Like many modern Tasmanians, Leona Bender grew up knowing there was “an Irish convict or two” among the branches of her family tree. But it was everything else she knew about that tree that set Leona apart from the average resident of Glen Huon, a small village on the island state where she grew up, just south of mainland Australia.
“I have vivid memories of visits to great-aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents, with tables laden with wonderfully home-cooked cakes of all kinds and my mother with her well-developed skill for subtly extracting a marriage or death date or some other needed genealogical information,” Leona recalled.
It was through her mother’s persistence and skill that Leona first came to appreciate family history. “I well remember my mother sitting for hours at the kitchen table writing out family group sheet after family group sheet,” she remembered. During school holidays, the Bender family jumped in the car and traveled to cemeteries all over Tasmania, transcribing inscriptions on headstones and silently mourning when their ancestors’ graves lacked those markers.
Leona’s father joined the Church in 1930, and her mother was baptized in 1949—after Leona’s birth but in plenty of time to pass her dedication to family history on to her daughter.
“The stories of leaving their native country, traveling to Tasmania, [and] starting a new life are many and varied,” Leona said of her ancestors, “but all come with sacrifice, hardship, early deaths, and the everyday struggles. I always felt that the least I could do was to ensure that they had access to eternal blessings that might in some way repay what they had done for me.”
“‘The stories of leaving their native country, traveling to Tasmania, [and] starting a new life are many and varied, but all come with sacrifice, hardship, early deaths, and the everyday struggles. I always felt that the least I could do was to ensure that they had access to eternal blessings that might in some way repay what they had done for me.’”
And by the time Leona was a teenager, the possibility of doing so finally became real. Leona’s family had lived half a world away from the nearest temple, but in 1955 ground was broken for a temple just 1,500 miles away in Hamilton, New Zealand.
For the Benders, the opportunity was both too good to believe and too precious to miss; all practicality aside, the family decided they needed to be in New Zealand for the dedication.
The decision was met with both derision and alarm by their friends and family—and perhaps for good reason. Not only did transportation to New Zealand far exceed the family’s financial resources, the Benders relied on their apple orchard for the entirety of their income, and the dedication was scheduled for April—harvest time for apples in Tasmania.
But Leona’s parents were determined that they and their four children would attend the dedication and be sealed together shortly thereafter. So they tightened their budget and began looking for ways to earn extra money for plane tickets. The children sold their comics, and Leona’s mother sold her knitting magazines. The family picked and sold berries during the summer, and Leona’s father planted a large patch of peas the family could cultivate and sell at a local market.
“How I hated that back-bending task, kneeling in the dirt and the green stains left on my hands,” Leona said. She sometimes became discouraged when her meager earnings seemed so small compared to the amount the family needed to save.
But somehow the Benders managed to scrape together enough money for six plane tickets to the neighboring nation—more expensive than a boat, they knew, but enabling a faster return for the sake of the apples. They arrived in New Zealand, with stained green hands, in time for the dedication.
The Benders and other Saints who had traveled to the dedication were assigned camp beds under a racetrack pavilion, but Leona recalled that no one minded the accommodations. Arriving at the temple was an emotional experience for Leona. “Seeing the promised blessings within reach for the first time was . . . truly a moment to cherish,” she recalled.
Leona’s parents attended the first dedicatory session of the temple, and the children attended the second. During the dedication, Leona was overcome with a sense of spiritual obligation that grew out of the sacrifices her family had made to be there. “I made a promise to myself that my parents’ effort would not be in vain,” she said.
A few days later, the Bender family was sealed together, and then—the apples calling to them—they promptly returned to Tasmania to harvest their crop.
The temple trip changed the Benders’ lives in small and subtle ways. Leona recalled, “My mother often commented that somehow life was different—Church service was much more meaningful, and family life took on a new dimension.”
The trip took on even more significance three years later, when Leona’s father died suddenly at the age of 43. Years later, Leona said that if the family hadn’t risked everything to attend the dedication, they probably wouldn’t have made it in his lifetime.
“The knowledge that we could be together again has been a strong motivational force in my life,” she said. “When temptation arose, when discouragement entered, I hung on to the fact that to be with my father eternally meant that certain choices were not negotiable.” Then she added, “I never regretted the green pea-stained hands again.”