We’ve been up at our cabin the past few Memorial Day weekends and so missed one of my favorite childhood traditions of visiting the graves with my parents. (Though we haven’t missed family grave visits all together – several of those years up at the cabin we managed to meet Mike’s family in Logan to see some of our ancestors on his side – extra significant to my kids as they carry many of their names.) But this year I made sure we didn’t miss my own childhood tradition. My dad wasn’t well enough to walk around the cemetery for an hour or two, but I asked my mom if she would come with us on the very first day of summer break (the Friday of Memorial Day weekend) to make the rounds.
The Ogden cemetery is old and big and full of ornate tombstones. We always have to hop in and out of the car several times to make our way to the different burial plots. The kids take turns getting to ride in grandma’s car. And at each stop she pulls out mums or plastic flowers or anything else that might have been in bloom from her yard.
We stand or sit on the grass – often gazing at the names of our ancestors carved into stone much how one might gaze into a campfire. (Though, inevitably, the littlest kids run about and must be reminded to be respectful of the grave markers and discouraged from pulling out the pinwheels, etc. left by other graves. Others take it upon themselves to stand up any flowers that may have fallen down near any stones.) My mom pulls out old black and white photos and tells us the stories that I know as well as any tales.
My granpda (second great) Edward Allison who came from England in his earliest teens to seek his fortune and was let off the boat in Missouri – sick with smallpox – to stay in one of the small “pest houses” (tiny shacks where a bowl of food would be left each day for the afflicted – and an uneaten meal signified it was time to bring out a body). The story of his survival and of being taken in as an apprentice by a tailor that had pity on the poor starving teen looking in his shop window. And, in later years, the story of him eventually becoming the sheriff of Summit County, UT and bringing in the murderer that he found hiding in a mine shaft.
His wife – Eliza Bruun Allison who came from Denmark as a small girl with her dad and two siblings (after losing their mom to cholera on the journey). I’ve always loved that my middle name came from the last name of these two grandparents. When my parents gave it to me my mom had no idea that I shared Eliza’s birthday, but seeing that date on her grave stone always makes me feel there was significance in connecting me with them in name.
There’s the heart breaking story of my great grandpa Thomas Wallace whose Scottish sailor (and hard drinking) father once left the family and never returned. His mom, destitute, somehow managed to get back to Ireland with her children (walking much of the way) -- in hopes of finding the family who had disowned her when she’d married. The family was never found and Thomas’s mom and youngest sibling died before any solution was found. Thomas and his siblings were sent to an Irish orphanage, and then, when it was discovered they were part Scottish, they were shipped back there. Eventually Thomas joined the church and came to Utah. We always laugh when we tell the story of his daughter Lizzie coming home (after sneaking off to a youth hayride that Thomas felt was too dangerous) and climbing in her window from the same large tree next to it that she’d climbed down earlier in the evening to escape only to find Thomas sitting in her room when she returned. He didn’t say a word, just got up and left the room, but Lizzie woke the next morning to the sound of him swinging an axe at the base of that tree. As humorous as the story is, there was a fair amount of frustration in the life of Lizzie and her brother Joe (my great grandpa) due to Thomas’s strict nature. And yet . . . NINE of his children died. Nine of eleven just . . . gone from one disease or another. Annie at 15, Samuel at nine, one set of twins as babies, another as toddlers, etc. etc. Who can blame him for being desperate to protect the two children he still had?
We visit the grave of my great great grandpa Franklin D. Richards, and my mom tells us a few small stories of friendship and connection between Franklin D. and Thomas. Thomas actually, through a strange set of circumstances, passed away in Franklin’s home. Lately, with eternal connections jumping out more and more to me, I marvel that these two men had no idea that several generations later I would be able to claim them both as grandpas – that they’d have grandchildren marry and share posterity from there on out. The same people eternally significant to them. I love that.
So many more stories and visits – one to my own grandma who didn’t pass away til I was in college. At her grave I don’t need to tell old re-told stories. I have my own. I can tell my kids about trick-or-treating to her house, spending summers at her Bear Lake trailer, Christmas Eve at her house, and being picked up from elementary on short days to come play Rummikub and Shanghai and eat treats.
And of course, ice cream. Always, ever since I was small, there must be ice cream cones after the cemetery.
Growing up we sometimes teased my mom about her passion for genealogy. And, while I knew these stories, it never occurred to me that they . . . mattered. But, in recent years, while I still know very little about actually doing genealogical research, all of that has changed. They matter. The stories matter. These people matter. And not just because they are in some vague way “ancestors”. I have come to feel more and more certainly that we connected with so much more ease; so much more vastly and powerfully before we came here and that the people on the other side of the veil – both our ancestors, AND, our progenitors (those who aren’t here yet but who are still waiting to come as our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren) -- are aware of us and involved with us. I feel certain that they matter to us and we matter to them. Several years ago I was writing in my journal and mentioned a small thing my dad had told me about an ancestor. I wrote it sort of off-handedly, but after writing it, I suddenly heard – simply and clearly (though not audibly) the words, “They are close, Nancy.” My pen paused, suspended in air, and I just sort of sat there – feeling shocked at the force with which those words had lit up in me (and wondering why). But since then I have grown more and more sure of it. We matter to them. They know us. We know them. Further, we love each other. Those of us on this side of the veil have just . . . forgotten a bit. I recently read this from President Joseph F. Smith – which confirmed what I have felt more and more aware and certain of ever since that experience:
“When messengers are sent to minister to the inhabitants of this earth, they are not strangers, but from the ranks of our kindred [and] friends . . .”
How are we not going to praise God like crazy some day! Not just this plan. Not just this chance to grow and progress and be tried and learn things we could learn in no other way, but for the amazing mercy and love we will eventually see clearly in all the connections he forged for us!
(Here is a link to an old post I wrote about another little experience I once had connecting with an ancestor.)