A few years ago my mother called to ask a favor.
“You’re a good researcher, right? Don’t you teach researching?”
I answered yes to the second question.
Mom said, “I have a genealogy problem.”
I wasn’t pleased. I come from Mormon ancestry freaks. I’m still in the culture, but not in the religion, and a genealogy assignment threatened my tenuous distinctions. My mother and her sisters reunite regularly at the LDS genealogy library—a cavernous archive of every human document the Mormons have gotten their hands on from the beginning of human document history. They work to reconstruct every branch and blossom of the family, back to Adam and Eve. And then they send the names in to be officially re-baptized and re-married, by proxy, in a Mormon temple. It’s complicated, but to my tribe it’s a labor of love.
My mother’s dilemma concerned a grandmother five generations back. Some old records said Barbara was married to a man named Silas Sprague. Others said his name was Festus Sprague. Sometimes it was “Silas or Festus.” Mom feared she might submit the wrong husband, in which case Barbara would be proxy-married into disaster.
“Will you figure it out?” she asked.
I was on Sabbatical, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not Vacation. I was deep in other research. But, it was my mom asking. I said I’d try.
The internet is a big weird place. I figured I’d poke into a few leads, remind her this was 1818 information, very sparse, and—you know—take her out soon for a nice lunch. Instead I got myself good and lost down the rabbit hole. Kept going deeper, and down strange paths and around twisty clues.
I found a lost twin sister to Barbara, dead at seventeen in the Ohio woods, widowing Silas Sprague three months after their wedding. Barbara married the same man (their first cousin, by the way) a few years later. Overdramatically, Silas was killed by lightning on the day their first baby was born. Don’t know whether he got the news that it was a girl. His younger brother Festus gathered his courage when the child, my 4th-great grandmother, was three years old, and proposed to Barbara. Many years and children later, Festus Sprague “took leave of his senses” and joined the Mormon Church, eventually migrating to Tooele Valley, Utah, with Barbara and the family multitude.
Their oldest son was shot dead by an outlaw a few years later. Maybe it catalyzed another family migration. Within a generation, my mother’s ancestors had established themselves in beautiful but frigid Snake River country—just south of Yellowstone, just west of the Tetons. Their heartbreak seems almost to have literalized itself: nearly all my mother’s people who were descendants of the Spragues died very young of a heart defect. My mother cannot recall her own mother, who died at thirty-three.
I confess I was pleased to line up those leapfrog marriages for the cause of Heavenly order, but, for me, it became urgent to bring those actual people back to a kind of vivid life. I wanted to offer them to my mother. She lost so much, so early. And I came to need them, too. I don’t anticipate meeting them all in Heaven for hotdogs and potato-salad-saturated reunions. I think dead is dead. But I needed to access them, deeply, as real people in the froth of their own murky, beautiful, perplexing lives. I needed to ponder the reasons an educated, respectable, well-established family would defy comfortable social status and choose a new philosophy. I needed to scrutinize hints and traces of people who incorporated the irrevocable shock of death. I wanted to consider what it meant to depart from a landscape of rivers and lush greenery to set up residence on the stark shores of the Great Salt Lake.
It took awhile, because I bear a deep aversion to thinking or speaking for other human beings—even dead ones. But I wrote a story about them, in their “voices.” I do believe that we are way too casual about assuming that people are somehow all alike, that we all “know” each other “deep down.” It can foster very sloppy compassion—in literature and politics, and among friends and enemies and families. It can keep us from attending to the nuanced emotions, experience, perspectives, and wisdom of people who exceed us. So I tend to scare away from writing fiction, but I needed to resurrect the Spragues.
Early on, I learned to regard my pioneer ancestors as gods and heroes, unwavering stalwarts who knew the truth and lived it, regardless of detractors and bedevilments. Their epic lives were admonitions to us. Their faithfulness racked up a big family bank account of specialness and chosen-ness, but now we had a whopping debt to pay. Maybe that’s why I avoided that genealogy thing for so long—all those indignant forbears, lurking at the veil, waving the blood contract.
But, if they mean anything now, they mean the gorgeous mystery of making one’s way through the fog of love and consciousness. Barbara Sprague was born in 1800 in Rhode Island. She moved to the Ohio Frontier just after the War of 1812. She lost four sisters before they reached fifteen. Her twin sister and the husband they shared left her to navigate a long life beyond them. She joined an unpopular religion, leaving the lush trees of Ohio for the stark shores of the Great Salt Lake. She lost her son to a psychopath. Grandchildren died. People she personally knew froze to death. Maybe that’s all heroic now, but I’m guessing she generally chugged through one day to the next, wondering what the hell she’d gotten herself into. Maybe she learned to stop worrying about the next crisis or shock of old memory once in awhile, putting it aside to take in the sunlight. Saltglitter. Sego bloom. Snowdrift.
The first words of the next child.
The uncanny vision of her sister in the mirror.
Karin Anderson writes from the Great Basin. Her story about the Sprague family, "Tooele Valley Threnody," will appear this fall in the Fiddleblack Press Anthology, Nights Like These. More postmodern pioneer stories are in the works. Her book-length narrative, breach, traces the dissolution and partial reconstruction of family in contemporary Utah. It is available now at https://fiddleblack.org/press/breach