Malachi 4:6–And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers…
I’ve never been afraid of ghosts. My relationship with those who have passed on is one of the warmest and sweetest aspects of my life. I believe the spirits of those who have died live on in another realm and are able to watch over their loved ones. I think they look forward to the time we’ll be reunited just as much as I do. Especially in moments of hardship, I have felt individual messages from different ancestors, tailored to me and specific to the theme of their own lives. Within the last week, my heart has been turned to exploring all of the lines I come from, not just the ones I know well, with a quest to find at least one story about each of my people back to the fourth-greats. This is no small task, but I’m quite excited about it.
Have you ever looked at your family history chart? You can find it online at ancestry.com or familysearch.org. We just had a family history fair last weekend in my neighborhood, where I saw a large poster on the wall demonstrating a person’s line fanning back several generations. The numbers multiply with astonishing speed, branching out like a tree. Every backwards step doubles, of course, with two parents per child, and by the time you’ve gone just six generations and roughly two hundred years, there are 126 people who have shared their DNA with you!
My mother is kind of a walking, talking family history vault. She knows all the stories and tells them often, so I have much more knowledge about her side of the family than I do my Dad’s. But Mom won’t be around forever–it’s time to start paying attention, recording, and organizing the information only she knows. Looking at the chart I just painstakingly created on a huge piece of paper of my own 126 people…there are many more dear ones I don’t know anything about who must also have compelling stories: including my lone Scottish ancestor who apparently emigrated to Utah in the 1800’s but went all the way back to Scotland to die. Intrigued: I’m going to dig for an explanation!
I want to find all these people, and learn about them. What would they want their posterity to know? Did they emigrate to a new land, have a beloved profession, watch more children die than live, walk across the plains, sweat over farmland, miss family back in England? Did they serve in a war? What things in our world and this country’s history did they personally witness? What would they tell me, if they could, the most important truth distilled from a lifetime? (And what message do I want to leave for my children and posterity?) I really feel that they are near, especially when we are thinking about them or researching their lives: helping, guiding our steps, smiling at our accomplishments, crying with us over our griefs. We are theirs, and they are ours. Those bonds are stronger than death.
At one of the lowest points of my marriage, I lay on a couch in the living room, curled in a fetal position and overcome with despair. My toddler son played at my feet and I could feel the baby in my womb, whose gender I did not yet know, kicking and moving, but I felt utterly disconsolate and had no will to go on. It had been a particularly painful several days in our home. Quietly, I sensed that someone was standing at the edge of the couch, looking at me with a tremendous amount of love and compassion. Though I couldn’t really see her, I could discern that she was my maternal great-grandmother, and because of my mother’s stories, I knew she had faced a heartbreaking situation similar to mine. I knew she understood my pain in a way most others couldn’t, because she’d lived it. And so it was she who came to help in that instant. She communicated a simple message, felt rather than heard, not to give up, to keep holding on, that things would eventually improve and that my children needed me. It didn’t last long, but the infusion of strength came at a crucial moment, and I knew with surety that afternoon that I would be having a girl and would name her after this woman to honor that memory.
Another time, my kids and I were at a historic park, in the restored home of one of my third-great grandfathers, who happened to be a prominent member of our Church back then. As we walked through the rooms of the large house and saw his buffalo-hide chair and personal belongings on the dresser, my son (four at the time) said, “Mom, I feel my ant-sisters.” Hair raising on my arms, I suddenly tuned into that too and knew he was right…I couldn’t shake the notion that this particular ancestor was close and wanted me to figure out a message from his life that would help me in my current struggles. That night, I went home and looked up everything I could find online about him, including some letters and talks about his mission to the British Isles. There, in one of the stories, was this: When he got off the boat in England, homesick and discouraged, he saw a banner hanging from some rafters that said, “Truth will prevail.” It struck such a chord that he made it the theme of his mission…and for me, at that moment, became the theme of my lengthy legal battle. Even when I experienced temporary defeat, I would repeat to myself, “Like HCK reminded me, Truth will prevail”…and you know what? It did.
When my sister lived with me, she put up a framed photograph in the living room of our paternal great-grandmother, a woman who raised 13 kids on a farm in Missouri–mostly in a one-room home. Though she has kind eyes and a jolly round face (which I inherited through her son, my Grandpa Wood), you can tell she’s one tough cookie because she’s standing with a rifle in one hand and a dead rabbit by the ears in the other, flanked by a granddaughter. I love it. Just from that one picture, I get the sense that she was a woman who wasn’t too delicate, knew how to be self-reliant, and worked hard to provide for her family. I feel a connection with her because of it.
These are just a few examples of many. They are sacred to me, and illustrate the idea that those who have passed on care about us. They know what we’re going through and may have a message that will help lift and inspire us. You may feel closer to one than another, but they all probably want to know that their lives mattered and something of theirs lives on in us: eye color, nose, dimples, integrity, grit. We just have to give more focus to tuning the dial to their frequency rather than the endless distractions of this world. If you don’t know much, start by asking about your parents’ grandparents. Where were they born, where did they live, die? What was unique about their lives? Is there a record available of their parents, and so on? As you do so, you’ll see that you are the seed of a very large and beautiful forest. I promise they will know you are reaching towards them, and will respond in kind.