Thursday, July 24, 2008

Remembering my forefathers

The twenty-fourth of July is a special day for my church. It's the day that we celebrate the arrival of the early Latter-day Saints into the Salt Lake Valley in 1846, in search of the religious freedom that had been blatantly denied them in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa. The Salt Lake Valley offered them a chance to regain their footing and get somewhat settled before the ruckus started again with the arrival of Johnston's Army about fifteen years later. But that was fifteen years to get established, which was about as long as the church had been in existence before that- it was formally organized in 1830.

I've always had a special fascination with the history of my church. Part of that is probably because some of my ancestors were part of the beginnings of it, joining the church in Missouri in the 1830's. So July 24th, or Pioneer Day, has always been fun for me, because it's a chance to think about and recount the hardships and miracles that my ancestors went through.

Along with my fascination for the history of my church, I've always had a fascination with the history of my family. Some of the history of my family is very closely tied with the history of my religion, and some of it is not.

Some of my ancestors were about as unreligious as can be. My grandpa has been chronicling some of their stories in our monthly family newsletter recently. I take a short excerpt here that I especially enjoyed:

It was 1918. Within a year, prohibition became the law of the land. Under its terms it wasn't illegal to drink alcoholic beverages, just illegal to buy or sell them. (It has been said that more people drank during prohibition than before. The bathtub gin, moonshine, and home brew were readily available. Wine was probably the safest intoxicant because it fermented naturally.) Earl never talkd much about his drinking habits while he was in Michigan, but he did relate one story. In it, he and Elwood Whitinger took a fling at botlegging. They drove hundreds of miles to Canada and back, crossing the border on dirt roads to avoid revenuers. They bought fine Canadian whiskey and paid full price for it. They cut back on their purchase because they realized ath if they got caught they would lose everything. When they got back safely they decided they weren't cut out to be bootleggers and vowed not to try that funny business again. And so they destroyed the evidence. they drank it up.

Heh. That's a story about my great-great uncle who was a Norwegian bachelor farmer and lived in the Dakotas his whole life. My grandpa has been sharing stories about all the characters in his family and I'm so glad that these characters are not being lost to the winds of time completely. Another of my favorite tidbits:

Like his father before him, Earl had a cat. Grandpa called his cat "Carolinus" after the King of Sweden. Earl's cat "Commando X29" was part ocelot. He was leaner, meaner, and longer than a house cat and never tamed. Commando didn't die of old age. He just disappeared one day. As I remember, he could leap over a six foot fence.

When I was very small, my family went to visit Uncle Earl and his brother, Uncle Alfred. For reasons that I am not completely sure of, they went by the names of Uncle Honey and Uncle Slugg, which is what we affectionately refer to them as at my house. I wish I could remember visiting them, but I was too young.

There is such strength in knowing our family heritage. There is such strength in tying families together and understanding our ancestors, knowing what their weaknesses were that we might learn from the and be wary of them and knowing what their strengths were that we may learn from them also, and find pleasure in them. There is such security in knowing the stories and histories of those who paved the way for our entrances into the world.

Over the course of the last four years of so, it has been my privilege to work closely with my grandma in assembling her life story. The project is quite far from completed, but I was amazed at how much my eyes were opened to the multifaceted life she has led. As a child, the only part of her life that I was aware of was that she was "Grandma." It has been one of the best experiences of my life to realize what a rich, full life she has led by personally talking with her and listening to her reminisce. Last summer, I spent a week with her to tie up some loose ends, and I wrote about my impressions:

I had a good time visiting in Minneapolis. I spent a lot of time interviewing Grandma for her biography. It's the first time I'd done that since her accident, and, like she warned me, her memory is a little more fuzzy now. But her sense of humor is still delightful. I have a feeling that her sense of humor has helped her through a lot of tough situations in life- joining the Latter-day Saint church with no family support, attending church her whole life without her husband, and the challenges of raising a family. Her goodness radiates through her eyes, and I think it's mostly due to the fact that she hasn't let life beat her. She has taken life and used it to improve herself and she has loved so many people and helped so many people and because of the charity in her heart, she is one of the happiest, kindest people I know. The hours I spent interviewing her were golden.

These are the kinds of things that can't be learned from books. They can be read about in books and studied and debated and philosophized over- things like love and charity and the source of real happiness and humor- but they can only be really learned and internalized by going in to the world and interacting with people who have these things and seeing them and trying them out for ourselves and making lots of mistakes until finally, after years of attempts, we maybe start to get things right. But, since the whole purpose of life is to learn how to get things right, I figure that as long as I'm working on it, the Lord can't be too displeased with me. And as long as I have wonderful examples like my grandma to look to and learn from, I figure I can keep trying. What a blessing a good family heritage is.

1 comment:

leilalw said...

I was interested in reading your post, especially since your great-uncle Earl was also a relative of mine. Elwood Whitinger was my father. Earl was my mother's first cousin, but we adopted him as our uncle because he spent nearly every winter with us. Are you Warren's grand-daughter?


Leila Whitinger