Christmas comes early for Latter-day Saint parents as their missionaries phone home for the first time under loosened rules

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saint missionaries are cheered by the crowds lining the streets for America's Freedom Festival Grand Parade on Wednesday, July 4, 2018, in Provo.

Thousands of Latter-day Saint parents had a reason to celebrate Monday — and it wasn’t because of Presidents Day.

It was, rather, a chance to hear the voices of their children who are serving full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during a routine week, rather than on the previously prescribed exchanges on Christmas or Mother’s Day.

Some reported the calls as being remarkable for being, well, unremarkable.

Jennifer Sauls of Albany, Ga., said talking with her daughter, Madeline, in Denver was “so normal.”

“The biannual calls always held an element of stress (What if the tech messes up? What is important enough to talk about since time is limited?) and there was none of that today,” Sauls wrote on Facebook. “We spoke for an hour and a half. She is still going to email every week, and take turns calling different family members each week, which I think is a perfect plan.”

Seagull Taylor, who lives in Bremerton, Wash., loved hearing her missionary’s voice from Vietnam, especially speaking the language.

“I’m Vietnamese, and I have to say my missionary speaks better Vietnamese now than when he left home. I also forgot that he wasn’t born and raised in the country he’s serving,” she wrote on Facebook. “This Mommy is so proud.”

The video call allowed mother and son to discuss “very daily things,” the mom noted, including how his clothes were holding up, how the food was, and how he was feeling. “Oh, Mom, I got sick a little a few days ago,” to which she replied, “Did you remember to drink hot ginger water like I used to make for you when you were sick?”

In the past, there was much anticipation and expectation hanging on those semiannual conversations. Family members compiled lists of questions to ask their faraway children and invited whole clans of relatives to join them.

All that changed in a flash Friday, when the governing First Presidency announced that the 65,000 missionaries could contact their families every week — or on special occasions like their parents’ birthdays — via texts, phone calls or video chats.

Patrick and Luisa Perkins in Southern California got a surprise call from their missionary daughter, Hope, in Boston on Saturday, wishing them a “happy anniversary.”

This week’s calls were more casual and less fraught, knowing that if the parties forgot to mention something, they could speak again in seven days.

“We were wary and a bit hesitant,” wrote Georgia resident Wayne Fagg, who talked with his son in the Czech-Slovak Mission, “but getting on Skype … was awesome.”

They spoke for about 45 minutes, he said, and it was “a lot more meaty and interactive with everybody participating.”

The family didn’t establish a set pattern of calls, deciding to let their son call as often as he wants or needs.

Fagg told his son, "This is your mission and if it helps, great; if not, great.”

The church encourages weekly communication with their families “using whatever approved method missionaries decide,” apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, head of the Utah-based faith’s Missionary Executive Council, said in a news release accompanying the policy change. “ ... It is not expected that all missionaries will call or video chat with their parents every week.”

Jaclyn Foster of Cottonwood Heights talked with her sister, serving in Wellington, New Zealand.

“I found it very distressing to video chat at Christmas because it’s so rare and it reminded me of the isolation on my mission and how hard that was,” Foster said in a Twitter message. “This felt a lot less upsetting because knowing it’s a weekly occurrence means there’s not as much pressure to say everything.”

Marcus Flinders of Lehi enjoyed chatting with his son in Madrid.

“I don't know that we will talk every week, but I will say that you could tell he was very happy to have the opportunity to call home,” Flinders wrote. “Some relief, questions answered, some peace and excitement. It was very fun on my end as well.”

For Courtney Bickmore Palmer of Roswell, N.M., it was more than fun. She was able to get crucial information from her son, Kellen, who is in Bismarck, N.D.

“Kellen is medicated for Crohn’s disease so it was especially nice to check up on his health and hear that he is receiving his medication, which is something we’ve worried about constantly,” Palmer wrote. “We learned he never did get around to buying boots as he was supposed to, but despite the 30-below temperatures, he claims he has all his toes. We were able to have a satisfactory discussion about college and post-mission business that has seemed nearly impossible over emails.”

It was definitely “the most information we’ve gotten from him in the entire two years,” she said. “He’s at the very end of his mission. Sure wish they would have allowed this sooner.”

Some observers worry that these calls will displace emails, leaving little or no written record of the experience. And some parents and kids report more homesickness, rather than less, at least from these initial calls.

Not all parents got to connect with their children.

Massachusetts mom Karen Twomey Van Alfen got an email from her son in Brazil, she said, telling her “he doesn't have access to a computer or phones, and they are not allowed to use members’ devices.”

Then there’s Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who woke up “every hour starting at midnight [Sunday] to check for messages from Mozambique.”

Finally, Cox learned what was up from other parents: His missionary’s “preparation day” (when these elders and sisters can make the calls) was moved to Tuesday.

At least one more sleepless night.