Family photo
Maurine Marx Hughes was Stacie Duce's visiting teaching companion who served in the same calling in 1941 that Stacie Duce currently has.

Like most visiting teaching companionships in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we were friends by assignment and became sisters through service. Although in different stages of life, we connected through common experiences and shared goals to watch over three other sisters’ needs — emotional, physical and spiritual.

I’ve learned much from my partner’s wisdom and relished her never-ending compliments — especially when it came to my calling. She similarly served as the first counselor in our ward’s Relief Society — in 1941.

At 96 years old, my visiting teaching companion left me this week to be with her eternal companion — one she’s been without for several decades. We knew our time together would come to an end someday, but she had several centenarians in her family tree so I frequently encouraged her to continue the tradition.

Maurine Marx Hughes was born in our small town and never left. Her father was a professional baseball player recruited to play in Montana, and he settled in the Bitterroot Valley. Maurine’s pioneering parents were spiritual giants and accepted the assignment from the president of the area’s LDS mission to establish a Sunday School in 1911. Exactly 100 years ago, her mother was called as our first Relief Society president in our valley and held the first meeting in her home.

I’ve read that many of the original members of the Nauvoo Relief Society, such as Eliza R. Snow, lived to a very old age with assumptions that the Lord extended their lives so they could teach and model righteous living to younger generations while the church was growing. I think the same could be said for our sweet Maurine.

Whenever we visited sisters together, she insisted on teaching the lesson and sharing gospel principles with boldness and fervor. She wasn’t afraid to ask why they were struggling to attend church and encouraged them be more faithful.

Our treks to their homes were an undeniable act of faith that spoke volumes.

On our visiting days, I always drove my car to the side door of the home her husband built for her. She was a serious athlete as a teenager and those developed muscles served her well for almost a century — even getting in and out of my car. Seat belts, on the other hand, were superfluous and entirely frustrating for her.

Her incredulous son would roll his eyes at our attempts to travel about as if it were no big deal. He put his foot down when he learned about the steep stairs involved in one sister’s home, so we developed more creative ways to see her.

One time, we ordered lunch to go from a bakery managed by one of our assigned sisters who wouldn’t let us see her any other way. We picked up another sister and then parked at the office where the third woman worked. She ran out during her lunch break for a quick meal and spiritual thought. Maurine talked for months about the efficiency of that day and how strange it was for her to eat lunch in a car equipped with a foldout tray and cup holder.

“To think, we ate our lunch in the car,” she said more than once. “I’ve never in my life done that.”

For years, we’ve visited a sister’s home with a covered porch nestled in a pine tree forest. In the summer, we’d drink lemonade as we sat surrounded by flowering pots, listening to birds and watching the deer. Often, those were the only moments of the month I sat still for more than five minutes.

On another creative day of visiting teaching, I brought our sisters and milkshakes to Maurine. We found her sitting on her well-designed deck enamored by her beautiful mountains — a vista she claimed because it fueled her soul.

While her words were always kind and generous, she had undeniable sass. More than once at the end of our phone conversations, I would stay on the line to hear her honest reactions hollered to her son as she shuffled her way back to the phone’s countertop receiver.

“I can’t believe what she wants me to do now,” she would say. “Who does she think I am?”

Over the years, the oversized poster of Michael Jordan taped to her bedroom door was replaced with one of LeBron James. We could visit anytime, except during NBA games. She was a diehard fan who wasn’t happy about the Warriors' playoff wins and was thrilled with LeBron’s redemptive championship.

She played basketball in high school and remained furious about the cancellation of her senior season, which had state championship potential. School officials worried the sport correlated with several miscarriages endured by graduated players, but she was not convinced.

In perfect retaliation to the injustice, she raised children who were competitive athletes and encouraged generations of youths in their sports aspirations and spiritual quests.

At a recent funeral in our ward, a visiting daughter of the deceased who has long left the LDS faith asked us to deliver one of the large flower bouquets to Maurine. She remembered Maurine was the only person who attended her graduation party and gave her a pair of earrings she still owns more than 30 years later.

Generations of trick-or-treaters also swarmed the Hughes’ porch for fresh-pressed cider and homemade doughnuts. Our Scouts picked apples and pressed them in her vintage wooden press just last October. I doubt I’ll ever drink apple cider without thinking of her family.

Simple kind gestures, sincere compliments and fierce allegiance to her church and NBA heroes were the secrets to her long life. Oh, and don’t forget the cream puffs. Her mother made cream puffs that she craved ‘til her last days.

I always thought I was the best friend on earth when I brought her some homemade soup and a pastry. I only learned last week that she hated the dark chocolate ganache they spread on top.

“It’s bitter like choke cherries straight from the tree,” her son harped during my last visit to their home. Since then, I intended to make my own batch of cream puffs with milk chocolate on top. The sad part is I never quite made that happen, since the recipe seemed daunting.

On New Year’s Day, our Relief Society presidency was asked to speak in sacrament meeting. Maurine must have known before I did because she gave me a 60-year-old scrapbook of the history of the Relief Society in our area. In it, her mother’s sweet testimony was recorded:

“(Relief Society) has been a means of making my life much happier as a wife and mother, and given me a great joy in rearing my children in the light of the gospel. Prayer has been the most wonderful solace to me for many years — to know that in all things, I can go to my Father in Heaven, who hears and answers prayer. I ask God to bless the Relief Society and may the sisters always have the love for each other that is so important.”

Thankfully, Maurine was an obedient daughter, and our sisters will be forever blessed by her family’s loving legacy of service.

Stacie Lloyd Duce is a columnist and magazine editor featured regularly in several Montana and Utah publications. Email: duceswild7@gmail.com