Sometimes we English-speakers say things that don't make sense. For instance, if I were to tell you that this column is my "swan song," most of you would know right away that I'm telling you it is my last. At least it is my last related to my assignment as a missionary in the FamilySearch department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a week the assignment will end and I will no longer be burdening Mormon Times on a regular basis with my ramblings.
About "swan song." I looked it up long ago so I can tell you why we say "swan song" instead of "I quit!" It relates to old lore that said swans (cygnus to us ornithologists) only sing when they are dying. The last gesture. Makes sense. As I understand it, swans don't even sing. They squawk. That makes it perfectly logical when applied to me. I am under threat of excommunication if I sing out loud in church. Not really, but you don't want to invite me to perform at your next function.
Now then, back to this swan song. What have I learned in two years of looking into and writing about family history?
A whole bunch.
I learned, first of all, to quit looking at my own ancestors as names and come to love them as people. I had had access to the family stories for all my life, but never looked into them intimately enough to learn the persons behind the names.
I now admire my great-grandfather Martin Horton Peck not just as a generic pioneer, but as a man who challenged his own faith in 1833 to join a little-known church and "having put his hand to the plow" so to speak, never turned back. I see not only what he did, but what motivated him.
Then there is Great-Great Grandpa William Taylor. What a guy! He joined the LDS Church at Fishing River, Missouri, where a mob had threatened to eradicate the members of Zions Camp, a group of the church leadership that was traveling through Missouri bent on addressing the wrongs that members had suffered in that state. With his wife and 14 — count ’em, 14 — children, he joined other church members when an extermination order issued by Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs threatened to wipe out all the Latter-day Saints in that state. As they slogged on foot toward the Missouri River, Grandpa Taylor died and was buried along the road.
And that left his wife, Elizabeth Patrick Taylor, to continue on, cross the Missouri and eventually land in Nauvoo, Illinois, where she sold eggs to support her family. When Illinois no longer was a viable home for the Saints, she packed up and brought them to Utah Territory. If you were looking for heroines in your life, where could you find better?
Great-Grandmother Charlotte Amelia Van Orden Peck falls into the same category. She came to Utah Territory with her first husband, burying her only child in Winter Quarters, Nebraska. The husband proved to be a thief. In 1852, Brigham Young canceled her sealing to him and on the same day married her to Grandpa M.H. Peck. From my lofty perch as a "modern" woman, I have difficulty understanding some things, but I hope some day to meet with Grandma Charlotte and discuss it all. In the meanwhile, I can admire her faith, obedience and diligence in being a polygamous wife who produced my Grandpa Dorr Peck.
And then there is Great-Great Grandfather William Gimbert Saunders, who endured two periods of incarceration in the Utah Territorial Penitentiary, garbed in distinctive black and white stripes, rather than waffle on the beliefs he had traveled thousands of miles from England to espouse.
And that's just the top of the list. My background is rich in people who had the courage of their convictions, the stamina to brave thousands of miles of ocean and prairie, build homes in a wilderness (sometimes several homes) and to die with words of testimony on their lips.
All of these names, Peck, Gagon, Taylor, Van Orden, Haight, Matthews, etc. etc. etc., thrown into a funnel and out comes me!
How could I have spent more than 80 years knowing about them but not knowing them?
What comes next? Have I now become a proficient genealogist who will produce thousands of names for temple work? Nah. My ignorance of the technology that underlies modern family research is as great as it was two years ago.Comment on this story
But I will continue to search out the stories that have come to mean so much to me. I will see to it that my own descendants (my first great-great-grandchild was born a few weeks ago) have the opportunity to know them.
I will write my own history. I have put down snatches of it and think I now have in mind how I want to approach it. I'd better hurry. Time is a passin'.
In sum, it was a good two years (as I will write in this personal history I have in mind) and I'm glad I didn't hang up when they called and invited me to serve as a family history missionary.