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?

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Hidden Parts of the Family Tree

Family trees are messy. That is a fact.

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Isabelle “Belle” Regan Owens

In 1890, my great great grandmother, Susann Thomas Owens, suddenly passed away of complications of pneumonia at only 29 years old, leaving behind her husband and three living children. She had lost her 6-year-old daughter, Mary Pearl, just a few months prior.

My great great grandfather, R.T. Owens, now a widower, must have been devastated. Although he was known for being a kind and loving father, he couldn’t raise his children alone. By October, he had married Isabelle Regan, a Presbyterian schoolteacher from Hamilton, Ohio. Belle was a lovely woman. She demonstrated the qualities needed to bring up good children, and she was supportive of R.T. in every way. She came into the family, leaving her mark for generations. It was through her encouragement that R.T. eventually became involved in business, civics and politics. Her namesake carried on through the generations, and there are many Isabelles in my family tree. It was clear that she was well-loved. She never bore any of her own biological children, and the reason is unknown. However, she was, in all honesty, likely the love of my great great grandfather’s life.

On my mother’s side of the family tree, there are multiple marriages and divorces, along with early deceased spouses and remarriages. I think that sometimes we assume that all of the generations before us had these perfect marriages and nice, neat nuclear families, and to get divorced, widowed, or remarried was practically unheard of. Even more seemingly uncommon are children born out of wedlock.

The thing is, those things are just not true.

If you have taken any genealogical DNA test, you will find that things are very, very messy when it comes to linking your tree with trees of your distant cousins. You will also find that it is not uncommon for some people to not match up with their parents or grandparents. The covered up sins of your ancestors are unveiled with DNA testing. Things might not be as you originally thought, giving proof to the fact that we come from a long line of flawed human beings. Who would have thought? 🙂

Families are not perfect. I have heard many people say that they feel that their true “families” are the people they have chosen to surround themselves with in this life. Sometimes, that is true. Those who are family to us might not always be blood relatives.

A few days ago, I got news that the man who was almost my stepfather suddenly passed away of a massive stroke at only 57 years old. I am devastated and heartbroken. He was a big part of my mother’s life. He was very kind to me. His encouragement and inspiration really changed the course of my life. He and my mom split up, and so I hadn’t talked to him in over a year. Yet, his death has caused me as much grief as the loss of a close relative.

As a family historian, it is easy to get stuck in the mindset of seeing things in terms of family trees, with nice, neat generations and descendants. What those trees are hiding in the shadows of the branches are other parts of the tree; the people on the fringes who might not be main parts, but who are nevertheless connected. It is important to remember those people, too, and not overlook their connection to our loves ones. They are part of our family history, too.

Really, as cliché as it sounds, we are all one big family. In my LDS Ward, we have a group on Relativefinder that shows our relationship to one another. Most of us with family trees are related somehow, even it is 14 generations back. That is because most everyone comes from common ancestors. We truly are all family. I guarantee that if you picked a random person walking down the street, chances are, you share a common ancestor. Think about that! When you see strangers in terms of potential distant cousins, you start to want to treat others with more kindness and respect.

“Family” means so much more than just the people who share your exact genes. The human family extends beyond what we can comprehend. Perhaps we should all start thinking of one another as family instead of looking for reasons to oppose one another. We all have relatives we don’t agree with, or whose personalities don’t quite mesh with ours. We still love them, though. I think that is a good approach to take with our greater human family, too.

 

Rachael

In November of 1990, something amazing happened: I became a big sister.
I remember the moment Rachael was placed in my arms as a tiny infant in a swaddling blanket. She was so tiny. Her little face was so squishy. I was filled with joy and excitement as I thought of a life with a sister; all the good times we would share, and the life that we would have. I still remember her looking up at me, her big brown eyes looking into mine, and I thought to myself, wow, I love her so much!
I was just barely seven years old, which put our age difference wider than most siblings, but it didn’t matter. Since we were growing up with only each other, she was still the most important short person in my life… even if sometimes, she drove me nuts.
Rachael and I became much closer just before my parents divorced. After having a rough breakup and some big life changes, I moved back in to my parents’ house at age 23. I only lived there for the Summer, but it was the best Summer I can remember. My sister was old enough to drive, and we were inseparable. We both got a job at a local drive-thru burger place, and we often worked together. She was on drive-thru, and I was on the register. She had such a better work ethic than me. I didn’t take the job seriously, but she did, and she would get frustrated with me when I didn’t do my side work the right way, or when I cut corners out of apathy. She could have run the place. She was so independent and responsible.
That year was filled with happy memories. We went to Coachella music festival together, and on the drive home, we blasted Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, rolled down the windows, and sang it at the top of our lungs while the warm night air blew on our faces, our dark hair flying everywhere.
She was more than a sister to me. She was my best friend. Sometimes, I think she should have been the older sister. While I was the one plagued with insecurity since childhood, she was the one who cared for me, and who loved me. No matter the mistakes I made, she was always right there to believe in me.
I remember one car ride, the song The Middle by Jimmy Eat World came on the radio. “This song reminds me of you,” she said. I asked why. I think she felt embarrassed to elaborate, because when I listen to the words, I knew what she meant to say: Live right now, just be yourself. It doesn’t matter if it’s good enough for someone else. It just takes some time, little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride, everything, everything will be just fine, everything, everything will be alright, alright.
In late 2010, I became pregnant, and Josh and I were so poor that we were living in a garage and sleeping on an air mattress. We both had jobs, but we didn’t make enough for a place of our own. One Sunday evening, I got a text from my sister, for whom I was coincidentally knitting a scarf as a birthday present. I put down my knitting needles to read what it said:
“I just bought you a crib,” she said. Then, she sent me a picture of a beautiful wood crib.
“That is so cool!! Thank you so much!! Hey, we find out the sex of the baby on your birthday :)” I replied, after showing Josh my phone, my eyes misty from being so touched by the sweet sentiment.
“I can’t wait to start buying you baby stuff. There are so many cute things at Target.”
She had a dream just a few weeks before that about my unborn baby. She said that it was a girl, and that she was holding her.
The text conversation dwindled, and we didn’t really say goodbye. We just left it.
Not 24 hours later, I was face to face with my sister. That afternoon, she had an asthma attack. She was in a coma.
A few days later, a prognosis was made.
She was brain dead.
In the time that it took to get that answer, I finally finished Rachael’s scarf. Her boyfriend said she would have loved it.
November 1st rolled around, which was her birthday, and the day that my dad was called by the funeral home to go pick up her cremated remains.
I went to the doctor for a 20 week ultrasound. I was told I was having a girl. Just like Rachael’s dream.
I couldn’t call her and tell her, though. I sent her a text anyway, even though I knew I would never get a response. Do you know what it is like to wake up in the morning, and wonder if everything that happened was just a dream? There were many moments like that, where I would wake up in the middle of the night, convinced it was just a nightmare. Except, it wasn’t.
 She was really gone.
There was one other person in the universe who was literally organized from the same exact genetic material that I was, and that person was Rachael. When I looked into her face, I saw my own reflection. I saw the same dark hair; the same brown eyes with a hazel gleam. The pain of losing her was unbearable.
Never before this moment did I ponder life and death as much as I did once Rachael was taken from me. But you know what?
I can still remember the literal feeling of Jesus Christ, wrapping his arms around me, as I stood there in the emergency room and hugged my mom and dad. It was as if I could actually feel arms around us, protecting us, and holding us.
I didn’t get through the grief because I was strong. I got through the grief because Someone carried me.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)

 
Six months later, I found myself in a hospital bed, hooked up to various machines and wires, and in labor. Unable to move because of my unborn baby’s distress, I sat there, drifting in and out of twilight sleep, thinking of my sister.
 She told me that she wanted to be with me from the moment I went into labor, and the entire time until the baby was born. She wanted to be the supportive sister who threw me a baby shower, and who got to be there to hold her brand new niece. As I thought about her, I looked around the dim labor and delivery room, and realized I was alone. Josh was in the corner, asleep. I stared at the clock. I closed my eyes.
I suddenly got the feeling that I wasn’t really alone after all. The feeling I got was as if my sister was right there beside me, cheering me on in jubilation at the thought of a new life entering the world, and reminding me that when our bodies die, our spirits still live on.
Rachael didn’t get to hold my baby daughter. At least, not in her physical body. She held her in her dreams, and then she told me about it before she slipped to the other side. Their souls passed one another, like ships in the night.
Suddenly, it all made sense why I was prompted to start a family at the most inconvenient time of my life. For the first time in months, I felt joy. It was then that I knew… everything was going to be fine.