Ours was not a family whose heritage was lauded. Although both maternal and paternal ancestral lines are rich with faithful pioneers, their stories were not recounted during family home evenings in my childhood or held up to remind us of our relative specialness in the Latter-day Saint community. We celebrated pioneer day with other ward-members. I don’t recall it being any more significant in our home than any other ward picnic. That our forebears had been among those saints who suffered and worked their way across the plains to relative freedom in the harsh Utah desert was simply a matter of fact, a remote history of which I was vaguely aware.
I mention this because I’ve heard people say that pioneer day celebrates the heritage of a relatively few Latter-day Saints. I suppose this is true. But, you know what? I only found my place among those good folks out of desperation. It had little to do with family history. And there is a place for everyone who needs or wants a place among her pioneering brothers and sisters, related or not.
I raised my kids as a single woman. I maintained swamp coolers, changed flat tires on my car in six inches of snow (I kid you not), rode my bike to a from work when the car was broken down, killed the occasional rat when the compost pile drew them to the backyard, scraped and painted fifty-year-old true divided-light windows . . . I could go on and on.
One particular day I was fighting with weeds alongside the garage — trying to create a stepping-stone pathway to a side door. It was hot. I was sweating. I was tired and overwhelmed. I was pretty much ready to curse God and die because I’d had it with how hard my life was. I remember crying as I worked. Literally. (You know how pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked? It was like that. Only crying.) Somewhere in the midst of my angst I began to pray for help and strength. I spoke aloud as I worked. I told God how unfair it was that LDS men could look to the scriptures and find all manner of good male examples of faithful endurance, but women had nothing. Nothing by comparison anyway.
“Seriously!” I whined, “What’s up with that?”
As you might imagine (because this is, after all, a metaphorical pioneer tale) the heavens opened and, with characteristic kindness and generosity, I was reminded of something my little sister had given me earlier that year: an excerpt of journal entries from my great, great – I honestly don’t know how many greats – grandmother, Sarah Pippen Jolley. Sarah had come to Utah with the early saints. I stopped my work and went to the house post-haste to search for the document. When I found it and read it, I wept and wept and wept. Kind of like pioneer children.
Here are some of her words:
1846, we left Nauvoo, crossed the river on the 5th of May into Iowa, Van Buren County. There we lived a little over two years. We had traveled around until we had not much to travel on, but a large family. We were getting ready to start for Salt Lake City when my husband was taken sick and was ill twenty days. He died on the 29th of April, 1849. Then I was left with ten children, no home, among strangers and a babe in my arms three months old. I was broken up. When he was on his deathbed he would tell me what he wanted me to do, a little at a time. He said he was going to leave me for a time, but he wanted me, as soon as I could, to go to the valleys of the mountains to the bosom of the Church and bring the children with me. I buried him the 1st day of May at Kearoch Way graveyard, Van Buren County, Iowa.
The second day of July the children and I started for Council Bluffs.
Sarah is my grandmother. She is also your grandmother. She is Everywoman.
She couldn’t possibly know that her life, her humble, often meaningless life with its particular hardships, would find me a hundred-and-some-years later in my backyard, screaming to the sky for a crumb of feminist hope in the scriptures, for a God-given example of how to be a woman in the world. All she was doing was surviving her own journey. And writing a few words about it. That’s all any of us can do. We are all pioneers. We have no idea how the actions we take now will offer hope, strength or greater freedom for those who come after us–perhaps many generations after us. But we do it. Just like Sarah.
You are part of my family and I am part of yours. We’re on this journey together.
Wagons ho, sisters! Wagons ho!