My father’s mother was my favorite grandmother. She was the only one of my two grandmothers whose life overlapped mine. My Grandma Nicholls looked exactly the way a grandmother should look. She was short, stout, and always immaculately clean from her shiny white hair to her sensible black walking shoes. And she always smelled of a sweet sachet her husband had brought her from his Church mission in England forty years before. I knew her well.
It was easy to love Grandma Nicholls because she was so kind to me. She patiently taught me to cook, knit, crochet, tat, and darn socks. She was the child of pioneer parents who had walked across a continent. Darning socks was only one of the unspoken frugalities in her life. She never wasted anything. I remember the carefully crocheted rugs she fashioned of fabric from old dresses; each fabric piece included a memory. Today such scraps would be discarded in our disposable culture. She is the one who is constantly spoken of in my family when a bit of food is perfectly good but left over. We must eat or recycle it. “What would Grandma say?” She never seems far away.
Grandma had many stories to tell, and I loved to hear them. Her mother had come to Utah from Sweden after joining the Church with her sister, Amelia, and had walked eleven hundred miles across this rugged country. Amelia was frail and ill during much of the journey. They did not have a team and wagon, but someone had offered to transport their belongings so they could walk unencumbered. My grandmother described the journey in a matter-of-fact way:
[My aunt] Amelia was so slight that when she became too tired to walk further, my mother would put her on her back, Amelia’s arms around her neck and her legs over her hips, and Mother would thus carry her. It took one hundred days to cross the plains, and on November 8, 1865, they arrived safely in Salt Lake City, six months and fourteen days since they embarked from Sweden.
The stories were part of Grandma and became part of me. Her personal favorite and mine was about her courtship with our grandfather, Frederick William Nicholls:
When I was fifteen I went to live with a prominent family named Sharp at 111 South Temple Street. It was here that I learned the art of cooking under the supervision of a very able and proficient cook. It was while in this home that my romance with my future husband commenced. He was the handsome young man who called for the orders for meat. He was courteous and always had a smile on his face. Once, after greeting him at the door he asked if I would like to go to the theater. I thought he was joking but to prove he was serious he said he would bring the tickets to me and I could keep them. My first date with him was to see the opera, “Faust. ” We attended many social functions in the old Social Hall, as well as plays and operas in the Salt Lake Theater. . . . We had wonderful times in the “Gay Nineties.” He was a wonderful sweetheart and our courtship lasted a little over two years. He made arrangements for a local florist to send flowers to me every Saturday night. Our marriage took place in the Logan LDS Temple on the 23rd of April, 1890. Three children had been born to us when my husband was called on a mission [for the Church] to Great Britain in April, 1895. He returned home in 1897.1
My grandfather died in May 1901, when my father was nearly three years old. My father never really knew his father. Of course, I never knew him either until I came upon the two journals Frederick William Nicholls kept on his mission to England. I was so elated to touch the pages of the book he had touched. This was his own handwriting. I tried to conjure his voice reading the words to me. I remember the moment when I realized that if I could hear him saying these words, it would be with an English accent. I read each Sunday afternoon until I had read every word. Finally I knew him. I was so sad that my own father had never touched these precious pages.
On one page my grandfather had drawn the outline of a large apple he had been given, writing:
Just before leaving the Ashbrooke’s Estate I was presented with a couple of very large apples. The smallest was just the size of this circle. I also received a large bunch of double violets, also some white ones, some primroses and daffodils. The whole making a handsome bouquet. I’ve pressed some and others I have given away.
A few of those pressed blossoms fell into my lap that day. I found such tender clues to my own DNA page after page. Along with the references to fruits and flowers, I discovered his solid devotion to a cause that has become precious to me. Once in a lonely moment, he cried from the page, “I could not stay here one moment, so far away from my sweet Annie and our three beloved children, if I did not know that what I am teaching is the truth!” What pathos I felt when I read those words! I knew, but he didn’t, that in a scant six years he would be dead; in that tiny slice of history before his death, my father would be born and my Uncle Bill barely conceived.
My grandfather’s journal makes regular references to his Uncle John and Aunt Sarah and his cousins Percy and Edith Pearson. I decided to search the records to see if they had ever been baptized. They had not. In harmony with our belief in proxy ordinances, this was soon clone by our family. My journal records how it was accomplished:
Our family shared a tender experience as we went up to the [Provo] Temple to perform the baptisms for the family of my Grandfather’s Uncle John Pearson. Before our grandchildren went, I read to them from my grandfather’s missionary journal where he wrote how he loved the Pearsons and longed to bring them into the Church. We assigned each grandchild a name from these entries; they saw each person for whom they would be baptized through my grandfather’s eyes.2
That sunny morning, when we went to the temple in their behalf, was almost exactly one hundred years since my grandfather had written these entries. I told our grandchildren that Grandfather Nicholls had learned to be an effective missionary but that he had died shortly after he returned home from England. Surely a hundred years was plenty of time (in the spirit world)3 to complete the teaching begun in 1894.
Thus, our children’s children were able to turn their hearts to their fathers in a profound way and know them, too. Our fourteen-year-old grandson, Max, later described his feelings in the temple baptismal font:
The water feels warm when you step into the font, and it feels really good to think about the people who never were baptized who are just leaping for joy because now they are members of the Church. And you made that possible! That’s a really good feeling.
There is a bond we discover when we find members of our family whom we have never known, whether living or dead. I had heard from my mother about my cousin David Weeks, her sister’s son. I thought I remembered meeting him when I was a tiny girl. My vague image was of a handsome, dark-haired boy in a sailor suit, but I wasn’t even certain if it was my memory or a learned memory from my mother, who adored the little boy but after her sister’s premature death had somehow lost track of him.
Eventually, as an adult, I became curious. Was there really a David Weeks, and was he alive? I began the search, and soon it became very important to me to find him. I used the Family History Library in Salt Lake City combined with several Internet search engines, including FamilySearch. I pieced together the puzzle from many sources, and late one evening, after a day of searching, I found myself speaking to his wife, Betty. He was, indeed, very much alive and in New York City on business. She gave me his number, and the next morning I nervously called, reaching a secretary who asked my name. Then I heard a voice, which seemed so familiar, on the other end of the phone saying my name: “Ann?” And I heard myself saying simply, “David?” He quickly went on, ‘The last time I saw you was when you were a pretty little girl with blond ringlets.”4 I heard myself mumble something about the boy in the sailor suit, and we promised to meet.
Just a few weeks later, we did. My husband and I flew up to Oregon to David and Betty’s home. Their view of a range of gorgeous, snowcapped mountains I will remember, but more than that, I treasure the family feeling, the tangible bond that is so real. I was apprehensive as I arrived but was loath to leave this newfound, bona fide member of my own family. I came home cherishing the times he took my hand as we four walked by the river. I didn’t ever want to let go.
If there is something remarkable about Latter-day Saint families, I think it is linked to this attitude toward the extended family.
We learn to honor our ancestors. These good folk chose to bear children—us. We understand clearly that their legacy is our opportunity. They are who we are. We search to find them; then we bind ourselves to them in temples built and dedicated to that very purpose. Our hearts turn to them in love and gratitude for their legacy. In a disjointed world where being disconnected is becoming the norm, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we are connecting families, forging eternal links between husbands, wives, parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
In a world that is saturated with technology, many log on to chat groups to counterfeit a family feeling rather than tapping into their own family. We are using technology to gather and write our authentic family stories, moving back through time and using this amazing, swift access to the past to link ourselves to our ancestors. Our family histories become our personal scripture filled with important values and lessons once learned that need not be repeated.
We own our ancestors, complete with their foibles and sins. Our hearts turn to them with a kind of tolerance that transcends here-and-now relationships. We can manage a deepened understanding, having seen their struggle at a distance with the perspective of a generation or two. Given that hindsight we can learn to improve our own here and now. For these insights we are filled with love for them. Providing them the ordinances of the temple is the means by which we can express that love.
When that perspective finds a place in our hearts, we work at building lasting relationships now: husband, wife, brother, sister, father, mother, children. We know we will live together forever so we resolve differences. We forgive. We forget. We help redeem one another. We see life as a test, and we’re all in it together. Those of us who are here now can become transition figures. We can learn from those who have preceded us and love them for letting us profit from their lives, thereby blessing those who come after us. A wonderful line from the Book of Mormon, written by the last writer in what in many ways is a remarkable
family history,5 conveys this idea precisely :
Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been. (Mormon 9:31)
A tree is a wonderful metaphor for a family. Solid roots nurture the newest twigs. Branches grow stronger having withstood wind and rain. But for the tree to remain alive and thriving, it must draw on its roots constantly.
Having families “sealed,” or tied together in bonds that we believe transcend this earthly life, is the crowning ordinance in the temple. Family history research is essential to the task. To connect our families, we have to find them. We begin with our parents and work back through the lives that have produced ours. Then the temple becomes a bridge of love between this world and the next. In the temple we feel the closeness of our eternal family, here and just beyond a thin veil.
We have complete trust in a life after this. Temples are our affirmation of that trust. Families are meant to be together forever. This remarkable and transcendent facet of Latter-day Saint doctrine is just one reason why I believe.
1 Personal History of Anna Johnson Nicholls, in author’s possession.
2 Frederick William Nicholls, Missionary Journal, in my possession.
3 We believe that all who die go to the spirit world to await resurrection.
4 More than sixty years before.
5 The Book of Mormon includes the history of a family in Jerusalem—Lehi and his wife, Sariah, and their children.
Ann N. Madsen is the mother of three (plus an Indian foster son), the grandmother of sixteen, and the great-grandmother of 21. Her hobbies include swimming, cooking, writing poetry, researching family history, and photography. Ann received her B.S. degree from the University of Utah and her M.A. degree from Brigham Young University in ancient studies with a minor in Hebrew. She began teaching at BYU in 1976 when her family was grown. She has also taught biblical courses, including Isaiah, at BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. She has published a book titled Making Their Own Peace: Women of Jerusalem, which tells of twelve modern women who live or have lived in Jerusalem. She served with her husband, Truman G. Madsen, who was president of the New England Mission. She has been Jerusalem Branch Relief Society president as well as a stake Relief Society president. She presently serves on the Sunday School General Board of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Posted July 2011