The People Who Have Loved Us


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?


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.


I Went On an Epic Month-Long Family History Vacation. Here’s What I Did.

It was a typical humid Pennsylvania Summer mid-morning, and I had dragged my pregnant, exhausted body from my bed to the living room couch to feed my kids breakfast and turn on cartoons. As I sipped my caffeinated Crystal Light and scrolled aimlessly though Instagram, I showed my daughter a picture of one of her friends doing something cool that she had mentioned wanting to do. Right as I turned the image toward her, I realized the cruelty in what I was doing, but it was too late. She studied the photo, then looked at me, sadly. “I wish I could go on vacation,” she said. “I miss California.”

Suddenly, it hit me. What was I doing, sitting around here?? Sure, my husband can’t really take vacations during the busy Summer season, and I am pregnant, and taking a vacation without him would be a lot of work. But, what about my girls? My older one would be starting Kindergarten in the Fall, and this Summer is the last one of pure freedom before years of abiding by school calendars. This was my last Summer of true freedom. I needed to do something about it.

I informed my husband of my plans, and he was highly skeptical. He is a planner, and I, in case you haven’t noticed, am rather spontaneous. I began packing immediately, and despite a few last minute setbacks, we hit the road.

Our first stop was Columbus, Ohio. We used to live there a few years back, so it was great to stop and visit an old friend and see familiar places. There was a little problem: our air conditioning in the car had decided to go out, and the entire country was in the middle of an unbearable heat wave. Of all times it stopped working… really? We had to stop and get it looked at. The repair shop said it was the compressor. I was a little ambivalent about getting it fixed right then and there and decided to wait it out until I could get to a place where we could stay with family in case the repair took longer than expected. We then headed to Chicago to stay with one of my sister-in-laws, and we endured a very sweaty and miserable day of driving, ending with an apocalyptic thunder-and-lightning rainstorm that made driving very scary!

That morning, after much tossing and turning, I decided to just fork out the money to get the air fixed and then continue our journey as planned. I was able to get the car in first thing in the morning, and we were on the road by noon. Our next stop was Nauvoo, Illinois. We stopped and joined a tour, and got to see some of the awesome things there, including the sun stone from the original Temple. I wanted to cross the Mississippi River and drive through Keokuk, Iowa where my Welsh ancestors first arrived on a steamboat from a ship that had landed in New Orleans, departing from Liverpool, England in 1853, taking them as Welsh Mormon Converts to America.


Brigham Young home


Lucy Mack Smith home. My ancestor, William Howell Thomas, a Welsh convert from Wales, stopped here along his journey where Lucy Smith encouraged him to go West with the Saints.


Restored Nauvoo Temple

I wanted to make a stop at Mt. Pisgah, one of the encampments of the early Saints during the trek West along the Mormon Trail. I had been there once before by accident when my husband and I were first married, and it was an amazing experience. It was a bit hard to get to, and we made it just in time for the sun to go down. When I got out of the car, a red pickup drove up and a man in overalls and a cowboy hat got out of the car. At first, I was a little nervous. “Howdy,” he said. “Are you here to see Mt. Pisgah?” He asked. I said I was. He asked if I would like to know about it. I said sure. He told me a brief bit about the years it was in use, and about Brigham Young and the Saints who stopped there. He said he lived on the property just up the street. As the mosquitos started to get to us, he said he would let us get back to our trip and he went on his way.

The next stop was Council Bluffs, Iowa, where we stayed in the hotel and visited the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters. I have always wanted to stop here because I have an ancestor, Henry Taylor McGee, who was listed among those who were early converts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and who stayed here.

A sister missionary gave us a tour of the museum and showed us tons of awesome artifacts, including the actual stuffed (dead) oxen who appeared in the film 17 Miracles. I really enjoyed walking through the Winter Quarters pioneer cemetery, where many early Saints were buried after much hardship.

There was a Family History Center there, and one of the researchers found some great information on the Saints from Mississippi, which included Henry Taylor McGee. We were both practically in tears as she read an excerpt of the history to me. She gave me a hug, and I thanked her. Oh, those warm fuzzies from Family History! That’s why we do this. 🙂

After that, I drove to the exact block where he would have stayed, near the Missouri River. He was in the Seventh Ward, and his Bishop was James Flake, a well-known Mississippi Saint, owner of a slave named Green Flake whom he helped escape the South, and likely someone known well to him, as the Winter Quarters Wards were much smaller than the ones we have now.

We headed out and drove through Nebraska, and I would liked to have stopped along the Mormon Trail sites, but none of them were along the main route. Perhaps another vacation, when I had my husband with me and wasn’t pregnant. But we did make an unplanned stop at this funky-looking arch building that hung over the highway, and it turned out to be an unbelievably cool interactive pioneer museum. My girls loved it! It was called The Great Platte River Archway in Kearney, Nebraska. Very cool road trip stop. I highly recommend stopping here if you pass through!


That night, we had planned on staying in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but me and my spontaneity had failed to really look into anything beforehand, and so I didn’t realize that the Rodeo Days were going on and every hotel in Cheyenne and Laramie were totally booked. We had no choice but to keep forging ahead to Rawlins, Wyoming, where we stayed the night. The next day was a pretty short driving day, and we arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24… Pioneer Day, and exactly 169 years to the day that Brigham Young had stopped in the Valley and said, “This is the place”. We even drove up Emigration Canyon and drove back down to This Is the Place Heritage Park, just for the authenticity of the experience. My heart was full, and I was exhausted. Probably similar to how they felt!


This Is The Place Heritage Park, Salt Lake City, Utah


Unmarked graves of my ancestors, Henry Taylor McGee and Mary Ann Tame. Salt Lake City, Utah.
Z.C.M.I., Salt Lake City, now vs. 1900, around the time Henry McGee Jr., my great grandfather, worked here.

I visited with family and friends in Utah the next day, which added to the wonderfulness of the trip. I got to enjoy food that I haven’t had since moving away from the West. I also took a drive up to Malad, Idaho, which is my ancestral town where all of my Welsh ancestors settled upon arrival to America. I was able to tour the little museum they had that was filled with lots of awesome old things from Malad. On the way out, my daughter grabbed a free little publication about the recent Malad Valley Welsh Festival, which is their annual ode to their Welsh heritage along the lines of an eistenfodd, and it had all kinds of little articles and blurbs about some of the early settlers, most of which are in my family tree.

R.T. Owens Building, Malad, Idaho. Then and Now.

Around the corner was the old R.T. Owens building, home to Thomas Electric. R.T. Owens was my great great grandfather, a prominent son of a Welsh pioneer and well-known businessman, teacher, and Idaho State Senator. I went in, and sitting at the front desk was a distant cousin of mine! Within minutes, we both had our Familysearch phone apps out and were comparing family trees, he also being descended from both Owens and Thomases. It was really great to connect, and I have a ton of family history stuff to send him once I get it all uploaded and organized.

Later that day, on the way home, I stopped for dinner with a 2nd Cousin once removed from my mother’s side, whom I was matched to through Ancestry DNA. He was adopted into a LDS family, and coincidentally, we had gotten into contact and become friends over the past year! It was great to finally meet them in person, and there was such a warm familiarity there that I knew we were family. I am so glad to be reunited with family I never knew I had!

Our final arrival in California to stay at my dad’s house was, of course, wonderful and filled with fun memories. My husband surprised us at the last minute and booked a flight out to join us on vacation for the weekend, and we had so much fun visiting with family. My girls got to visit with their cousins, jump on the trampoline, play with dolls, have a living room dance party, and inherit a giant bag of clothes passed down from girl cousins just in time for back to school. (That will cut down on back to school shopping for sure!)They all surprised me with a birthday cake, since my birthday was in just a few days, and they sang to me before I blew out candles. Although, I am pretty sure all of my wishes have already come true! They also pulled out a giant box of their old family photos for me to take and organize. Jackpot!


We hiked the Mormon Rocks Trail at the Cajon Pass, not far from the town where I grew up. It was named after Amasa Mason Lyman and Charles C. Rich, who passed through from Salt Lake City to the Los Angeles Basin. Interestingly, when I was in community college I had a history professor named Dr. Lyman, who was descended from Amasa Lyman and who had taught us about the history of the area. That was before I was a member of the Church, and well before I discovered my own pioneer heritage. It was such a beautiful desert hike and the views were breathtaking! It was even fairly easy for a pregnant lady and two little kids to do (with the help of a husband, of course).

Before I headed back, my dad pulled out some old boxes. Oh, he has been holding out! He basically had the Holy of Holies of our family history sitting around in old drawers at his house, and hasn’t had the time to go through everything. So, naturally, I did! I literally spend days scanning, uploading, reading and looking at old photos and letters that tell the extensive histories of my family members and ancestors. These are details that I have been pining for as long as I can remember. I can even say how emotional it was for me to learn all the things I learned. It was incredible. I have years’ worth of material to go through, organize, and make into a beautiful, very full family history. It made me love my family so much! I have never been so grateful to the wonderful men and women who brought me into existence. I can’t wait to meet them all someday. We have a lot to talk about.

The icing on the cake of the trip was driving back and spending my birthday in Salt Lake City with dear friends who spoiled me and even helped watch my girls for a little while so I could go do some research at the Family History Library. Since I brought my Temple recommend, I was able to access the Special Collections, which is kind of like the secret vault for members of the Church to look at because it has Church ordinance information that is only accessible if you have a recommend. It had a microfilm with a record of my ancestor Henry Taylor McGee’s birthplace and parents’ names, which had not been documented and which I have been searching for since forever. I immediately indexed the location and will add it to my family tree as soon as possible. Now I know where to look for his parents! Since he himself was the person who recorded his birthplace and parents’ names, I know it is accurate.

A long few more days on the road finally brought us home to Pennsylvania, and my head is still spinning over the fact that not two weeks ago, my car was at California beaches and mountains, and now it is here, back on the East Coast. I can’t believe I did this, by myself, with little kids, pregnant! Right now, I feel like I can do anything. Do you know how many times I had to buckle and unbuckle whiny kids in car seats, and hold little hands in gas station parking lots? Or how many soggy snacks I have vacuumed out of my SUV? Or how many times I have almost swerved off the road while trying to quell tantrums? Or how many heavy bags I have had to lug in and out of the car while carrying sleeping children in and out of hotels in the middle of nowhere? Let me tell you, this trip was not for the faint of heart. I might not have done it in a covered wagon, but I think I have at least gotten a glimpse of the endurance that my ancestors had. And I think at least a little bit of it has been passed down to me.






Your Pioneer Roots: Do They Ground You, or Hold You Back?


Detroit Photographic Co. (1900) The Wasatch Range from the Valley of the Jordan. C. [Image] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

I will never forget how I felt the very first time I went to Utah. I was a brand new convert from Southern California. I had dreams of transferring to Brigham Young University, and I remember driving around Provo, seeing the Y on the mountain, and feeling awestruck at the majestic feeling of wholesome delight. Just being there did something for my soul! So these were Mormons. This is what it meant to be a Mormon, I thought.

A few years later, after a few subsequent BYU rejection letters, a less-than-traditional route to a Temple marriage, and a desperate move to Salt Lake County for a much-needed full-time job to support our new family, I still naively idealized Utah. It was the beginning of Summer when we arrived, and that is right when Utah is on its best behavior. The green pastures, dotted by white steeples, against the still snowcapped backdrop of the Wasatch front looked like something out of a dream! I thought of Brigham Young and the early Saints, arriving at the top of Emigration Canyon and seeing the valley for the first time. I thought of how it must have felt, and the vision he must have had of transformation from barren desert to fertile valley. Looking at Utah through those lenses made it appear truly divine.

Then Winter came. There were days when I looked around at the thick smoggy haze and the dirty snow that had worn out its welcome, and Utah looked more like a toilet bowl in need of cleaning than some majestic Zion. It seemed that some days, a depressed and worn out feeling permeated, and the tension could be felt by everyone. The constant blizzard dump made it impossible for my husband to work, and we were doing poorly. I once made a trip to the bishop’s storehouse, and that was when I felt the lowest of the low. There is an underbelly of Utah, where poverty and crime exists, although driving around a brand new housing development in Lehi or some other suburb would never tell of such a thing. There is also a large non-Mormon population, many of them disaffected former members, and among them are a diverse population of people who are anything but a stereotypical cookie-cutter Utahn.

I think I might have come close to losing what budding testimony I had at the time we lived in Utah. It seems counterintuitive to see that as a possibility, but there is an invisible battle going on in Zion. There is a constant pull between tradition and progress. Admittedly, Utah does need to modernize many aspects of their state. Sadly, though, there is a price that comes with moving into the future and assimilating with the so-called “mission field”. Some people cheer on the demolition of the relics of old Utah, symbolically destroying the weight they have felt of their Mormon pioneer roots. It is true that roots do keep things from going very far.

Of course, some might call it being grounded.

I, as a grafted-in branch to a family tree filled with stalwart Pioneer ancestors whose blood and sweat helped build Zion, I implore you: please don’t let your roots disappear. You will be like everyone else. And you will regret it. I have lived in many different places, and I promise you, you aren’t missing anything. Do everything you can to keep Utah the pristine utopia that it was meant to be. There is a reason you, the Peculiar People, stand apart from the rest of the world. You have something they all want, whether they admit it or not. I can’t help but die a little inside each time I hear about rent prices and crime rates going up, old buildings being torn down to make way for overpriced lofts, or record-breaking crowds flocking to Zion National Park, only to knock over ancient rock formations and smear graffiti.

The truth about Utah lies somewhere in between the idealistic and the realistic, I think. While this Zion will never be a true Zion in this life, it has still come pretty close. It really has transformed from a barren salty desert to a fertile valley by hard work and divine blessing. Indeed, the Beehive is the most appropriate metaphor for Utah. We all have work, let no one shirk, put your shoulder to the wheel. That fortitude is still alive and well in Utah. That pioneer spirit still exists, and even though things have changed, and Utah isn’t perfect, regardless of the perpetual pull in the opposite direction, the industrious and wholesome attitude continues to prevail.

Remember your ancestors. Remember who they were, and what they stood for. Please don’t forget them. Don’t let Utah be just like every other place. Once it’s gone… it’s gone.

When We Know Our Ancestors, We Are Never Alone


I love to grill in the Summer. I know that is traditionally a “guy thing”, but my husband and I don’t necessary follow traditional rules when it comes to a lot of things in our marriage. I made the mistake of getting a charcoal grill at the beginning of the season, and soon found out that, not only does my family hate the taste of charcoal-grilled food, but that getting regular charcoal to light without an absurd amount of lighter fluid is not an easy task. The pre-treated briquettes help, but still, it is real work getting that fire going. Finally, I just gave up and bought a gas grill. Problem solved!

Getting other people excited about their family history sometimes feels a bit like getting a stubborn fire to start. I can sometimes try a variety of different methods to get that flame to burn, but not without many attempts. I have to first experience the rejection of the dull and uninterested look in their eyes as they tune me out when I gush about learning something they might like to know. I can see their thoughts wander. It hasn’t caught them yet. Hmmm, Time for a new approach.

I am sympathetic. There was a time when I was not as interested in family history, too. Maybe it was because I had a lot going on, or my attention was elsewhere. I was more focused on the current. That is OK. There will come a time when one’s history will become relevant.

Moving across the country to Pennsylvania as a lonely stay-at-home mom while my husband hit the ground running in an industry that does business primarily in the Summer has left me lonely in the dog days of July, when it is too hot and humid to take the kids anywhere outdoors for any length of time. After years of moving around and finishing college in between birthing and nursing children, I have found that family history holds my interest, since working is not an efficient use of my time, due to the costs of childcare. Some mothers take up CrossFit or selling essential oils. I have taken up learning about the dead.

It is hard to explain, but when I learn about my ancestors, I feel less alone. Having come from a small and broken family, I don’t have much support around me. I don’t have big family reunions or vacations that I look forward to every year. I don’t have a tribe. Even getting someone to babysit my children is like pulling teeth. Many days, I feel left out to dry.

But when I immerse myself in the stories of my ancestors, it is like I can picture myself right there with them. The Summers they spent picking fruit or swimming in creeks, or the traditions they had during holidays… I would like to think they wouldn’t mind having me around with them.

Once, I had a dream that I was taking a group picture with all of my family- including ancestors I have never met who have passed on. I was so happy to be posing and smiling with them. And a petite, dark-haired woman in a 1930s-style green floral dress was lovingly doting on me, putting her arm around me as if she was proud of me. She seemed familiar but was still unknown to me. I now realize it was my great-grandmother, Ruth.

Family history is a cure for loneliness. At least for me. Whenever I feel a lack of support, or I feel as though I have no tribe, all I need to do is look at my family tree and see the generations that have loved me into existence. That is when I know that I am never alone.

Learning about your ancestors does something for your soul. Once you understand who you are and where you belong in a long line of people, you can never feel insignificant again. I think this is really at the heart of why we seek out our ancestors.