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