In the Days of Boats and Trains

by Mary Bannister Russell

(As published in the New Era, August 1978)

I have hesitated writing about these things because air travel is so common today that a person may reach a destination anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Is it possible to arouse empathy for a time when the same journey meant more than a week aboard ship and many days on a train, and when the good-byes said before leaving could well be forever?

I am now 80 years old, but though my days of boats and trains have yielded to supersonic transports, perhaps there is still a lesson to be learned from an experience that occurred in my youth.

It was July 1915, and the world was at war. But the struggles on the battlefield could not have been more emotion-shearing than the confrontation storming in our English home.

Mary Bannister's family when she was about 14 or 15,  4 or 5 years before her emigration.  From left: sister Kate, Mother Prudence, Mary, Father George, sister Prudence (a.k.a. Peggy) 

It had been a tempestuous session; my father had hurled malicious arguments at me since 9:00 in the evening, and it was now past midnight. I had dreaded the interview, but father was a mariner, and his ship was leaving soon. In those days no one knew exactly when a boat would return. Not only were schedules less exact and more subject to nature's unpredictable furies, but now the waters swarmed with submarines. Torpedoes hunted merchants, soldiers, and passengers with equal vindictiveness.

All the missionaries in Europe were being called home on a ship departing on November 26. All emigrants had to leave that day, too, or wait until World War I ended. I wanted to be on that boat. I wanted to travel on that boat in the company and protection of the priesthood.

Knowing that father had been bitter against the Church for the last 15 years had given me a good idea that I would need divine help in obtaining his permission to separate myself from my family. Not sure when he would land in an English port again, I had known it would be necessary to speak to him before morning. Now for hours he had been bellowing reasons why he deemed my action irrational. But I had prayed long and hard for the Lord's aid in softening my earthly father's heart.

A tassel of his gray hair toppled over the furrows of his forehead. He had stopped his pacing before the fireplace, only momentarily, to announce his decision: 'All right, you may go to America. But remember, I have seen much of that country, and I do not like it. I shall never live there. Your mother will stay with me, and you will never see either of us again."

What I had thought would be a moment of relief filled my soul with agony. Those words, "You will never see your mother again," had done what three hours of argumentation had failed to do. Every device had been used to make me change my mind, and now the final dagger stabbed deep, twisting in my heart. Leaving my mother would stretch my cord of faith into a fragile thread.

The bond was solid between Mother and me. Our mutual love of the gospel of Jesus Christ had drawn us close. But Father was the head of his home, and logic argued with him that his prediction would probably come true.

Then, somehow, words said years before fought their way into my mind, surmounting despair and reinforcing my faith. With a surge of courage I squared my shoulders and looked deep into my father's eyes. "It may not be so, Father," I said. "It was a few years ago, but the mission president told Mother that if she were faithful, she would gather to Zion. I believe that promise. All the obstacles will be removed."

My father's face registered astonishment, disbelief, and anger.

His hands clenched and unclenched. The outburst left me limp and numb.

I looked across the room at Mother. She was living every emotional vibration but knew better than to interfere. It was enough. I had my father's word, and he would not break it.

I decided I had better go to bed and let things calm down until Dad left in the morning. There would be plenty of time to get ready for my journey after he had gone to sea. Two weeks later my mother and I sat in a small compartment of a train headed to the docks. My married sister had come to bid me farewell. Looking at her for what I was sure would be the last time, I realized the love she had for me. Tears tumbled down her cheeks, though she had kept up her English reserve until then. We were not a demonstrative family, but now I thought, If I had known you loved me so much, it would have been even harder to leave.

My sister had arranged for her Baptist minister to talk to me in her home, and he warned of the Sinking of the Lusitania in May of this year, which rushed 1,189 people into eternity. But I was filled with the spirit of gathering prevalent among the Saints in that day, and I had faith in the priesthood. My commitment had been made.

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Mary, about age 17 - two years before emigrating to America.

Mother and I reached Liverpool in the total darkness of a blackout. [This was a war-time condition during which absolutely no outside lights were permitted, in order to protect against air strikes by the Germans.] A guide escorted us through a maze of unlighted streets. Finally we could make out what seemed to be an immense wall in front of us. We were told it was the ship. Boarding procedure followed blackout restrictions, too, and we entered the ship in darkness.

The guide wanted to rush me in and Mother away. I turned to Mom, wrapping her in a tight hug with my arms, and said, Don't grieve. The Lord said it will be a land of Zion to us if we pay our tithing. And you know I pay my tithing.

'Yes, my dear, I am sure of that," she said. 'God bless you' She kissed me and disappeared into the shadows of the crowd.

February's white snow piled powder puffs on the fence posts and frosted the windows of homes in the Utah village in which I now resided. It had been seven months since I left Liverpool. Perhaps Lucifer had heard my parting words about tithing and decided to mock me. The lack of prospects for work dulled the beauty of the winter day. I was homesick, disappointed, and lonely.

The postman crunched up the sidewalk and slid an envelope through the slot in the door. It was a letter from my mother. She, too, was struggling. My brother stared death in the face every day in the trenches of France. Father's location on the Ocean was unknown, except perhaps to a German submarine's periscope prowling icy waters. And she wasn't worrying alone, she said. Neighbors worried, too. Everything was secret and suspense clouded the atmosphere.

My patriarchal blessing appointment was scheduled that afternoon, and I should have been busy preparing myself for it. But even through my fasting and prayer, my concerns about my family floated to the surface of my mind. I wished my family could join me to hear the patriarch's words! I dropped the letter from my hands as I sobbed, releasing tears I had stored inside since the day I had last seen England.

I dropped to my knees by my bed and uttered the most sincere, heartrending prayer of my 19-year life. I told Heavenly Father I was sorry to be so weak, but that he knew how homesick I was, how disappointed to be out of work, how concerned about my family.

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Mary Bannister possibly shortly after she emigrated to America

I said that if he could see fit to give me two promises in my patriarchal blessing, then I could be brave enough to endure anything the future held. I pleaded that my family and friends might someday come to this country and that I would someday be married in the temple.

I left the house and walked a block to the patriarch's home. I spoke to no one and saw no one. But my Father knew of my prayer. That good patriarch came in from working in his fields and invited me to dinner. The food fortified me, and I was able to restrain my tears. We went to a private place, with his granddaughter along to act as scribe.

He described glorious promises, many of them. Then I heard, as it were, my own words, the ones I had spoken to my Father about one hour before:

"Your loved ones from whom you have been parted - the Lord will bless and protect them, and many of them will follow you to the fold of the Good Shepherd and bask in the life-giving light of the gospel of their Redeemer. With them you will sing the songs of Zion and have much joy in their society. You shall have the privilege of going to the house of the Lord to receive a worthy helpmate and companion to be with you for time and all eternity."

The patriarch continued outlining the blessings the Lord planned for me if I lived worthily. While he did, quiet tears trickled down my face. Heaven was in my heart.

When the patriarch had finished, I thanked him, tried to dry my face, and rushed home. I walked into my room, picked up my pen and wrote, "It's all right now, Mother; Heavenly Father will protect George and Father. And you will come to Zion. Our Heavenly Father has said it. Be brave until we meet again. Much love, Mary."

Many prayers in my life have been answered just as rapidly as the one concerning my patriarchal blessing, but time has not dimmed that miracle to me. I felt power, exultation, and gratitude; it seemed that my Father in heaven had come down and answered my requests in my own words through the patriarch. The promises all came true after many trials. Through the difficult times, the blessing fortified me. We are finer for the things we learn through the ups and downs of life, but the joy always outweighs the pain. Through my patriarchal blessing, I learned the happiness of compliance with the divine instruction given in Proverbs 3:5-6:

"Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths."

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