Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Helen Lee Goates: A Retrospective at 85

Lee Family (l to r) Fern, Helen, Maurine, Harold
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.  It's also the anniversary of my mother's 85th birthday.  She passed away in April, 2000.  She was 74 years old, and we celebrated a Thanksgiving Day birthday at her home in 1999, where she was surrounded by family.  We held her funeral the day before Easter, 2000.  Flowers were blooming, spring was in the air, and the promise of life's renewal was everywhere present. 

Since then, I've been gently cajoled several times to write something in tribute to her life.  I've deferred far too long.  Today seems like a good time to tickle the keyboard of my laptop and reminisce a bit.  Bear with me, please.

Mom was the second daughter of Harold B. Lee and Fern Lucinda Tanner Lee.  She was born on November 25, 1925.  They had two daughters and Auntie Mar was the elder of the two.  As a result they were a close family.  Mom and Auntie Mar learned how to play the violin and piano respectively, and during the years they grew up were constantly sharing their talents with others.  They played together in every single Mormon chapel in Salt Lake City in those years.

My memories of my childhood begin and end with our shared times with the Wilkins cousins.  It seems every holiday was spent with them.  Those two sisters were inseparable and so were we as their children.  They lived in Provo, we lived in Salt Lake.  The BYUtah rivalry was played out in backyards and driveways with hoops in both cities in every sport as we grew up.  It was mostly innocent fun, not nearly as "life and death" as it seems to be nowadays.  The saddest time of all was the parting -- we begged for "trading cousins" every time.

My mother was an exceptional homemaker.  I'm not certain how the divine plan worked the way it did.  These two exceptional mothers, daughters of a prophet, were saddled with eight boys among them and only two daughters -- one for each.  That they patiently bore our schemes and antics as boys is remarkable, since neither had much experience with boys until we came along.  Jane and Martsy, however, became the embodiment of their respective mothers.  They were the leaven in the lumps of clay -- the older and younger brothers who tormented them.  We might justly take at least some credit for the way they both turned out.  They are angels, polished and burnished in the rough and tumble of obnoxious brothers, no doubt.

Mom was resigned at some point, I suppose, to the need for help around the house.  As her oldest son, I was shown the finer points of homemaking.  That included washing windows, scrubbing floors, cleaning toilet bowls, sinks, bathtubs and showers, vacuuming and even ironing sheets!  Her philosphy, instilled within me at an early age was to always leave things better than I found them.  That carried over into my work in my career and the Church, and even when I was in airplane restrooms.  I always heard that little voice, "Leave it better than you found it," which included cleaning the basin and the small counter so it would be better for the next person.  Back in the day before "permapress" was invented she had a roller iron contraption and taught me how to iron the bedsheets by feeding them into the jaws of the hot iron pressed against the roller, controlled by foot pedals and hand controls.  It was an interesting invention to have to master, but we boys did it in turn.  Taking the wrinkles out with that flat iron gave one the sense of accomplishment and measurable improvement.  It was a lifelong lesson in satisfaction for having done something to improve the way I found it.

We had a "Behavior Record" that was posted on a prominent cupboard in the kitchen for all to see.  "Good marks" were scored at the top of the list, moving down -- 1 through 10 -- each week.  A brief description was written by Mom.  "Bad marks" were scored from the bottom up, blacking out the numbers and subtracting a penny for each "bad mark" registered.  That's how the allowances were paid, and of course, because Mom was the sole adjudicator of what was right and wrong in our home during the day, Dad was able to ascertain by a quick glance at the "scorecard" how well his sons were treating their mother and their siblings.  It wasn't always a pretty picture.

At home night on Monday evening the pennies were counted out.  For extra good behavior noted during the week a subjective star was awarded beside the measured good work, and sometimes for extra, extra good behavior two stars were awarded.  In the early stages the stars were worth nickels.  It was good to be good in our house!  As inflation ravaged the assumptions through the years, the stakes increased from pennies to nickels to dimes and quarters.  Remember, a Three Musketeers candy bar was only 5 cents!  I remember some adults talking about the end of the world when the price of candy bars got bumped to 10 cents!  Tithing lessons were taught early and often, and only the brightest, shiniest pennies were fit for tithing.

I loved reading with Mom at night.  We had a tradition called "Night up with Mother."  That meant in rotation one child got to stay up later than the other siblings and read with Mom.  She was a reading advocate when reading just wasn't that cool and there weren't any contests at school.  We read the classics.  She had a collection of books from which we read, including the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer (among others) that remain among my treasured memories with her.  Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, Robert Frost, even Mary Mapes and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) made the "play list."  The theater of the mind, as a result, is still more visual and valid to me than the movie or television screen, even though I was a child of the sixties raised on TV.

Perhaps my favorite part of the hot summer days was "Quiet Time," another Helen Lee Goates tradition.  She passed it off as a necessity to somehow stop the spread of polio.  I've never seen any authentication for that imperative medical prophylactic, but somehow she sold it to us as valid.  At any rate, we were called home in the heat of the day to pick up a book of our choosing and spend an hour in the shade reading.  I loved it.  I learned to love reading because of my Mother's invitations.

Mom was the perfect "ying" to Dad's "yang."  They complemented each other well.  Dad was the consummate hospital administrator and Church leader, gone from home a lot during those years, while Mom was the vigilant stay-at-home Mom -- always on scene and ever-present in our lives.  I became, she told me later, her confidant when Dad wasn't there to discuss whatever was troubling her that day.  It may be the origins of cooking up sibling strategies to keep two younger brothers in line, as she enlisted my support for her mothering.  I hope by now they've both forgiven my zeal for that assignment.  Before automatic dishwashers were in vogue, we would often do the dishes together -- she washed and I dried and we talked.  I'm not certain I had much wisdom to impart, but she told me years later what a good listener I had become.  If it's true, I learned it from Mom.  Once the remodeling of the kitchen was accomplished, the dishwasher replaced me and the long talks over dishes ended.

I remember lessons at the ironing board.  We ironed our own shirts and Levis -- yeah, you heard me -- Levis!  We used to put them on "pant stretchers" after washing them, then ironed out the wrinkles and put a crease in them.  Are you kidding me?  I swear it's all true!  She stayed up with me teaching me how to darn socks before I left for England on my mission, certainly a lost art today.  When I got to the mission field I was well-trained in all the necessary survival skills.  Everything she taught me was put to use.  Laundry was always a big item at our house, and learning how to do it was a necessity.  Folding clothes and putting them away were also part of the weekly rituals.  Looking back now, I realize I was raised as the daughter she never had to begin her mothering years.

President Boyd K. Packer
 No account of my relationship with my Mother would be complete without recalling the "apricot story."  I even got in on all the fruit bottling my Mother did in the fall.  President Packer in Teach Ye Diligently reminded us of how memorable the lesson was as a result of the story President Lee told about one of his daughters (Helen) and one of her sons (yours truly).  He described the power of the story this way:

For example, take the expression "everyone loves a story," and you may see what I mean. If you have a point to put across and can illustrate it with a story, all can be taught. If you tell it in simple terms, a youngster can understand it; at the same time the oldest person may draw a great lesson from it. That is one of the reasons the Lord taught in parables. By so doing, He was teaching everybody at once, but not all of them the same lesson.

Some time ago in a meeting the Brethren were discussing motion pictures, specifically those that would strengthen the family. Someone mentioned one featuring President Harold B. Lee. "Which one?" someone asked. "There were many produced in which he appeared." One of the Brethren identified it simply by saying, "You know, the one about apricots."

Everyone nodded. That identified the film from all of the others. Why? Because in it President Lee had told an incident about his daughter canning apricots. Not wanting to be interrupted, she had almost put off her little boys who wanted help with their prayers. "But, Mommy, what is more important," one of them had asked, "prayers or apricots?"

In that film President Lee had lectured forcefully on strengthening the home, but the film is remembered as the "apricot" film. We may have missed other things, but we all got that message. Each of us was alike in remembering that.  (Boyd K. Packer, Teach Ye Diligently, 124-25).

Thankfully, the more feminine part of my nature was supplanted with the blessed arrival of a cherished daughter!  All that "girlie stuff" programming gradually gave way once Jane finally arrived.  "Elizabeth Jane," she named her -- after Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain.  It was during the 50s, and the royal family was greatly admired and held up as role models in America.  I was routinely reminded of my mother's affinity for the Queen and Prince Charles, since they had been pregnant with each of us at the same time.  My mother was heartbroken when news of his antics spread a few years ago.  She anguished for the Queen.  But the monarchy survived apparently, as new hope arises in the announcement of Prince William's engagement and his logical succession to the throne someday when Queen Elizabeth passes.  That has to tell you something about how long the Queen has been on the throne of England!

Mom was a role model among women.  They loved her for her example of righteous and concecrated motherhood and womanhood.  She was a leader among her peers, serving as the Relief Society president twice in the Federal Heights Ward, then on the General Board (twice) later in life.  After that assignment concluded she was surprised by a call to serve late in life as the stake Young Women's President.  When the call came to her, she asked, "Don't you mean Relief Society?" because that was all she had ever known.  She was assured they hadn't made a mistake and she served for three years, seeking to "spiritualize" the young women in her stake.

When she contracted ovarian cancer, she quickly arranged a dinner for her children and their companions at her home.  The diagnosis hadn't been announced, but she had a premonition something wasn't quite right.  When the diagnosis was confirmed, she was trying to pull her family back together again.  We had a three-and-one-half year protracted farewell with her.  Major surgeries and chemotherapy extended her life.  She did all she could to heal the inevitable rifts among us.  We learned to love and forgive one another because of her example.  One by one on her death bed we spent time as she quietly gave her final counsel to each.

I love my Mother.  I continue to feel her influence.  She had a way with me, and she took full advantage.  Whenever I was tempted to lie to her, she would take my face in her gentle hands and say firmly but gently, "Now David, look me in the eyes and tell me the truth."  She was the perfect combination of velvet and steel.  I couldn't ever get away with anything, it seemed.  She could pierce through my eyes into my very soul.  Nothing escaped her.  I realize now it was the power of a righteous life that aided her.  Discernment came easily to her.  She was on familiar terms with her Father in Heaven.  Her testimony of her Savior was unwavering.  Her influence, her words, her gentle touch and her inspiration continue to affect me.  I am confident there is nothing in my life of which she is unaware.  She continues to minister among us.

President Thomas S. Monson
So on the eve of this next Thanksgiving Day, falling as it does on her birthday once again, I pause to give thanks for my beloved Mother, Helen Lee Goates.  On the back of her funeral program we reprinted a letter she had written for the time capsule that was sealed in 1980.  President Thomas S. Monson quoted from that letter in a talk titled, "If Ye Are Prepared Ye Shall Not Fear," when he beautifully described her passing at a General Relief Society meeting in 2004, in these words:

As I conclude my remarks, may I share with you an experience of several years ago which depicted the strength of you dear sisters in Relief Society.

During 1980, the sesquicentennial year of the organization of the Church, each member of the Relief Society general board was asked to write a personal letter to the sisters of the Church in the year 2030 — 50 years hence. The following is an excerpt from the letter written by Sister Helen Lee Goates:

“Our world of 1980 is filled with uncertainty, but I am determined to live each day with faith and not fear, to trust the Lord and to follow the counsel of our prophet today. I know that God lives, and I love Him with all my soul. I am so grateful that the gospel was restored to the earth 150 years ago and that I can enjoy the blessings of membership in this great Church. I am grateful for the priesthood of God, having felt its power throughout my life.

“I am at peace in my world and pray that you may be sustained in yours by firm testimonies and unwavering convictions of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Helen Lee Goates passed away in April of the year 2000. Shortly before her impending death from cancer, Sister Monson and I visited with her and her husband and family. She appeared calm and at peace. She told us she was prepared to go and looked forward to seeing once again her parents and other loved ones who had preceded her. In her life Sister Goates exemplified the nobility of Latter-day Saint women. In her passing she personified your theme: “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear.”

She was well prepared for her death when she quietly slipped away.  I pray it might be said of me and all of us.


  1. Thank you for writing this, Uncle Dave. I wanted so badly to be up in Salt Lake for the get-together tonight. Reading this made me feel like there was no distance at all! I appreciate so much that I was able to read your words, remember her sweet ways, and learn more about her than I knew before. I miss her so much but I do feel her presence often. Love you! :)


  2. I learned some new things as well. Beautiful tribute, dad. Love you and wish we could have stayed to see the extended Goates clan as well!

  3. Your mom was always so kind to us missionaries in the California Arcadia Mission. Truely a great example.