Remembering Your Dead

Rachael was my only full blooded sister, and though I am blessed with another half sister that I don’t feel is any less of a sister to me than Rachael, I do share much of the same upbringing and experiences with Rachael. The age differences between the three of us are large: 12 years between me and my older sis, and 7 years between Rachael and I. Most of the time, it hasn’t felt like the age difference has mattered. Rachael and I still shared clothes, listened to the same music, liked the same things, and I always knew I could count on sharing a Margherita pizza with her at any restaurant. Along with dark hair and hazel eyes, we must have also both inherited the same taste buds. She was truly my best friend.

On October 18, 2010, she had an asthma attack that rushed her to the hospital and put her in a deep coma. She lost all brain activity and could not recover. She was taken off life support on October 24th, 2010.

Sometimes, I forget the anniversary because it is hard to pin down what day she left. The entire time period was awful for me and my family. I feel her loss everyday and I think about her all the time even 8 years later, so a death anniversary doesn’t necessarily mean much to me anymore. But what does mean something to me is her birthday, November 1st. She didn’t quite make it to her 20th birthday, but this year she would be 28! She would be older than I was when I lost her. As time goes on, it really sinks in that her life was in the past, and that reminder hurts. When she died, she and all her friends were typical 20 year olds who were experiencing adulthood for the first time and spent most of their time going to college, working hard, and playing hard. They spent all their time together, and they cherished their social connections most of all. Today, her friends are all adults in much of the same way that I am. They are getting married and having families. They are buying houses, traveling the world, and advancing in their careers. It is hard to imagine Rachael doing those things. But as the years have gone on, I have found a renewed desire to celebrate her life not just as a sad event that is passed, but as a wonderful remembrance of my love for her.

I feel more of a personal connection with Rachael because she is my sister, but losing her has played a big part in my desire to learn about my ancestors. Of course I want to learn about them; they are with her.

Ideas to Remember Ancestors

SING HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Every year on November 1st, which is also All SaintsDay and the day before All Souls’ Day and Dia De Los Muertos, I either buy or make a birthday cake for my sister, Rachael. For me, it brings my love for her into the present. To sing to her on her birthday celebrates her life. It brings warm feelings of remembrance and love for her.

VISIT THEM

If you can manage it, try and make it to their grave once a year. Bring them flowers or a trinket that reminds you of them. Or, bring them their favorite hoagie, and sit and have lunch with them. Make yourself comfortable. Speak to them in the same familiar way you would if they were sitting beside you. You might cry, but I promise you, the tears are cleansing and cathartic. You will leave feeling joyful, as if you were in their presence once again.

HANG A PHOTO OF THEM

I know it isn’t as common these days to display photos of ancestors in our homes, but maybe we should. I am a big believer that home decor should be personal and authentic rather than just trendy and generic. What if you downloaded some photos from Ancestry or FamilySearch and printed them to put in a decorative frame in your home somewhere? It is a great conversation starter, and it helps your children learn about their ancestors. I know their have been many times when I have looked into the faces of my people and said to them, “I hope I make you proud.”

DO WHAT THEY DID

Did your ancestor have a hobby or a profession that defined them? Perhaps they were a great writer, or they loved to sew or knit. Why not take it up yourself? Maybe it’s in your genes and you will discover a talent you didn’t know you had. My great grandmother was a nurse, and so was my grandmother. I wish I had gone into nursing when I was in college. Maybe someday, I will go back and do it. My grandmother also loved to write, and I think I definitely inherited the love of creative writing from her. By learning a skill that they had, you will gain a sense of identity and feel a connection to them.

WRITE ABOUT THEM

What if you wrote a biography of your ancestor or relative and published it? On FamilySearch, there is a Memories section where you can upload or write about your ancestors. Perhaps there are already stories about many of your ancestors, but I am willing to bet that you hold some precious memories that no one else has but would be cherished by others, including even some of your distant cousins you didn’t know you had. Most of what I have learned about my ancestors has been because of what others have shared. I am so glad they did!

These are just a few suggestions. I’m sure it doesn’t even scratch the surface of all of the good ideas out there.

I promise you that as you seek to learn about and grow to love your ancestors, you will receive a greater assurance that your loved ones you have lost will feel more close by, and the pain of losing them will feel less like a goodbye and more like a see you later. 🖤

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How Your Ancestors Celebrated Halloween

Have you ever wondered how your ancestors celebrated Halloween? It’s such an odd holiday compared to the rest of them, it seems. While other holidays, such as the Fourth of July and Christmas, seem to involve bright lights and joyous celebrations, Halloween is commemorated each year with fake spiderwebs, witch hats, and scary Jack O Lanterns. It is a holiday that celebrates all things dark, and yet, people everywhere love it! When you think about it… it is a bit strange.

Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve as it was called in olden times, has a history that dates back to ancient European origins. Many of us have heard bits and pieces of Halloween’s history, but few of us can really comprehend our own ancestors taking part in some of these rituals. However, we know that they did. Here is how.

ANCIENT ORIGINS

As with many American holidays, Halloween has European origins. The Celts- the ancestors of the Scottish, Irish, English and Welsh- celebrated the pre-Christian pagan festival of Samhain. There have been discoveries of Neolithic tombs in Ireland that align with the sunrise around the time of Samhain, which shows that the holiday may have ancient significance dating back to prehistoric times.The ritual involves lighting bonfires, which were believed to have cleansing powers. It was a time believed to be a conduit between the Spirit realm and the earthly. Even our Stone Age ancestors believed in an afterlife and mourned their dead.

WELSH INFLUENCE

Of course the Welsh had a say in the history of Halloween, obviously. With their passion, music, and culture, how could they not? If carrying around a decapitated horse head and singing carols was their idea of a Merry Christmas, one can only imagine what Halloween was like.

Masks and costumes originated with the ancient Celts, and was believed to protect them from evil spirits. In the 19th and 20th centuries, men in Glamorgan, Wales would often crossdress. (And yes, now I am picturing my own ancestors in drag, like some Monty Python bit.) The festival of Calan Gaeaf also marked the beginning of Winter, and like many cultures throughout the world, was believed to be a day when the spirits of the dead returned to earth to visit.

There are some scary traditions associated with the holiday, such as writing one’s name on a stone and throwing it in a fire. If any stone went missing after the fire went out, the person bearing the name would be the next to die. Horror movie plot, anyone?

Although I admit, I find the Welsh dark streak a bit endearing and relateable. It must be in my genes.

MERGING WITH CHRISTIAN BELIEFS

Later on, as Christianity spread throughout the world, the pagan holidays were combined with the feast of All Hallows’, which is traced back to as early as 731. During All Hallows’, Christians would remember their dead by lighting candles and visiting cemeteries, among other celebrations. Carrying lanterns made out of carved out turnips were primitive Jack O Lanterns, and were believed to represent the souls of the departed.

Before the Reformation, Halloween was not typically a scary or dark holiday. It was more like a celebration or a remembrance of the dead, as often done in cultures throughout the world. After the Reformation, Protestants challenged the doctrines associated with All Hallows’ celebrations. Since they did not believe in Purgatory or in souls returning to earth, they believed that any spirits that did return were actually evil spirits, or devils.

COLONIAL AMERICA

Halloween spread to America with the early colonists. Anglicans and Catholics celebrated All Hallows’ Eve, while Puritans were adamantly opposed. As we know, a mere mention of practicing witchcraft would mean execution. In other parts of the country, such as Cajun Louisiana, Halloween celebrations were more common. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead, or Dia De Los Muertos, became popular in the 20th century, which combined ancient indigenous celebrations honoring the dead with the traditional Catholic All Saints’ Day celebration brought over by the Spanish settlers. It wasn’t until the late 18th and early 18th centuries, when Irish and Scottish immigrants began to arrive in the United States, that Halloween began to resemble the holiday that it is today.

HALLOWEEN IN MODERN TIMES

My Dad dressed as a cowboy, 1950s, with his cousin and brother.

The first mass-produced Halloween costumes began to appear in stores around the 1930s. With the onset of television, Halloween began to be popularized into what it is today. In the 1950s, trick or treating became a popular custom for children. In the 1970s, there was a shift from traditional costumes – such as witches and ghosts – to pop culture characters, ranging from Disney to Marvel and even Star Wars. Today, Halloween marks one of the biggest commercial holidays in the United States.

This year, and maybe even from now on, I am going to look at Halloween with a new perspective. Instead of cringing when I see the Halloween decor in the store and making up excuses for why we won’t decorate our porch with plastic bats whenever my daughter asks, I am going to attempt to incorporate some of these ancient historic traditions from my European Celtic heritage into the present. Maybe I will set out some photographs of my ancestors and light some candles. Maybe I will even take it a step further and freak out the neighbors by carving Jack o Lanterns out of turnips.

Do you have any Halloween traditions in your family or your culture? Share them with me!

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:
Wikipedia. Halloween, Wikipedia.org. Accessed 20 October 2018.
Wikipedia. Calen Gaeaf, Wikipedia.org. Accessed 20 October 2018.
Business Casual. How Did Halloween Become Commericalized? Retrieved from YouTube.com. Accessed 21 October 2018.

Ways to Make Family History Part of Your Home

On my kitchen counter sits a set of cowboy hat salt and pepper shakers with a boot in the middle for holding toothpicks. It is admittedly cheesy and kitsch; it certainly does not go along with the Joanna Gaines-esque look I’ve been going for (read: “going for” being the operative word here). Someone walking through my house might look at it and surely think it an odd choice.

I happen to love it. Do you know why?

I love it because it was given to me, along with a box full of other odds and ends from my grandparents’ house.

Some of you may already know this story, but my set of living grandparents are actually my mom’s stepmom and stepdad. Yes, together. You read that correctly. They married each other! Her real parents were divorced and both of them remarried. When they passed away at relatively young ages (early 60s), their widowed spouses were introduced by my mom and, needless to say, they hit it off. They have been together for over 20 years and are both now well into their eighties, living happily ever after.

Unfortunately, as families sometimes do, we were estranged for most of that time. When I was about 12, we lost contact with them. I don’t know all the details of the story. But I do know that I had a loving set of grandparents since birth, but after age 12, I never saw them again.

After I became interested in learning about my family history, I wondered about Mimi and Grandpa (as they were always known to me). I didn’t know if they were still alive, or if they still lived in the same place. One day, I got up the courage to call. A sweet Southern accent picked up the phone. It was Mimi, and she was glad to hear from me!

In no time, she was back to calling me Baby and Sugar, just like when I was a child. We became reacquainted, and suddenly, at 34 years old, I had grandparents again. It was pretty unbelievable!

That Christmas, I received a package with gifts lovingly wrapped for me and each member of my family, with tags that had “Love Mimi and Grandpa” written in familiar handwriting that I remember so well. It was as if I got a piece of my childhood back. It was incredibly special.

The following Spring, I drove down to North Carolina with my three girls in tow and we stayed over Spring Break in the familiar house I knew so well, though it felt much smaller this time. My biological grandma’s ashes had been spread over the hillside where their house sat atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I went out there to pay my respects.

When Mimi gave me this salt and pepper shaker, it wasn’t any special heirloom or anything like that. It was just an extra thing they had lying around. But, for some reason, it reminded me of when Mimi was married to my Grandpa Art (mom’s biological dad) who passed away from cancer in 1995. They lived in Texas, and we would sit around at the table while she cooked buffalo and fried okra for supper. My grandparents were Texans, and even though I only lived in the South for short amounts of time as a child, I feel a kinship with my deep Texas and Oklahoma roots.

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Oil field workers taking timeout to read the paper, oil well, Kilgore, Texas.

What about you? What is your family story? Maybe your family has a long, proud heritage with lots of beautiful heirlooms and photos. Or, maybe you are like me, and you come from a blue collar background full of people who struggled and worked hard their whole lives, and you don’t have much at all.

No matter your background, I promise you, there are many ways you can incorporate family history into your home!

HANG IT ON YOUR WALL

Ditch the generic overpriced decor from big box stores that is made to look “old” and instead look for things that have meaning to you personally. Whether it is a framed needlepoint from the 1970s made by your great grandma or a gallery wall of reprints of old photos dressed up in interesting frames, find things that tell a story about who you are and where you came from.

FLOWERS HAVE MEANING

I am not just talking about the traditional symbolic meanings assigned to different flowers, such as white lilacs (innocence) or lilies (humility). Is there a special flower that you or someone in your family tree loved in particular? When I looked through the newspaper archives from The Library of Congress, I found a wedding announcement from my great grandparents’ wedding in the Society section. Every flower in the parlor and dining room was described, including pink and white roses. I have made it a point to decorate with either silk or real pink and white roses in my home whenever I get the chance. Try looking through old family photos, or ask your oldest living relatives. You never know, maybe your great grandparents have a wedding announcement somewhere out there yet to be discovered by you! I don’t know about you, but I would much rather look at those sitting on my mantle instead of some generic plastic succulents from IKEA.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Do you shudder at the thought of having to keep all of your parents’ or grandparents’ nicnacs one day, or worse yet, paying for a storage unit to house them? Take it from me, a certifiable sentimental hoarder (who is also oddly a clutter-loathing minimalist) – you do not need to keep everything. If your mom’s duck-themed plates from the 90s that you used to microwave pizza rolls on when you came home from school aren’t your jam, don’t lose sleep over it. I’m sure the local Goodwill can make perfectly good use of them. But, let’s say you do feel some guilt over it. No worries, just save one glass from the collection and use it as a utensil holder in your kitchen, or a small vase for fresh flowers. Problem solved.

MAKE A PRETTY FAMILY CHART

Gone are the days of painting an elaborate mural on the den wall that traces back to your Scottish royal coat of arms. You don’t need something big and gaudy! Remember, less is more. Try having one custom made from a modern family chart designer like I Chart You, which specializes in modern, stylish pedigree charts you will be proud to display in your home.

MAKE YOUR OWN 

Don’t have any family heirlooms to display in your home? Not to worry. There are still ways you can incorporate your heritage into your home life. Perhaps you come from an unknown background and all you have to go on is an AncestryDNA test to tell you your ethnicity. You can still find interesting pieces for your home that symbolize those places. If your ancestors were from Ghana, you could find a print of a painting of an African woman or a beautiful woven basket. If you know you have ancestors from a certain time and place, but you don’t have an actual photo of them, try searching stock image collections, such as the ones available on Library of Congress. Many photos do not have copyright restrictions and you can download them to print and display in your home.

With a little creative thinking, you can bring the Spirit of Elijah into your home in a way that not only your family will notice, but also friends and neighbors. It will spark conversations and foster a spirit of love and familiarity that will touch the hearts of all who enter your home.

I Have to Rave About Living Scriptures For A Second

And no, this is not a sponsored post or anything of the sort. I just really have to tell you about how much I love Living Scriptures!

I bet you expect me to tell you something sappy and spiritual about how their animated films have filled my household with the Spirit and given my children an unshakable testimony of the Gospel and left them begging for me to keep watching, right?

Well, if that is the case, I am sorry and a little disappointed to admit that it was actually like pulling teeth to get my kids to watch any of the animated stories from The Book of Mormon or The New Testament. I guess old school animation about churchy stuff is not as exciting as The Emoji Movie, much to my disappointment. 🤷🏻‍♀️ I was hoping that they would love it as I did when I was a child. But actually, now that I think about it, I don’t think I was all that excited at first, either.

Even though I didn’t grow up Mormon, the Animated Stories from the New Testament (Now known as Living Scriptures) was marketed as “Bible stories” to Christian households, and so my dad bought them for us. At first, it didn’t seem all that exciting to me as a kid, but the more I watched, the more the message grabbed hold of my heart. The Miracles of Jesus was one that I always remembered. It was my favorite. I believe it was instrumental in my testimony and understanding of the Savior, and to this day, I still get choked up when I watch it. The film might be animated and meant for children, but the message is Truth, loud and clear, and meant for all. Even my 20-month-old understood what was going on when Jesus raised the girl from the dead. When she opened her eyes, my daughter sighed with relief and lifted her little arms and said,”Yay!”

The Good Samaritan was another one of my favorites. I think it really creates a story that speaks to the hearts of children. I know that my kids can feel the Spirit when they watch it. My four-year-old always sucks her thumb and gets close to me and says, “Mom, I love you!”

I admit, I really enjoy the stories, too. Journey to The Promised Land is another favorite. I sing right along with it: “Step by step I’ll climb the highest mountain, step by step I’ll cross the raging sea! There is nothing I can’t do, doin’ it with two, Dear Lord, stay step by step ahead of me!” 

The best part is when Nephi and everyone are working hard shaving down logs and building the ship while Laman and Lemuel are sitting there getting back massages from their wives and slacking off. They really are comedic gold sometimes, too.

And speaking of comedic gold, the folks at Living Scriptures are marketing geniuses. In addition to making their films available as a streaming service like Hulu or Netflix, they have also catered very well to their demographic. We know whose money they want.

Yep, its Older Millennials. Like me.

You know, the LDS parents of young children, who want our children to grow up in the Gospel but also want nostalgia and entertainment. And my friends, Living Scriptures has indeed brought those things. All of the classic LDS comedies- The Singles’ Ward, The RM, and Sons of Provo– they are available, too! And you can bet I have been watching those after my kids are in bed. Even though those movies were probably only considered moderately funny at their time and are also specific to that particular point in time (what is now, like, 15 years ago) I was not around Mormon culture back then, so it is all fairly new to me. And, I personally feel that the writers were hilarious and way ahead of their time. They poked fun at pop culture, Mormon culture, and Utah culture. They made jokes and references that really only a handful of people get. Yet, if you are a 30-something Mormon who has ever lived in Utah or experienced the YSA culture, you will find yourself laughing.

(And on that note, I know Will Swenson is a big deal Broadway actor now and even made an appearance in The Greatest Showman, I think his excellent acting skills and comedic timing really shone through in these old films!)

If you have been on the fence about whether or not to get a subscription, I would say, go for it! It’s only $7.99 a month, and the first month is a free trial!

I am sure my parents didn’t think they were giving me something that would create an impression for the rest of my life when they first got me those films on VHS tape back in the early 90s, but now here I am streaming those films on my phone and watching them with my own kids! I think that is actually kind of special, don’t you think?

Pioneer Day Blues

I have an intense preoccupation with pioneers that few really understand. I think most Mormons do appreciate their pioneer heritage on some level, but since it is woven into their identity from childhood, it is boring to them.

I was not raised Mormon. I am a Convert, technically. I do have a long line of Mormon Pioneers in my family tree, but I was completely unaware of it until just a few years ago. I had the privilege of discovering it on my own. Since then, it has lit me on fire.

Growing up, I always wondered why I felt a deep pull towards all things Family. My Granny would let me look through her giant photo album full of old pictures, and I still remember hefting it in my lap, studying each photo and tin type, not really knowing who anyone was but nevertheless being fascinated.

The deep loss that I have experienced in my life has contributed to my obsession with family history, and I am sure that is obvious to some. The trauma is real. My whole life, all I have ever wanted was to be part of a big happy family. I had a small family growing up- just my parents, me, and my sister. My older half sister lived in a different state, and my little sister was seven years my junior, which sometimes made things lonely for me even when my parents were still married. When I was in my twenties, my parents divorced, and my little sister passed away unexpectedly. My family had been shattered into pieces. My parents both found their own ways to cope by starting new relationships and families, and even though I had a husband and was starting my own family, I felt truly abandoned.

My whole life, I have had dreams about places and things that seem to me almost like memories my ancestors might have passed down to me. I once had a dream of an old woman, sitting in a cottage in a rocking chair, looking out a small window that overlooked a meadow. Another time, I dreamed of a dirt road in a rural, very green and lush village, leading to a tavern from the 1800s. I’ve had dreams of nursing a baby while sitting on a train (before I ever had children). I dreamed of walking until my feet were sore, and then having to help set up a tent. I’ve dreamed of horses and wagons. I’ve dreamed of giant, tall trees and rolling meadows.

When I discovered all of the stories that existed about my ancestors, it seemed to all come together. As I have learned of them and their stories, I have felt a closeness to them that anchors my soul and gives me a sense of identity. I feel as if whatever was missing before has been found.

I have chased that feeling for a few years now. In 2016, during the summer, I couldn’t contain it anymore and I decided to pack my car and gather my two girls (at the time) and drive out West. We went by ourselves. It was an epic, life changing adventure. We stopped in Nauvoo, Mt. Pisgah, Winter Quarters, the Platte River, and drove right through to the Salt Lake Valley. I planned it so that we would arrive on July 24th, Pioneer Day. I can remember passing through the mountains and coming up on the Salt Lake Valley, completely exhausted, kids fighting in the backseat, watching people drive pass me on the highway with their big SUVs pulling jet skis, and feeling drained. Maybe even a little bit ridiculous. Why was I trying to compete with people who had big Mormon families and lots of money? Everyone around me had something to do and someone to spend time with on Pioneer Day. Since my husband was held hostage to work during the Summer, there was no way he could join us. If I wanted to make memories, I had to do it myself. Still, it felt a little empty.

I drove up Emigration Canyon just for the experience. There were people on bicycles, and I am sure the last thing on their mind was Brigham Young and the Saints stopping to marvel and say, “This is the Place”. It was hot and dry. It was windy. My kids were tired. I was tired and pregnant. I don’t know why I did this.

But yet, in the coming weeks and years, it became apparent to me why I did all of that. Why I did something so crazy. It really changed my perspective. It solidified my testimony. It made me feel like I could do anything and accomplish anything.

To this day, my obsession with family history and pioneers gets eye rolls. No one understands how I feel. No one knows those moments of reflection I’ve had as I stood atop Ensign Peak and gazed at the Salt Lake Valley. No one except me knows the heaviness in my footsteps that was tangible as I walked to Mt. Pisgah, or stood in the Kirtland Temple. I love my Pioneers. My love for them is embedded deep in my soul. I look to them for strength.

I have a large rectangular poster of a replica of an 1899 map of the Mormon Trail in my house, beautifully illustrated with wagon circles and terrain. Each and every little spot on that map is so special to me because I remember the long days of passing through those places. I know just what they look like. Even though I was in an air conditioned car and they were walking, I still feel like I’ve been where they were. No one except me knows what it was like to drive through Wyoming in the pitch black night, with sleeping children in the back, staring at the stars and the highway, feeling as if I was safe, even though it was scary, and I was alone.

Maybe the whole thing was foolish and overzealous. I know most people thought I was crazy. On day two of the trip, I thought I was, too. But since I was already in Ohio, I figured it was a little late to back out. I pressed forward.

This Pioneer Day, like every Pioneer Day and every Summer holiday, is spent with me shuffling around my house trying to stay sane and cool in the humid Pennsylvania air with three children battling Summer boredom. I have plenty of trials I am dealing with at the moment. I wish I could say that my heart is light and that I feel joyous, but the truth is I am drained. Life is weighing me down. Yet, the words come to mind,

Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?

Tis’ not so, all is right. 

Why should we think to earn a great reward

if we now shun the fight?

Gird up your loins, fresh courage take, our God will never us forsake

and soon we’ll have this tale to tell, 

All is well! All is well!

(LDS Hymns. “Come, Come Ye Saints” by William Clayton.)

Somehow, this gives me strength and reminds me that I can do hard things.

I am so grateful for the Pioneers. ❤️

The Sacred Grove

Back when I was a young new convert in my 20s, my husband Josh and I would daydream of someday taking a family trip to see all the historic sites of Church History. It’s pretty crazy to think that we have fulfilled a lot of those daydreams!

Ever since I first watched The Restoration, I was fascinated with the tale of Joseph Smith as a young boy, growing up on a farm in Western New York, searching for meaning in the Scriptures. Never did I dream that we would end up moving all over the country at various times within hours of these sacred places: The Kirtland Temple, The Priesthood Restoration Site, The Hill Cumorah, and The Sacred Grove.

I am pretty sure something happened to me at the Kirtland Temple in 2013. I wasn’t expecting much, but as our small tour group was invited to sing The Spirit of God in the same place that it was sung the first time, it was as if the Spirit of Elijah planted itself in my heart and followed me from that point on.

Last weekend my little family and I took a trip up to Palmyra, New York to see the Hill Cumorah pageant and visit the sacred sites. As hard as it was to get moments of quiet reflection with three small girls, I was able to feel the sacredness of the Grove and the Smith Farm. Even the photos I took seemed to capture the ethereal nature of it.

The Hill Cumorah pageant was really a magnificent production. The kids loved it! It really brought The Book of Mormon to life for them.

This was kind of a hard phase to bring our youngest, Abby, because she didn’t want to sit still. I spent a good portion of the time just chasing her around until she got tired out. It’s hard to be that upset though, since she is always so happy!

Overall, it was good to spend time with the people I love the most. I have always wanted to make this a yearly tradition. We will have to see if it will be worth it next year, or maybe we will have to make it a tradition when the kids are a little older. I hope they grow up and remember these trips!

How Family History Has Changed Me

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It has been a while since I have really put a lot of effort into this blog, and some of you may have noticed that I changed my Instagram handle from @thehipstergenealogist to @welshwagonwheels. I was reluctant to do this, but ultimately, this was me acting on inspiration for reasons I have yet to understand.

I am definitely not a “hipster” by any stretch of the imagination. This might be obvious, but the reason I chose this name was mostly because it was attention-getting and lighthearted, in an attempt to attract interest in family history from people my age and younger. Five or ten years ago, I might have fallen more into the “hipster” category, but these days, I am about as boring and typical as a Mormon mom can be. I am not ashamed of this, either. I am what I am.

Family History is truly a righteous pursuit, and I know that because it has changed me in so many ways, some of which I will explain here.

I have become more (shudder) Conservative. Yes, I realize this is the antithesis of Hipsterdom. As I have familiarized myself with historical context of families, indeed, my values have migrated closer towards Conservatism. Don’t get me wrong; I am not hyperpolitical in any way. I don’t endorse any particular political party. I am very much a true Centrist. Too easily, I see both sides, and tend to sympathize with both, depending on the issue. However, I can tell you that as I strive to understand my ancestors and the historical context in which they lived, I have grown to value the traditional family as the fundamental unit of society. Furthermore, I have become more patriotic as I have learned not only about my ancestors and the sacrifices they made to come to this country, but also as I have explored the history in my hometown, which also happens to be the very place where George Washington and his troops fought for independence from Britain. I love this country. I love it so much.

I have a desire to be more kind. From studying my own family just in the past century, I have learned that just a few unkind words can completely sever family relationships for generations to come. The effect becomes gradually worse over time. While you and a sibling might have some resentments and grudges after a falling out, your kids will, in turn, not be very close. Their kids might not even have a relationship at all, save it be meeting a few times at family gatherings. And then their kids won’t even know each other, and then those kids after that will be complete strangers, thus causing the complete breakdown of a family in less than 100 years. Things like addiction and abuse make the breakdown happen much more quickly. I have so many second and third cousins who have memories of our parents and grandparents having close relationships, but yet we have only met because we spit in a tube and sent it to a lab. That seems sad to me. It makes me want to reach out more often to my in laws, nieces and nephews, and cousins. Lord knows I try. The feeling is not always reciprocated, but I at least try to let everyone know that we are family, and I am there for them. They might not care now, but someday, they will. If ever they are in a situation where someone asks them, “Do you have any family or relatives you can call for help?” they will be able to answer yes with full confidence, because they can call me. That is what families are for, regardless if we have talked or hung out recently. This imperative has caused me to choose my words carefully, remember to speak kindly, and learn to let resentments go.

Our loved ones are still very much around. If you don’t believe me, just commit yourself wholeheartedly to researching your family history. Spend some real time getting to know those who have lived and died before you. Astounding things will start to happen. This might sound weird, but trust me on this. I never have any doubts about whether or not there is life after death, because I know there is . All that stuff in scary movies about ghosts, or haunted houses, or seeing apparitions, that stuff is counterfeit. It is not real. Family history is real. Spirits are not scary; they are loving, and familiar. They are aware of you. You just have to trust me on this. I have lost a lot of people very close to me, and I am relatively sane so I think I am believable. They will let you know they are there if you are in tune with their plane of existence. Death and The Dead do not scare me, because I have an understanding of it now in a way I didn’t before.

Which brings me to my next point.

Family History becomes important when you have lost loved ones. Something happens to your soul when someone you love very much dies. You begin to look ahead to death with certainty. If death can happen to my baby sister, whom I used to hold in my arms and who was my best friend in the entire world for 20 years, then it can and will happen to me and you. It might be a good idea to make peace with that now before it all catches you off guard. And I am not saying that we all need to live our lives with a somber shadow cast upon us. Quite the opposite.

Family History adds meaning to your life. People of all backgrounds and beliefs are turning their hearts to their ancestors, and there is something deeply meaningful about this. You get a strong sense of who you are. Perhaps that is why I have totally abandoned the pursuit of “branding myself” or whatever. Everyone tries to stand out and be unique, but I think we have all really lost sight of the importance of day-to-day diligence of just serving those around you. It has taken me a while to be humbled, but I have learned to take the ego out of why I do any of this. My intentions have become more altruistic. I exist not to impress. I cannot possibly compete, anyway. I have learned and accepted that. I can’t keep up the image contest because I don’t stand a chance. I am not rich. I am not exceptionally pretty or skinny. I am not all that outgoing or charismatic. I have some qualities to varying degrees, but I find that it is much more of a relief to not seek the spotlight. The spotlight is overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.

I hope that these reasons make sense and are easy to understand. These are based on my own experience. I can’t speak for how family history changes other people, but I am curious about your experiences and insight. Please share and add to the discussion if you feel so inclined.

The People Who Have Loved Us

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I am so often surrounded by family history that it becomes stationary, like a piece of furniture, and I am not always emotionally engaged in it. Often, it feels like I am watching a movie of someone else’s life. I feel something… but it is not internal.

But then, when I flip through old photo albums or cards in boxes, something happens to me. It becomes personal. It is no longer a thumbnail on my iCloud. The paper rubs against my fingertips. The photos jump out at me. I have unconscious triggers that I didn’t realize existed. Is that even possible? I thought I was so well-acquainted with death and the deceased that nothing could reach me. I mean, I binge watch Forensic Files every night before I go to bed and never lose a wink of sleep!

(Side note: As a family history and genetic genealogy buff- I love that show. The investigators once said on the show, “We speak for The Dead.” I can relate to that. There is something uplifting about justice being squared away, even in the midst of a horrendous tragedy. Not all happy endings come in fluffy packaging, you know what I mean?)

But oh, no. Sometimes, seeing a photo of my grandma who died in 1993 and whom I barely had a relationship with in my nine years of life,  holding me lovingly in a pouch carrier around her shoulders… it does something to me. The smile on her face. The reminder that my mom told me that she cared for me overnight once during those first few weeks of my life to help out. That she stayed up all night to feed me and care for me, even though she didn’t have to. That, in the dark and early hours of the night, she hushed my cries, and gave me comfort.

The pantyhose stockings from the early 20th century that were made before elastic was commonplace in women’s hosiery that belonged to my great grandmother, rolled up, next to her embroidery threads and handkerchiefs remind me of a time my Granny showed them to me. “Maybe you can wear these when you get married,” she said.

And I did.

Granny’s nightgown. I swear, it still smells like her, even 20 years later.

The many, many, many letters hand drawn by my little sister, Rachael. Every time she missed me, every time I was sad, every time I was sick, for every little occasion there was a reason to make me a card with markers and crayons, proclaiming her love for me was as much as my mom and dad’s, that I was the coolest big sister in the world, and that she loved me so much. I have stacks of them. How I treasure these things. How they sustain me in the rest of this life that I traverse without her, so that I never for a moment doubt that she loves me and is always with me. Always. 

 

Watching the home videos of my husband’s family before his dad passed away, they etch out the details of him. They fill in the picture, and I understand him more. As a result, I love him more. I love his family more. I watch videos of them at the funeral, watching their sullen, tear-stained faces, and my heart wants to reach forth with tentacles of love and wrap them around all of them at once, especially my sweet husband, who was practically a boy, and so lost at the sudden death of his father. The gaping hole he left behind is suddenly so painfully obvious.

These mementos, they are reminders that death’s bite hath no sting. My loved ones are alive and well. They are with me, watching over me, and I am never alone.

But these tangible objects that carry their memory… they still poke at my heart. And the tears, how they flow. The tears, though cleansing for the soul, are draining.

But even in the midst of all of these past sorrows, there is the reminder of them. Their very presence is sensed. They are not lost. They are not gone. They are still very much apart of us.

That is why I do this. It is a necessity. It is a way to deal. I think those who have felt loss in their life find that family history resonates with them. Perhaps that is why many people don’t find an interest until later in life.

What do you think? Why do you do family history?