Blood, Sweat, and Tea: Revising My Family Story of Self-sacrifice

Mormon Pioneers

On a shelf in my childhood home, we displayed the tea set of sacrifice.

The oft-repeated family story went like this: great-great-great-grandmother Susannah Stone left her life in England for the Mormon church, crossed the ocean alone (carrying her tea set as her only meaningful possession), and headed west with the Willie Handcart Company.

At some point in the snowy journey, frozen and tired, Susannah wandered away from the handcart train to lie down and die. Sitting in deep snow, she heard a voice that told her:

Get up. You have a mission to perform in Zion.

So she got up. She pushed on to the Salt Lake Valley, worn, but alive. And then her children’s children had children, who inherited her tea set and put it on a shelf to commemorate her painful struggle.

It’s a tidy, classic pioneer story.

Mormons who haven’t heard that particular story usually have their own version of it—the dramatic sacrifice for the gospel, the physical and ennobling trial, and a voice of divine endorsement for the effort.

The tea set wasn’t the only thing handed down.

Recently, while visiting home, I heard my parents’ home teacher ask about the tea set. As my mother teared up, recounting the story I’d heard several times a year growing up, my breath caught. Susannah’s story wasn’t just an account of a far-off ancestor. Hers was a story about how to live in the world.

Every time I’d heard Susannah’s sit-in-the-snow moment, I’d heard unspoken, unintended lessons:

Pain and all-consuming sacrifice make you valuable. You must push and push until you’re ready to give up, and then you need to get up and push some more. This is the way you matter.

I’d internalized the story, made it part of my life. While I didn’t embark on any cross-country journeys, at times I unconsciously framed my actions in terms of sacrifice to make them more valuable.

For example, on a day my daughter got sick, instead of helping her just because I wanted to, I told myself a story about how I was giving up my writing time to do it. Or I often said “yes” to everything requested of me (and added more that wasn’t even asked) until my schedule was too strapped to even have time to stop and eat.

When I believed that sacrifice inherently made me more valuable or righteous, I measured my worth by how much of myself I gave up.

I hadn’t heard the rest of Susannah’s story.

With an inkling that I was missing something, I looked for record of Susannah’s journal.

She did write about the voice in the snow. She also wrote about traveling with a light heart after hearing the voice, about a home and family in Utah. At the end of her life, she wrote:

“I have lived to realize the promises made by the patriarch that my age should be renewed ten years, and that my last days should be my best.”

I still find inspiration in Susannah’s sacrifice, in giving up good things for what she felt was greater in the end. She did something challenging for her beliefs and I like to think I’m made of stuff as strong as her.

But she lived a more balanced story than I’d known. She didn’t turn herself into a walking martyr. She didn’t intentionally inflict pain to make herself matter. She wrote about snow matter-of-factly and moved on to the rest of her life, which contained beauty and joy. She did, after all, carry a delicate, hand-painted tea set across the plains.

I haven’t entirely let go of my pattern of excessive self-sacrifice. It’s an old story, worn deep. (Not just because of Susannah—also other sources from my Mormon heritage.) But I’m making headway.

And for me, the tea set no longer means Susannah sacrificed every last thing.

It means she didn’t.

Which ancestral stories were repeated in your family? How have they shaped you? I find generational stories fascinating and I’d love to hear yours.

Image via flickr

Kathy

Kathy is a writer living in Phoenix, AZ.

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32 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Fantastic post, Kathy!

    I’ve thought a bit about self-sacrifice. Ethicist Sarah Hoagland talks about self-sacrifice and how in patriarchal societies, self-sacrifice accrues to women. It’s women who particularly are expected to sacrifice themselves for others. Another theologian talks about how self-sacrifice may be women’s main sin, as opposed to pride/selfishness, which she sees as men’s main sin. Women thus need to constantly fight against tendancies to erase themselves and sacrifice themselves.

    I love the lesson you learned from your ancestor’s tea set. A great new takeaway from that story. I hope someday you give a talk or teach a lesson and talk about your realization about this tea set.

  2. spunky says:

    This is lovely, Kathy. I don’t have anything heritage-related that fits this, but I appreciate your spin on the story. I think I’ve been sacrificing myself too much lately for my husband’s career and I’ve only recently come to terms about how I martyred myself for some kind of “greater blessing” that I don’t believe exists. I need to do better with that. Thank you for your insights on how I might be able to make this happen.

    • Kathy says:

      I’m glad to hear this post might be helpful. I think that sacrifice can be beautiful in many circumstances, but the threshold of when it pushes past what’s correct can be a little fuzzy to find. I hope you’re able to find the balance that’s best for your family.

  3. Ardis says:

    This is cultural history rather than family.

    The youth in my stake are doing Trek this year and they’ve asked me to write some materials to “inspire” the youth. They gave me copies of some materials used in previous years … and I think if any stake member happens to read this, they won’t mind my saying those materials were awful, because they wouldn’t have asked me to write new things if they hadn’t realized the old stuff was unsatisfactory.

    From beginning to end, the great suffering of those relatively few pioneers in the Martin and Willie companies — a few hundred out of scores of thousands of Mormon overland pioneers — is the whole focus. They suffered, oh, how they suffered! We honor them for their suffering! We must remember their suffering! The individuals are lost in a mass of suffering, named but with no story other than suffering to distinguish them — it’s as though it’s a competition in who suffered most. You know what I mean.

    But no reason for their suffering is given. There’s no clue as to why those people started across the Plains in the first place. It’s as if the whole point of the gospel is to suffer, and we need to remember these people because we will never be as good as they were because we cannot possibly hope to suffer as they suffered.

    Oh, give me a break.

    I’m acknowledging the suffering of a relative few pioneers — it’s dramatic, and it sets up the rescue, which really is something admirable and role-modelish. But I’m also telling stories about the determination to get to Zion, the optimism with which they started, the practical jokes and the courtships and the things that appealed to teenagers on the trail … ghoulish things like looking into opened graves at dead bodies from previous companies, unearthed by animals; sensitive things like seeing the tears of the oxen when their eyes were blocked by trail dust; practical things that you never find in church materials, like how did the pioneers handle toileting on the Plains. There is inspirational stuff, too, but I want to remove this mistaken rut we’ve fallen into that says the pioneers were great chiefly because they suffered. We’ve inherited the wrong story, and the real stories are so much better and more inspirational and more interesting.

    • Rachel says:

      Ardis, I love this comment so much, and the hints of stories you shared with us, that you’ll be sharing with the (extremely lucky) youth in your stake.

      I love the idea of telling new stories, that help us exist in the world in a new way. Thank you (and Kathy) both.

    • Libby says:

      Ardis, I hope you’ll make those available to the general public!

    • Jason K. says:

      I’m with Rachel: this is a stellar comment, Ardis. You have a gift for expanding our collective perspective on our history in the best ways.

    • Melody says:

      We are so fortunate to have your voice, Ardis. Right here. Right now. Thank you!

    • Liz says:

      The real story is almost always more interesting and inspirational than the tidy one we’re often told. Thank you for your comment, Ardis – it’s making me rethink my whole pioneer narrative.

    • Kathy says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate this in particular: “It’s as if the whole point of the gospel is to suffer, and we need to remember these people because we will never be as good as they were because we cannot possibly hope to suffer as they suffered.”

      I’ve definitely fallen into that trap at times, forgetting that the person whose name the church bears invited the heavy laden to come and have rest.

    • Heather says:

      Love your perspective, Ardis.

    • David Petersen says:

      Thomas Lloyd is another part of “the rest of the story”. He had arrived to the valley a year+ before. He was one of those that was prepared enough to answer Brigham Young’s call to bring them in. He left his more comfortable home and went into an unknown snow storm at a moments notice. Little did he know that he would be giving a ride in his wagon back to Salt Lake City to the woman who would become his wife. I think that willingness to go into the face of danger for people you haven’t even met is a very big, but different kind of heroism than those that suffered. From Thomas and then Suzanna Lloyd, several generations later came Sharon Lloyd, my wife, and then Kathy, the author, and my daughter. For me as a father, the tea set displayed in our family room is an inspiration for me, not just because of Suzanna. but because of Thomas. A man who knew how to be a real man. Without him and others like him, Suzanna would have been the occupant of one more shallow grave and we would never have had this inspirational story. So, for the girls on your trek experience, there is Suzanna and her life where the tea set survived to be in our family room. And for the guys on trek, there is Thomas, a man’s man, with real guts, strength, courage and faith -and a willingness to use all of those attributes.

  4. Rachel says:

    So, so beautiful. I love that she hung on to the tea set, and that she hung on to joy and beauty, and lived many more, fulfilling years. Thank you for sharing her story, and yours. It is a lesson worth learning.

    • Kathy says:

      It’s such a pretty tea set, too! I love to think of her taking care to transport something so lovely across a desolate place.

  5. Linda says:

    Lovely post, Kathy! As to Ardis’s point, my husbands g-g-g-grandparents met while crossing the plains and for them it was romance and hand holding all along the way!

  6. Jenny says:

    What a beautiful post. I love the symbolism with the tea set and how it once represented Susannah’s suffering, and now shows that she lived and enjoyed life. This is a great reminder to me to focus on enjoying the beauty and pleasure of living, instead of living to suffer and sacrifice. I’ve also struggled to overcome my conditioning to feel like my goodness is dependant on how much I suffer.

    • Kathy says:

      Thanks, Jenny. I love the Mormon idea of eternal perspective, but I wonder if sometimes, it can distract from recognizing the beauty that is right here in front of us. I’m still working on paying attention to it.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    I think this is fascinating. So many of the things I’ve inherited from great-grandmas (a crocheted pillow, a teacup) have a story of sacrifice associated with them. The items from great grandparents (paintings, a bookshelf) are stories about their accomplishments. We have made those objects have implicit messages of gender roles that I do not want my daughter or sons to inherit. Thank you for helping me see this.

  8. Melody says:

    Beautifully written, Kathy. Thank you for a perfect beginning to my sabbath worship. God bless you.

  9. Liz says:

    Oh, I love this. I love this re-frame so much, and I love Caroline’s comment above about how self-sacrifice may be women’s sin, and selfishness may be man’s (in fact, I see this played out in the Adam/Eve story quite profoundly). This has made my Sunday – thank you, Kathy!

    • Kathy says:

      Thanks for sharing, Liz—and for your thought about what shows up in the Adam and Eve story. I hadn’t made that connection, but I can see it now.

  10. Robert Lloyd says:

    Hi Kathy this is your cousin Robert. I just have to say that I was blown away by your post. I’m glad you posted that neat story from our family history. As I’ve contemplated that and other stories about our family (both immediate and extended) I am starting to think that we can experience heaven here on earth now. I like many of the comments pointed towards the futility and stupidity of suffering for the sake of suffering. It almost turns into a perverse contest some times. If we don’t have joy in the journey maybe we’re putting too much faith in ourselves and not enough in Christ. Again thanks for the post!

    • Kathy says:

      Robert! So good to hear from you. For some reason, I felt a little nervous writing about a story that feels like it belongs to all of us as a family, not just to me. I’m glad to hear my take on it resonated with you. Thanks for reading!

  11. David Petersen says:

    Kathy, I really love this. It is a great insight to a story that has been told many times. That tea set is a visual inspiration for me too. But I love how you bring out the importance of balance in life. Sometimes it is the exclamation points of life that get remembered the most. But it is the sentences before them that is what real life is made of.

    • Kathy says:

      I’m glad that you liked it. I appreciate the image of the exclamation points and what comes before them. (Of all people, you know that a metaphor involving sentences will resonate with me.)

  12. Ryan says:

    I liked this: She did something challenging for her beliefs and I like to think I’m made of stuff as strong as her.

    And this: She didn’t turn herself into a walking martyr.

    Thank your for your perspective on this. I enjoyed your thoughts and writing style.

  13. Camilla says:

    Just read this. Very powerful. In contemporary life, I see this–friends, myself, women (maybe men do it too, but I don’t talk to a lot of men about this stuff)–searching for validation through suffering the most. I often find myself focusing on the hard in my life when talking with other women, exaggerating it, competing for martyrdom. I also do this at the end of a long day when my husband comes home. Other times I look at women with more to juggle than I and feel a twinge of jealousy at the validation they must feel when thinking about how hard life is. I don’t know that I knew these things about myself until I read this post and thought about it. I’m going to try to stop!

    There’s no prize at the end, for the person who endured the most. That prize has has already been claimed, without thought for validation, by the man who suffered everything. But He didn’t suffer so He could convince Himself or anyone else that He had value. He suffered because He valued us. Maybe my suffering should look a little more like that.

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