's true! It was Karma, for my very first childhood memory (I was probably only 2 1/2 to 3 years old) was figuring out how to escape from my house. At the time we lived in a neighborhood full of children in a suburb of Los Angeles. By time I was two I had learned how to unlock and open the front door so I could go out and play with my siblings and all their neighbor friends. In desperation my mom had Dad install a chain lock at the top of the front door, far beyond my reach. Oh but that didn't stop me. I clearly remember reasoning it out in my 3-year-old brain. All I had to do was push the kitchen chair over to the door, climb up on the chair, which then allowed me to climb up onto the flower window box that was under the front window sill. From there is was an easy step onto the window sill and when I stood on my tiptoes I could reach the chain to unlock the door. For several days my mom was baffled. She couldn't figure out how I was getting out. What a little stinker I was!!!

Around this same time Mom had set up an appointment to have a professional family portrait taken. This was a big reach for my parents to hire a professional. Money was tight and they had to count every penny. They needn't worried. The session never happened. The day before the appointment, I climbed up on the sink and then wiggled my way to the top of the refrigerator so I could reach the cupboard above where Mom hid the treats. Loosing my balance I came tumbling down, face first, splitting open my chin and bruising my face. Let's just say my face was in no condition to be photographed the next day.

Saundra's Dolly

By time I was four I had a "Best Friend". Her name was Saundra Callirusso. It was from her older sister that I had gotten my name Starla. She lived just 3 houses from us. Saundra and I took delight in taking turns playing at one another's houses.

For Saundra's birthday her parents got her a beautiful new baby doll. Oh how I envied Saundra. She would only let me play with her doll at special times, even though I begged everyday to hold her!

One day I went over to see if Saundra could play. I knocked and knocked but no one answered the door. I tried the door knob. To my surprise it opened. I realized they were all gone when I went inside and all the lights were off.

Hummmm...this could be fun.

I first checked out what was in the refrigerator and helped myself to some dried apricots (my favorite treat at Saundra's house). Then I got a flash of inspiration. Saundra wasn't there. I could play with "THE DOLL" as long as I felt like it. I went to her room and there she sat, magnificent! Excitedly I begin playing with her but soon realized it wasn't that fun to play dolls all by myself. That's when I had my next bright idea. I WOULD GIVE DOLLY A BATH!!!! I remember taking her in the bathroom sink and turning on the water. When I put the doll under the water, her clothes went limp and her hair lost all its curl. It finally dawned on me that what I was doing was not such a good idea. I got that scared, guilty feeling in my tummy. Quickly I left the doll on the sink and ran home, hoping that no one would ever find out what I'd done.

Saundra and her family got home later the evening. When they walked in their house, to their horror, the whole main floor was under two inches of water. In my haste to leave I'd left the sink water running, flooding their house. Whoops!!! I'd been found out! Not only was the dolly ruined but so was their carpet.

Believe me when I tell you I didn't go to Saundra's house for a LONG TIME!!!

My Hand-Me-Down Lunch Pail

It was the first week of school. My sister, Heidi, was seven and going to second grade. For a sessy, Mom had gotten her a brand new lunch pail for the new school year. I was thrilled when Heidi offered to let me have her old lunch pail to play with. That morning I'd gotten up, filled the thermos with water and put a whole carrot and piece of bread into my hand-me-down lunch pail. Then I went outside to watch the older kids walking to school. Heidi and Marc had been gone several minutes when a group of kids walked by. Seeing me dressed and carrying my lunch pail they assumed I was going to school and offered to let me walk with them. Sure!!! I felt so "big" when I joined their group heading for the elementary school several blocks away.

When we arrived at school I walked with the group into their classroom. I followed as they put their lunch pails up on a shelf above the coat rack and then took their seats. I remember standing at the front of the class, not knowing where I was supposed to sit. The teacher took one look at me and informed me I was in the wrong classroom and to get out.

Now what was I supposed to do? I walked out in front of the school, figuring I better just go home. But when I looked both directions of the street I realized I had no idea which way was home.

What was I to do?

I reasoned out that at some point in the day, Heidi and Marc were going to have to come out of the school to go home. So I'd just sit on the curb and wait for their school to be over. That made perfect sense to me.

I took my place on the curb and began to wait....and wait....and wait!!!! I'm sure it was only around 30 minutes I waited, but it seemed an eternity. The longer I waited the more I just wanted to go home!!!! I started to cry.

Soon, a woman came out of the house I was sitting in front of and asked me what was wrong. I told her I was lost. She asked my name and my address. I'm assuming I must of known because soon a police car pulled up in front of her house and a nice policeman told me to get in so he could take me home. Oh what relief!!!

I remember it being very exciting to get to ride in a real police car. When we pulled up in front of my house, to my surprise, my mom came frantically running out the front door. She quickly gathered me up in her arms because by this time I was crying. She comforted me by telling me I was home and safe, that I didn't need to be scared. I replied indignantly, "I'm not crying because I'm scared! I'm crying cuz I left my lunch pail at school!!

Monday, January 25, 2010

My Father Sten Hugo Swenson Jr.

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't thank the Lord for the priceless gift of precious parents and the wonderful siblings that I was blessed with. I recognize, especially now that I'm older, what a rare thing it was to have grown up in such love and complete safety. So much of the safety I felt was because of my father. He was the rock, the protector, the provider who, until the day he died, I turned to and relied on to buffer me from the world. I could ALWAYS count on him to be there. He made me feel adored and "special". In return, he only asked to be loved. How could I not love him? He supported and served us til the day he died. Oh how I've missed my daddy.


It was Dad who was always at the center of fun in our family. I was in elementary school when Dad bought our first boat. He was a mechanic who didn't make much money so it was a real sacrifice to splurge on a boat. Our first boat was a royal blue and bright green wooden boat with a small outboard on the back. Even as young as I was I knew how hideous it was. But did we care?! It was in that boat that our family fell in love with skiing, tubing and camping. We built our family around the fun and closeness we felt out on the water all together.

It didn't take long before we had moved up to a bigger, faster boat and with it the beginning of one of our most cherished traditions. Every summer in the following years we'd head out to Bass Lake in the Sierra's of California for our family vacation.

We camped in a tent and Mom cooked on a barbecue or propane stove. This was where Dad treated us girls like we were royalty. As soon as the tent was put up and car unloaded (now that was not such a fun experience with Dad!!) you would find Dad raking a pathway down to the water. He didn't want his girls to get pine needles stuck in their feet. I remember him pounding a nail into one of the pines in our camp spot (now totally illegal) and hanging a large mirror. Under the mirror he'd put together a makeshift basin so we'd all have a spot to get ready. There were even years when he'd troll the lake to find logs or broken parts of docks and drag them to our camp site and make a dock for Mom to be able to get into the boat without getting her feet wet (Mom's fear of water). It was his love language to "do" for us. We were so pampered.

One of my favorite memories was playing with Dad in the lake. Dad always had a collection of over-sized inner tubes he brought from work. One of our favorite games was King of the Mountain (seeing who could stay on the tube, rocking it back and forth, higher and higher, until one of us was thrown off). Dad usually won. Our campfires every night was magic. Other campers must have wondered at our sanity. To this day I've never laughed as hard as I did sitting around the fire listening to Dad and my brothers crack jokes. (Heidi could hold her own with the guys!) No one could match their wit and humor. Oh what fun we had.

It was Dad who taught Jim to love boating and how to ski. It was Dad's boat safety rules that we implemented into our own family. I was never nervous in the water when Dad was at the helm, driving the boat. Dad wasn't known for his patience, except when he was driving the boat and teaching someone how to ski. I remember him out on the water for hours. He was so encouraging and would keep trying as long as the learner was willing to try. Out in the boat his patience was legendary!


After Jim and I got married we were the only ones of my siblings to move out of the area. We moved 10 times in the space of 15 years. I don't know what we would have done without my dad. He and Mom were there helping us with every move with the kids and putting together beds, appliances or whatever needed to be done. While we lived away Dad and Mom would come visit for several days at a time. I would give him a couple hours to visit and catch up, then hand him my "List". It was usually a full page of items that needed to be fixed or something put together. While Mom and I would go look at houses for fun or go shopping, Dad would cheerfully tackle the list. By the time they went home my list would all be crossed off. His language of love was doing for us. And I heard his love loud and clear!!!


The last year and half of Mom's life, she and Dad moved here to Utah. Mom was in the final stages of Alzheimer's and Dad was needing daily help with her. It was so difficult to watch Dad as he slowly lost Mom. He called it his "long goodbye". When Mom died we helped Dad buy a darling condo in a marvelous ward, hoping Dad would get back into life again. To help care for him and so he wouldn't be all alone, Jami and Greg, who were newly-weds, volunteered to move into the finished basement. Dad took the main floor. I will always be so grateful to Jami and Greg for the care and love they extended to him. Dad came to truly love them both.

We soon realized that Dad had no interest in moving on. With Mom's death, he was done. Her illness had broken both his body and his spirit. I fully realized this when Jami informed me of Dad's nightly prayers. Jami had set up a baby monitor in Dad's bedroom so they would be able to hear him upstairs at night if he ever needed anything. Every night Dad would say his prayers out loud. Then he would close his prayer by saying, "Now Joyce you just hold on. I'll be there soon." When I heard that I knew my dad would NOT be starting over.

Soon after Mom's death Dad was diagnosed with both prostate cancer and a aneurysm ready to burst at any time in his brain. Dad fell about a year after Mom's passing, breaking his wrist. Only a few weeks later, he fell again and fractured his pelvis. Then two weeks later Jami found him in the morning partially paralyzed from a stroke. The paramedics were called and Dad was taken to the hospital. They ran tests and confirmed that his aneurysm had started to leak. I stayed all that day with him at the hospital as he was put through numerous tests but that evening I had a Stake Choir rehearsal so Jim came and stayed with him until very late that evening. Jim related later that it had been a sweet and sacred time, lying with him on the bed, reminiscing about his life and the love and pride he had for his family. Dad's last request to Jim was to be sure that his children stay close and take care of one another. He was concerned about his family to the very end.

Early the next morning I received a call from the hospital informing me that Dad had slipped into a coma in the night. After talking to the doctors, we realized that Dad would not be coming back. We called the family who came from Smithfield and Atascadero, California. They descended on that hospital room. For two days all the siblings and most the grandchildren kept vigil over Dad. It ended up being a party, sharing memories and events, laughing at family jokes, singing songs and saying our goodbyes. We knew Dad could hear us so we all were able to express our deep love and appreciation for the countless blessings he'd provided through the years. It is, to this day, a precious, sacred experience I shared with my brothers and sisters.

Dad died on the fourth day of his coma, October 19, 1998. I was privileged to be with him when he passed. It was the first time I'd ever experienced death first hand. I literally felt his spirit leave his body and what was left on that bed was just his earthly tabernacle of clay. My father was gone! It was in that moment that I had to ask myself the ultimate question, "OK Starla, you have always believed in the principle of eternal life. But here it is, right in front of you. Can you still testify that you know it's true? Do you KNOW you will see your father again? And in that moment I knew, because the Spirit bore witness to me, that my daddy had joined Mom, that one day I would see them again, that my relationship and undying love for them was eternal. And oh what joy and gratitude I felt for the sealing ordinances of the temple that made this possible.


I have to admit that there is still a gaping hole in my life with the passing of Dad. He was a big presence that no one can fill. When he died I felt anxiety that I no longer had my protector from the world, my fixer of all things, my greatest fan. It was and is such an empty feeling. But how grateful I am for the confirmation of the spirit that I will see both my parents once again, the hope the gospel brings!

It's been 12 years since my father died. And yet, to this day, every time I see a grey-haired man in Dickie overalls my breath catches, my heart races and I look, hoping in that instant that it's my daddy.

Someday... Oh Daddy... someday!!!


While we were living in San Luis Obispo, Ashlee was given the assignment to write about one of her heroes. She chose her Grandpa Sten. She was only in 7th grade but her essay truly captured the essence of her Grandpa. I've kept it for 17 years and include this as my final tribute to Dad.

"MY GRANDPA STEN" by Ashlee Phillips (written when she was a 13-years-old)

This past Christmas I received a basketball hoop and standard from Santa Claus. The first thing I did after opening my presents was to make a phone call to my grandpa Sten. My grandpa Sten is a short, stocky man who lives in coveralls. That's because he is always working or fixing things for one of his five kids or 25 grandkids.

Everyone in our family knows that there's nothing he can't do or fix. The amazing thing is he's always willing to do it. Night or day he's there to help. Whenever we try to pay him for his work he always says, "All I want is a kiss." I kiss my grandpa a lot!

In the last 15 months we've moved three times. There has not been one time when my grandpa has not been there putting together beds, hanging pictures and hooking up appliances. In the last month he has put up my basketball hoop, fixed hinges on doors, water-proofed our deck, hung a wood chair railing, and installed a water purifier. That's only for our family. Now do you know why he sleeps in his coveralls?

When summer comes my grandpa turns his coveralls in for a bathing suit. Then he heads straight for the lake. When my mom was a young girl my grandparents started going to Bass Lake to go camping and boating for two weeks every summer. That tradition has continued and has now grown to include all their kids and grandkids. It was my grandpa who taught my dad how to drive a ski boat. He's the only one besides my dad that I'll let pull me while skiing. The most fun times we have are when everyone goes into the water and plays on rafts and when we sit around the campfire and listen to my grandpa and uncles tell jokes. We play a lot of Uno while we are camping. It is not a funny game until you play it with my grandpa.

A few years ago my grandpa had surgery and artificial knees were put in. Every day since he lives with constant pain, but he never complains. It has never stopped him. It has just slowed him down.

As you can plainly see, my grandpa is the perfect definition of what a grandpa should be. I love him for what he does for us, but most of all I appreciate and love him for who he is.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lessons from my Mother Part 3

My Rambler and the Flood

One of the benefits of being a teenager who had a mechanic/gas station owner for a father was getting free gas and a car that always ran. The first car I drove after getting my license was a very fast, hot white 1958 Chevy truck (see blog picture). I felt so cool driving around in that truck. I was the envy of every male at my high school. But sadly Dad ended up selling it. To my initial dismay he was able to find a killer deal on a used flesh-toned Rambler. I can't even begin to describe how ugly this car was!!! But eventually I came to love that Rambler. It was one of those "it's so hideous it's cool" kind of cars. Since no one else in the whole world had a car quite like it, everyone knew who was behind the wheel.

That car took great care of me through High School, that is until the winter of "THE FLOOD"! That year in San Luis we had continuous rain for days. Since this rarely happened, the city was ill-prepared for all that excess water. We ended up having enough water running down our streets for us to literally float through the neighborhood. All the kids thought it was a blast.

Before I continue I need to give some background. My mother had a huge phobia. She was not just afraid of water, she was truly petrified of it. When we went camping to Bass Lake every year the deepest Mom would venture into the water, even on the hottest days, would be up to her knees. When we'd go boating, Dad would have to bribe her to set foot onto the boat. Once in a while she'd go for a ride, just because she knew how much it meant to all of us to have her with us. But the whole time her hands would be clinched in fear and as soon as the ride was over, she was always the first one out and on to dry land.

Back to my story; near our high school there was an area of the road that took a big dip before going up the hill to Johnson Ave and on to our home. Even after the majority of flooding had past, there still remained a large lake of water on that part of the road.

It was a Sunday afternoon and we were all driving home from church. I don't know why, but both my parents, Tani and I were riding in the Rambler. When we came to the flooded part of the road I remember my dad making the decision to just keep going. He was sure the water level had receded enough that we would be just fine.

He soon realized he'd miscalculated when water started seeping through the cracks of the doors. That's all it took...Mom took one look at that water coming in and lost it...started screaming that we were all going to drown. This was accompanied by my dad's angry voice telling Mom to calm down and hysterical laughter in the the back seat from Tani and I. Total chaos. The more scared Mom got, the funnier it became and the harder we laughed.

To top it all off, in the middle of the pond the engine on my Rambler sputtered and died. We were stranded!! We had to get out and walk. Oh I wish you could have heard my mom's screams when we opened the door and the water poured in, up to our knees. She was sure we were all goners.

Now picture this: my Rambler with water up to the seats, sitting there flooded, my family dressed in church clothes with Mom's umbrella open to protect her hair from the rain, all of us sopping wet, walking through the pond and rain to dry land. I have often wondered if anyone saw us and what they must have thought. My mom was SO MAD she didn't talk to any of us for the rest of the day. But for us; we're laughing still!!!

We Will Never Forget Mom's:
-Swedish pancakes
-butterfly kisses
-way she could spin her eyes
-cucumber and tomato sandwiches
-Jack and Jill went up the hill
-getting up early to step on snails (usually in her bare feet)
-eating orange peels
-cutting her toenails for .25 cents
-tolerance for all things reptile
-pulling out her grey hairs for a penny each
-place at the lake, sitting in the shade with a novel and sunflower seeds cheering us on
-encouraging eyes, her listening ears
-magic touch of her hands

Submissive to the End

Toward the end of Mom's life when she was still able to speak, Mom shared with me a critical learning. I was crying to her, bitter that she was to be taken from us at such a young age, so not ready to let her go. I asked her if she was angry with the Lord for making her go through this horrible trial. Her answer still rings in my ears. "My life has been FILLED with the sweetest blessings life could afford. It's time I pay my dues. I don't ask the Lord why me. I ask Him and you why not me?. My angel mother; always the example, submissive to the end.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Mother's Final Witness

On June 11, 1997 my mother died from the affects of Alzheimer's disease. I would never have dreamed it possible but by time she passed it was a blessing we were all earnestly praying for.

For the last year of her life Mom moved from San Luis Obispo to Orem to be closer to Tani and I. It had become an overwhelming burden for my dad to care for her by himself. Heidi lived far enough away in Atascadero, that it made it impossible for her to be there everyday. Because I didn't work I knew I'd have more time and space to watch over them daily so we brought them to Utah (causing Heidi's heart to break). Mom had, by this time, lost all ability to speak. She had become increasingly agitated and distraught, continuously pacing and crying with unknown fears. It was an anguishing situation.

We moved Mom and Dad into a lovely Assisted Living Center. To give some relief for my dad, we were able to get Mom enrolled in a Day Care Center for Alzheimer patients. It was only for a couple of hours each day but it allowed my dad some respite and a chance to just be alone. I will always be so grateful to those wonderful angel women who ran the center. They were not of our faith, but never were there more godly women than they.

One day, only a couple weeks before Mom died, I went to be with Mom at the center. I found her especially agitated and upset. To calm her I took her by the arm and started walking around the room. Sometimes it would soothe her if I sang to her. I usually would sing hymns but this day I started singing one of her favorite Primary songs, "I am a Child of God".

As soon as I begin singing Mom abruptly stopped and for the first time in months, looked me squarely in the eye. Then the miracle happened...Mom started to sing, words coming out of her mouth that had not formed words for months, ALL the verses to that beloved song.

"I am a child of God and He has sent me here. Has given me an earthly home with parents kind and dear....
"I am a child of God and so my needs are great. Help me to understand His will before it grows too late...
"I am a child of God, rich blessings are in store. If I but learn to do his will I'll live with him once more
"Lead me, guide me, walk beside me. Help me find the way. Teach me all that I must do to live with Him someday."

When the song was complete Mom's eyes lowered to the ground and she disappeared once again, never to return. But for that brief moment in time I beheld my mother again! And in the singing of that song she was able to witnessed her final testimony to me. I knew she KNEW where she was going in a few short days. Even in her darkest place she was able to find the light of her testimony. She KNEW her Heavenly Father loved her and that Jesus was her personal Savior. She gifted that testimony to me. It was an infinitely beautiful moment in time. And though she never emerged again, it was enough for me.

Lessons from my Mother Part 2


When my parents had been married about 25 years my dad's partner decided he was done working at S & D Mechanic, a gas station/ mechanic shop that Dad owned half interest in. Dale wanted out. Dad was forced into selling his beloved auto shop and coming home.

At the time I was a student at BYU. In the spring of that school year my parents came up to visit and I could tell my mother was very unhappy, something I had never witnessed before. I was finally able to get her alone and asked what was the matter. After some prodding she finally opened up and expressed her frustration at how Dad was home all day and had basically taken over her job of running the home, critiquing how she had done things their whole married life. She was suffocating under his control and very unhappy. I remember feeling, for the first time in my life, nervous and very concerned about my parent's relationship.

In June I returned to San Luis Obispo to work my two jobs to pay for school. It was obvious the instant I got home that something had changed. Mom was once again her content and peaceful self. As soon as I could I cornered her to ask what she had done to get Dad to back off. I will NEVER forget her reply.

She said, "The situation got to a place that was unbearable. I was SO unhappy. One morning I sat down and had a talk with myself. I said, 'Joyce you basically have three options here. First you could divorce him. But I knew that would never be an option. My covenants and my eternal family was worth more to me than any earthly happiness. Second I could stay married but continue to be resentful and unhappy. I knew I couldn't continue feeling that way, not one day longer. Third I could choose to be happy. Starla that was my answer. I chose to be happy!!!" And she was!

Dad never changed. I eventually realized it was his way of taking care of Mom and showing his love. Instead of saying the words, his way was to do. He never did realize how difficult his way of showing love was for Mom. But true to her word, she remained cheerful and happy, even though the situation remained the same until the day she died.

I can't tell you how many times through-out my life I have thought of Mom's example of choosing happiness. At the time it sounded so simplistic. But I'm here to testify that sometimes it truly is as simple as that. I know because I've done it and it works! What an example I had in Mom!


I can never remember a time that I didn't adore my mom. Thankfully I always made sure she knew how I felt. I'm so grateful that I have few regrets around my relationship with Mom. But there is one instance that haunts me to this day.

When Mom was around the age of 62 she started having difficulty doing little things she had always done for herself. We attributed it to Dad's need to do everything FOR her. At the beginning of her illness our family lived in Mission Viejo. Because I wasn't with her all the time I noticed her behavior before my siblings did. By time she was 65, it was apparent to everyone, except Mom and Dad, that Mom had a serious problem. It was obvious what Mom was suffering from.

By time my parents finally went to a doctor, Jim and I had moved our family to Orem, Utah. It was early evening when I got the phone call from Mom and Dad. In a child-like, trembling voice and on the verge of tears, mom shared with me the Doctor's diagnoses; Alzheimer's!!! She started to cry as she told me what the doctor had told her, what she should expect in the near future and that she would eventually die from the disease.

No time for tears from me!!! I needed to be strong for my mom and dad!!! I cut her off and took over. I explained in a logical, firm voice that we all would be there. No one was going to abandon her. We would take good care of need to cry because we would always make sure she would be watched over. I went on and on.

My mom stopped crying and went silent. After reassuring her for several minutes we hung up. I remember being grateful I'd been able to stay emotionally strong and not break down.

It was only after my mom finally passed away from Alzheimer's that I had a spiritual epiphany. It came with the painful conviction, that I had lost an opportunity to truly give something precious to my mother. What was spiritually conveyed to me was that in that phone call moment my mom wasn't needing my assurance. What she truly needed was for me to simply mourn WITH her, to cry WITH her, to grieve WITH her at the terrible loss of any future hopes or dreams. Why couldn't I have let her FEEL what she needed to feel and be deeply sad WITH her. How could have I have missed this?

Looking back I believe I was so into dealing with my own pain and future loss of my mother that I was blind to what SHE needed. In the ensuing years I have prayed to the Lord and silently spoken to my mom many times asking both to forgive me for my lack of compassion, for not "getting it".

I continue to pray that my mother can now see my heart and know how I wish I could have change those minutes. When I next see her, one of the first things out of my mouth will be seeking her forgiveness. Knowing my mom, I won't need to even ask.


Not long after moving to Orem from San Luis Obispo, my friend Linda Bramwell, called me and asked if I'd be interested in being in a production she was going to direct. I knew Linda from doing plays with her in Mission Viejo. She was an Equity actress, VERY talented, and a marvelous director as well. I jumped at the chance to work with her again.

The play was actually a musical that I was unfamiliar with. It was called "Quilters. It's a pioneer story of a mother and her 5 daughters. The whole play surrounds the different types of stitched blocks found in quilts. The stitches in the quilt becomes the metaphor for stitches (traditions, values, love) in our lives that we pass down from one generation to the next. The music was marvelous with an Aaron Copeland/ Americana feel to it. I was asked to play the mother and, blessedly, Jami got to be one of my daughters and had the most beautiful solo in the whole play. I loved Linda and the women I got to act with, I loved the profound story line and I lOVED the music. The experience was a delight from start to finish.

My mom and dad came from California to see the production. I was so excited and anxious for them to see the play. I had always been able to count on them being my biggest fans. But by this time my mom was deep into her Alzheimer's. I remember my deep sadness when, at the close of the play, I realized my mom hadn't been able to follow or enjoy any of it.

It was shortly after finishing the play and my parents going home that I had a precious experience with my husband. It was a grand amen to the message of the play. It happened upon awakening early one morning. Jim and I started talking about Mom and the message of the musical I'd just finished. A line from one of the songs was "Who will count my stitches", basically asking the question who will remember my life. My heart broke and I started to cry. At the time I had 4 teenage daughters who I now realized would never fully experience and benefit from the greatness of my mother's wisdom, learning, all the stitches of her life. It literally broke my heart and I started to sob.

With a sweet tenderness, Jim gathered me in his arms and with love and a conviction that went straight to my heart, softly said, "But Starla they will know her because they know you."

And the spirit whispered to my soul that it was true.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Lessons from my Mother Part 1

My mother: Joyce Elaine Splaine Swenson

From my earliest memory my mother was always my dearest friend. Mom had the ability to create a place of safety and love for any who ventured into her arms of influence. When I was with her I felt safe, deeply heard, and totally adored. She gave me the confidence to try anything because she believed so strongly in me. She was the first person I turned to share any joy or sadness and she would rejoice or cry WITH me. My greatest desire growing up was to NEVER disappoint my mom. So many of my decisions to do what was right were because I trusted in the "words" of my mother. It was her love and total trust in me that gave me the power to choose what was right and withstand the pressure of non-member friends, until I got my own personal testimony. Without question, my mother was the greatest influence for good in my life!

Exquisite Pain...Exquisite Joy

A poignant experience from my early youth; when we moved from Los Angeles to Tulare, California I was 5 years old. Our family was thrilled to be there. It was in the San Joaquin Valley and we lived surrounded by farmland and cotton fields. It was a short drive to rivers and lakes. It had irrigation ditches around almost every field; a perfect combination for summer fun.

In Kindergarten I met a boy in my class whose name was Eric Sturgeon. We became instant friends. Not so much because of his glowing personality, but because he lived on a chicken farm and had his OWN HORSE!!! Did it get any better that this? We spent hours playing army and make believe at the chicken farm. Best of all, whenever possible, we would ride his old, gentle, bay horse.

One day in the middle of summer it was SO HOT. In Tulare it frequently got above 100 degrees. Eric, his younger brother Dick and I decided to go swimming in the irrigation ditch. It was thick with mud and debris. When we emerged from the ditch you couldn't even see who we were hidden under all the mud. Eric's mom took one look at us and told us to strip off our clothes and hose ourselves down or we weren't getting near the house. So that's what we did. It ended up being a hilarious game; all three of our naked bodies running around to avoid getting squirted by the freezing cold hose water.

I never even thought about it again for about a year until my oldest brother, a typical bratty 12-year-old, was working banding his newspapers for his paper route when he made an insinuating comment to me about Eric and I being naked together. First it shocked me. I'd never even thought about it that way. Then I was SO EMBARRASSED! I felt my whole body washed in shame and immediately my first thought was how mortified I would be if Mom ever found out.

That planted seed of shame continued to grow in the secret places of my heart. It came to a point by time I was seven, that every night in my prayers I would beg Father to forgive me. I wasn't quite sure what I'd done, but Marc had let me know how 'bad" I was. I lived in mortal fear that he would get mad at me and then get even by telling my parents what I had done. So for months I tried to avoid Marc. I can even remember every night in bed counting the weeks until I got baptized, figuring I would finally be washed clean.

One night, a few months before my eight birthday I was lying in bed when I heard my brother tell my mom that I had been naked with Eric. Oh what shame I felt!!! I wanted to disappear, cease to exist, so I wouldn't have to face my mom. In a moment I heard my door open and my mother slip in to sit on my bedside. In a quiet voice she asked me what had happen. I started to cry and then blurted out the whole story in one breath... It was as if I had lanced an infection; the relief was physical and immediate!

There. Now she finally knows.

Quietly my mom gathered me in her arms and told me there was nothing I needed to be ashamed about. We had done nothing wrong. Can I even begin to express the joy I felt and the HUGE weight that was lifted off my small shoulders. There was instant peace. And oh the overwhelming love I felt for my mother who had just rescued me from my shame and redeemed my soul. For the first time in months my sleep was undisturbed.

It was later, when I first read Alma the Younger's account in the Book of Mormon of being forgiven for all his sins, that I remembered this experience as a child. I realized, metaphorically, that I, too, had experienced the exquisite pain of sin and I had tasted the exquisite joy that comes in being redeemed from that sin. As I got older I appropriately was able to put my sins and afflictions at the feet of the Savior. But oh that first sin of my was put into the hands of my angel mother.

My mom was quiet and unassuming (unlike me!). She was one of the only people I've ever known that simply had no guile. She never made a fuss but just quietly went around doing good. She held every major calling in church; Ward and Stake Relief Society President, Young Women's President, Primary President. It was in her callings that those women that served with her got to know and see what her family already knew. She was a precious jewel! They became her life long friends who watched over her in her final illness of Alzheimer's.

A Chance to Say Yes

I remember watching her, as a teenager, serving as Relief Society President call women to help take in dinners for a needy family in our ward. The women she was calling were ones that I knew would turn her down. After watching her go through a list of several names I finally I asked her why she would bother calling them, knowing what their answer would be to her request. Her reply was vintage Mom, "I always call them first. I want to give them the opportunity to say YES". That lesson I've continue to implement in my callings to this day.

The first time my mom saw Jim it was her comment about what a cute red-head boy he was that made me look twice at him. It took only minutes of being with my mom before Jim was smitten and quietly slipped into her arms of safety, never to leave. She saw all that was good and great in Jim. She loved him from the beginning, unconditionally, and gave him the ultimate gift in his life; an empathetic listening ear and a place to find peace. In turn Jim loved her as much as he loved me; with all his heart.

Grandmothering My Children

Even after we married, my mom continued to be my dearest woman friend (Jim now shared the title with her of "best friend"). Some of my most precious memories were with her by my side at the birth of my babies. I still vividly remember my mom standing at the sink and showing me how to safely bathe my first baby and how to wrap the blanket so she would feel snug and secure. I felt so inadequate and overwhelmed. I was so grateful to have an "expert" there to show me how. She was emotionally wired to be a mother. It was the most natural thing for her. She made it look easy. Having her there took away my fears. I remember the intense joy of watching her hold my babies. Oh how she loved each one of them. With each new birth I became more grateful, wondering how other young moms could ever bear a child without having MY mom's help. She would come and just quietly take over the mothering of my older children, allowing me to shower my new baby with all my undivided love and attention. What a gift!

Oh how my children loved their grandma. They felt the same unconditional love and safety that we had felt our whole lives. She never had to pull them in. They simply gravitated to her like sunflowers follow the sun. She never was without one or two of them on her lap. When my mother died, my sisters and I, along with Jami and Tani (her two oldest endowed granddaughters) dressed her for burial. I’ll never forget the sight of Jami's bowed head over my mother's hands as she covered those worn and blemished hands with makeup and with her tears. Jami told us how dear those hands were to her. She had felt the Master’s love in the kindness of my mother’s gentle hands.

Mother's Day Talk "1991"

While raising my children there were many years I struggled with the feelings of inadequacy because I couldn't mother like my mom. For me she had always been the epitome of what a perfect mother should look like and I didn’t match up! It was the greatest source of discouragement in my life. Then a couple months before I turned 40 I was asked to give a Mother’s Day talk in sacrament meeting. The timing couldn’t have been worse. It was at the height of my discouragement. How in the world could I stand up and talk to our ward about what a mother should be? I came so close to saying no. How eternally grateful I am that I didn’t refuse. It ended up being one of the greatest epiphanies of my life. I offer up a summary from notes of the talk I gave on Mother’s Day 1991.

I had the most enviable and remarkable experience growing up, of coming home from school to an adoring mom, telling her all my news of the day and then walking through my house, out the back door, up the steps into my grandma’s back door to repeat the news to the eager ears of my grandmother. My whole growing up life I was surrounded by an abundance of love, nurturing and support.

As far back as I can remember I thought my mother was perfect. She was the epitome of the ideal mom. All I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a mother just like her. Can you imagine my utter surprise as I grew and had children of my own that, as a mother, I was nothing like my mom?

Where my mom was slow to speak, I was quick to respond. Where she was quiet and reserved, I was noisy and extroverted. Where she made nothing a big deal, everything was a big deal when I did it. She was steady. I was enthusiastic. She had unending patience. Mine definitely ENDED!!!

This realization caused me great discouragement, even despair.

I’m so grateful for this talk. It has caused me to ponder and I’ve had some insights that have allowed me to see more clearly that I would like to share.

Two experiences: The first experience was when we moved to Centerville Utah. I’d never lived in wards that were made up of all close neighbors. Our ward was filled with fine, testimony-filled women who were anxiously engaged in doing good. Yet I was blown away at the amount of depression among them. It baffled me! As I served with them and came to know them more intimately I realized a huge portion of their discouragement came from them comparing other’s best public behavior to their own worst private behavior. It was such a disservice to themselves and completely skewed view.

The second experience came while recently reading the book “Mothers of the Prophets”. What interested me most was how diversified their backgrounds were and what different personalities each of the mothers had. They brought their own unique way to mothering and approaching life’s situations. But there was the same consistent golden thread that ran through each of their lives. Every one of them had total dedication to their family and commitment to teaching them the principles of the gospel. How they did that, well that was individual to them.

As my mother related in her talk previous to mine, I had a great grandmother who instilled in her children, specifically my grandmother, a love for the gospel and a desire to serve. My grandmother taught it to Mom and she passed it on to me. It is my stewardship, in this glorious line of Motherhood, to now pass it on to my own children---and on it goes—the creation of an unbroken eternal family. BUT HOW I DO THIS HAS TO BE LEFT UP TO ME!

This is what I’ve just recently come to know—the Lord entrusted me to my mother because she had the very keys to unlock my soul. She was exactly what I needed. To my great surprise I’ve come to realize that I’ve been entrusted with my own special spirits and chosen to be their mother because of my individual talents and abilities, what I can bring. I needed my mother and my children need ME!!! Who would have imagined?

This month in Guidepost Magazine there was an article on Motherhood. The author was asked by a friend if she should have a child. The author said she contained her natural enthusiasm and simply replied, “It will change your life.” The author reflected in the article how much deeper that change is than anyone could imagine. She talked about how her heart was now totally vulnerable, how she had become a she-bear in her desire to protect, how logic becomes illogically, always second guessing decision. She realized it was the first time in her life that she was totally selfless and that her child’s accomplishments meant more than her own. It gave her a added and deeper bond to other women who shared a mother’s heart. She closed expressing the joy that came at trivial times that was so great it literally hurt.

For me it’s been that and so much more. Only in acting so completely with Heavenly Father can we experience this kind of growth- in our children but mostly in ourselves. Motherhood, for me, has been the great magnifier. It’s magnified my faults- brought them to stand right before my face and made me attend to and repent of them. It has offered me my greatest lessons in humility and complete recognition of my dependence on the Lord’s guidance. But it has also magnified my spirit by teaching me the greatest lessons in mortality that could be learned in no other way.

Finally, at almost forty, I am starting to believe my mom when she tells me she’s not perfect. But Mom, for the child I was growing up, you were PERFECT. You taught me to love you and Dad, to love my brothers and sisters, to love the church. But most important, you taught me to love and trust in my Savior, Jesus Christ.

So Mom that is what I now must do, in my own unique way. I must pass on that legacy to my own children, not despairing because it’s not your way, but rejoicing in the gifts and talents the Lord’s given to me; doing it the way I must. This I can do!

(Lessons from my Mother to continue)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


This past Christmas Jim and I received a most memorable gift but it came with a giant, very intimidating hook. Ashlee organized and presented a blog site for Jim and I, a place for us to start writing our "stories" for our posterity. A year ago I would have dismissed the idea as too time consuming and unnecessary. I've never been inclined to write things down because it's been so much easier to just tell it. But In the past months both Jim and I have come to have such an appreciation for blogs because of how much we've been touched by Ashlee and Bri's consistent blogging. It's allowed us to be intrinsically involved in the lives of our children and grandchildren who live far away. It's truly been MAGICAL. We are hooked.

Since receiving this challenge at Christmas, almost every morning I've awoken to thinking about what experiences need to be recorded. I've got to say it's very overwhelming. Jim and I have always been story tellers. That's how we've taught. Benchmarks and crossroads have always had attendant stories attached. Verbal communication comes very easy to all of us in our family. We are such talkers!!! Jim and I have shared our life stories with our children all along the way. But since the death of my parents and Jim's dad I have come to realize how many things MY children will never know about their grandparents; people who were worth knowing and emulating and who were totally invested in our children's lives. But sadly, most of their stories have been lost with their passing. This realization has made it apparent that this record, which will hopefully be enjoyed by our children, needs to be written for our grandchildren and those that follow.

The Lord has blessed Jim and I with experiences that have been sacred, life-altering, filled with his mercy and love, revelatory, tender, so fun, hilarious, and then those experiences that made us stretch further and dig deeper than we ever thought possible and still survive. Through it all we have seen and acknowledged the Lord's hand in our lives, never doubting his love and mercy extended to us daily.

I want this record to proclaim to all of our posterity here now and those that will come in the future, that we testify and witness that our lives have been filled with peace, guidance, and an assurance of the love of our Father in Heaven and His Son. With every day that passes that assurance grows and is made more sure by the things we have and continue to experience. We love Him and and know He loves us. Jesus is our personal Savior, our King. We trust in His power to save not only us, but each one of you who we love with all our hearts. If this memoir can strengthen the faith or give hope to just one of you then it will be worth every second invested in writing it. No empty chairs in heaven! That is my mother-heart's desire.

So we begin. It is our sessy to each of you, our posterity, sent with love and a deep gratitude that you are all a part of our lives now and forever. And in the doing of it I pray the Lord will see recorded here on earth and eternally in my heart, the gratitude I feel for the richness of my life that I've been able to share with my sweetheart and each one of you.