Gaining strength and perspective through family history

Published: Monday, March 31 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

BRIGHAM CITY — My daughter Maggie never met her paternal great-grandmother Viola, or her great-grandmother Sylvia. On my husband's side of the family, genealogy is rarely discussed and stories of courage and valor seldom extolled. More often, stories of disappointment and hardship are the focus. Not much is shared to touch a young girl's heart, let alone ignite passion for family history.

But a goal to obtain her temple recommend and perform baptisms for the dead — on the day she turned 12 and was eligible to do so — led my daughter to know her great-grandmothers and gave her a passion for family history she believes will impact the rest of her life.

As part of a project to complete the value of individual worth for the Young Women's Personal Progress program, Maggie elected to find out more about Viola and Sylvia — two women whose names she took into the baptismal font.

"After I did the baptisms, I talked to my Grandma Fran. I asked her questions. She told me stories about Grandma Vi and Grandma Syl. Learning about them gave me awe for my family. You hear other people's stories about how their ancestors were the king of England or someone important. You hear stories about different times or events in life, like World War I. But finding out details about one particular person in your family gives more depth, more personalization and appreciation for where you are in life. No matter who they were, every person before you contributed to the world you live in now."

Maggie learned that Sylvia was from England, and that she was remembered as never being happy. "It was hard for her family because they desperately needed a role model," Maggie says.

Viola, she discovered, was from Germany. "Her mother never spoke English. She had to speak both languages and be a translator. I learned she survived daily life by being happy and grateful even though her family had no money. She saved and reused everything. I decided I wanted to be like Grandma Vi. Life goes on and we have to learn to make the best of things and choose to be happy."

After learning more about Sylvia and Vi, Maggie decided to visit a local family history center. There she was excited to meet an elderly woman named Evelyn Foster who was endeavoring to navigate the new Family Search program.

"She couldn't understand the online catalog. I helped her learn and find what she was looking for. I loved the way she talked with an English accent. I still remember the information we found and how we talked about her family and the people we were looking up. She told me about a man in her family christened in Lambeth Church in London."

Helping Foster led Maggie to become even more curious about family history. "It felt like a mystery. We were in a dusty downstairs library with huge, ancient books and files. We pulled out books and looked at maps. It's fascinating how you can look in a book or online for your family and get to know a person. You start with nothing, and by the end of the day you get to know them and the time they lived in."

Maggie began to search card files in the library where obituaries were stored. "I looked up my Grandma Jensen. In her obituary, I read about more people. One thing led to another and I pieced together mysteries."

Another mystery Maggie pieced together was what life was like for her maternal great-great-grandfather's second wife, Anne Oliver Rice. In 1857, at the age of 4, Anne arrived in the United States from Wales. In 1866, she and her family walked across the plains with the Capt. John D. Holliday Company. Anne turned 14 on her way to Utah, her journey truly remarkable because she was blind. Knowing our ward was preparing to go on a youth pioneer trek, Maggie — at the age of 14 — decided to walk for Anne, a woman whose story she became acquainted with when we visited the remains of a family cabin in Pole Patch near North Ogden, Utah.

"I first decided to walk for Anne because of visiting Pole Patch," says Maggie. "Seeing the cabin was personal evidence that she lived and was a part of my life. I am determined to do hard things, and it was amazing to me that Anne was determined to walk across the plains being blind."

On trek, Maggie elected to be blindfolded on the day there would be the most activities. "We talked about miracles and there were many re-enactments. But I decided not to watch. I never got to see anything from that day because I wanted to know what it would be like to not have the blessing of sight. I remember how much I had to rely on my trek family. I was important to them; it was important to them I stay caught up and not be left behind.

"I know she (Anne) had people to help her, but mostly I feel she had to rely on herself. Her mother and sister died. What pulled Anne through was sheer determination and reliance on God. It helped me to remember her when I was so tired I felt I couldn't go on. I had blisters on my feet, but I remembered how she never gave up. She had to walk all the way to Salt Lake. All I had to do was walk 25 miles."

Now 15 and a concert pianist at Utah State University, Maggie says the life lessons she has learned from family history will continue to guide her.

"In my life, I know there will be times when I may want to give up or quit. But remembering my grandmothers will give me strength to keep going, keep walking. I came from amazing people. Family history has made me want to live my life in a way that if my grandmothers were still alive they would be proud of me. When I get married, I want to teach my kids the importance of family and appreciating where we came from. I'll help my future husband trace his history and find our link in the vast family tree."

Lori Nawyn is the author of the recently released book "Simple Things" (Covenant) and illustrator of "Love, Hugs, and Hope: When Scary Things Happen." To learn more about Nawyn, her art and books, please visit her website www.lorinawyn.com.

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