It was easy to be a little in awe of Joseph Fielding Smith.
My mother, a new convert from Illinois, married Preston Evans, one of Jessie’s nephews, in 1941. This was just three years after Jessie Evans became the wife of Joseph Fielding Smith. His second wife, Ethel, had died in 1937. Jessie, who sang at Ethel’s funeral, had followed the counsel of her mother, her patriarchal blessing and her own prayers, by turning down a prestigious place in the Metropolitan Opera to use her gifts for the good of the kingdom. When then-Elder Smith proposed, she must have thought in wonder of the promise given her that she would be blessed.
Joseph Fielding took my shy, uncertain mother under his wing and made her feel welcome. He was a busy, important man with a large family of his own, but he occasionally came to dinner at my mother’s modest house. He talked with her and encouraged her. One day, he stood perusing the contents of her modest bookcase — which contained volumes written by himself as well as other general authorities. He reached over and picked up the scriptures, then held them out to her, saying, “All the rest of the books you have here are well and good, but they’re merely the opinions of men. It is this book that you need to be reading.”
Children sensed things beyond the stern exterior. At family picnics the little ones would always crawl up on Joseph Fielding’s knee. He would sing snatches of songs under his breath, and let them play with his watch and chain.
When I was 10 and 11, my girlfriend and I would take the bus from Rose Park to the Eagle Gate apartment where Joseph Fielding and Jessie lived in downtown Salt Lake — an inner apartment with a screen door and an inviting welcome mat! We would sit and chat with Aunt Jessie, and when Uncle Joseph came home from the Church Office Building just down the street, he would walk up behind Jessie’s chair, put his hands on her shoulders, lean over to kiss her cheek, and say, “How are you, young lady?”
Always the same words, always the same tenderness. He would greet her before greeting anyone else in the room.
In her early 90s, my great-grandma left the adobe house that had been her home for more than 70 years, and went to live with Joseph Fielding and her daughter, Jessie. Occasionally the longed-for phone call would come: “Could Susan spend the evening with Great-Grandma while Uncle Joseph and I go to a meeting?”
A thrill would run all through me; I was a churning mixture of eagerness and trepidation. Joseph Fielding did intimidate me, and I was awkward carrying on conversation with him, or trying to answer the kindly questions he asked.
At the end of one such evening, just before I heard their voices in the hall, Great-Grandma gave me a whole, two-sided popsicle to eat. With a tooth out in the front, I had trouble eating very quickly, and I wished I could put the wretched thing in the sink or garbage and be done with it. Instead, we three walked to the underground parking, got into the long, pristine car and started driving toward my house. I licked and sucked the cold popsicle with a vengeance, but my worst nightmare came true: the melting pieces came loose and one whole side slid past my grasping fingers and planted itself on the seat! I was mortified. Blinking back tears, I stuttered out the most heart-felt apology.
Joseph Fielding patted my arm. His voice was as kind and reassuring as his eyes. “Don’t distress yourself,” he soothed, “it is of no matter, no matter at all.”
Amazingly, I was comforted. I knew he meant what he said; that his concern was for me, and that it was real.
When Great-Grandma died in 1957, I was devastated. I had walked the block and a half to her home very often, even when I was very small, settling down into the child’s rocker with her black cat, Puddy, curled up in my lap. I had heard her tell of leaving Scotland with her mother and sister by stealth in the night, of standing on a box beside the great steering wheel of the ship and singing to the captain as they crossed from Liverpool to the country where Zion awaited them, of burying her first little daughter, and of the vision she experienced when she had been ill to the point of death.
We attended her funeral, then the dedication of her grave in the Salt Lake Cemetery, where Jessie put her arms around me and wept like a child.
Later that day Joseph Fielding drew us girls together and told us about her death. He did not leave this gentle kindness to Jessie; I think he knew it would mean more to us coming from him.
After sharing a few precious details, he held us with his eyes and said, “I want you to always remember what I am going to tell you now. Right before your great-grandma died she grew quiet for a moment, then she turned to your Aunt Jessie and me, and her face seemed to glow. ‘The prophets are real,’ she said. ‘I have seen them. Be true to them.’”
He was right. The power of that testimony was forever sanctified and imprinted in our souls by coming through the voice and spirit of this gentle witness of Jesus Christ.
Susan Evans McCloud is author of more than 40 books. She has published screenplays, a book of poetry and lyrics, including two songs in the LDS hymnbook. She is the mother of six children.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company