Pioneers: Just Surviving Their Own Journey

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:

Broken Wagon Wheels 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!




Melody earns a living as a registered nurse, grows a respectable garden, and writes when she's not building sheet forts with her grandkids. Her poetry has appeared in on-line journals, Segullah, Irreantum and small press along the Wasatch Front.

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21 Responses

  1. Justine says:

    It is amazing how much she sacrificed to give you so much. It is sad that you have squandered that railing against the church.

    • Jon says:

      “You are part of my family and I am part of yours. We’re on this journey together.”

      I suppose our family and our journey wouldn’t be complete without crazy Aunt Justine.

    • Holly says:

      I too had ancestors who made the trek across the plains. Whenever people tell me that I must view the church a certain way because of their sacrifice, I point how utterly silly it is that anyone lock themselves into a very narrow way of behaving just because their ancestors did one thing or another.

      Besides, think about what my ancestors and Melody’s ancestors did: they abandoned a belief system they had outgrown, left family and friends, and struck out into the unknown, in order to embrace a new and better truth and to make a better life for their families.

      Perhaps the very best way to honor their choice is to imitate it. Melody is to be applauded and admired for all the ways she has done so.

  2. Melody says:

    Not quite sure what you mean, Justine.

    My honest communication of my feelings through prayer with God has always been a vehicle for clear heavenly answers– such as I describe in this post. I guess I missed something. I don’t see where I’m railing against anything. In fact, what I communicated in this very personal and meaningful story is how I found peace, hope (and profound gratitude for the sacrifice of my grandmother) in a time of great need.

    The foundation for that hope is my belief in Jesus Christ and in His restored Gospel, which I have been blessed to learn about through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I hope you can revisit this post with a different interpretation.

    • Nona says:

      I don’t know what Justine is talking about either. This is the least “railing”est post I’ve ever read. I never share feminist mormon stuff on my Facebook…I am just not “there” yet, but I very seriously thought about sharing this because it is just genuinely inspirational and I thought it would be something ALL of my friends (TBM, Feminist, non-Mormon etc) could appreciate.

      Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

      • Melody says:

        Thanks, Nona. (what a lovely name) Feminist or not we are sisters. All of us. I’m so glad you found that message here. That is what I hoped for with this post.

    • Mo says:

      Melody, I think you are inspirational! Kudos to you for being a strong woman!

  3. Stephanie says:

    I love this story as I am often left searching for examples of women in the scriptures. It reminds me that we can look to early women saints and the writings they left behind. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Leslee says:

    Melody, this was beautiful! Thank you for sharing. I love your writing and am always touched by how articulately you communicate very personal (and often painful) experiences with such love and wide-vision. Thank you!

  5. Twila Warner says:

    Yes. Amen.

  6. Maryly says:

    Thank you. Tonight, of all nights, I needed this message.

  7. Rachel says:

    I love this too, especially the title line, because it was such a refreshing and new idea to me, that these women (and men) that I grew up to admire were not acting to be thought of as admirable by later generations–likely not even there own kin. I think that you were right when you say that they were just trying to survive their own trials in their own time. I think it is also a very lovely and meaningful way to look at our own trials. Somehow it helps to see them smaller, to see them as this day only, because even when things feel quite hard (which they sometimes can), I can survive for one day. Or one hour. Or one minute.

  8. MDearest says:

    I too am inspired by your story to stay among the saints (an the not-so-saintly) despite the hardships I have. One foot in front of the other, one day at a time, all the cliches are come alive and resonate with meaning. I thank you.

  9. spunky says:

    This is so lovely and empowering. I love the idea of looking forward to what is next, rather than dwelling on the past. I am not very good at that, and am often bogged down with past frusterations. This made me think that I need to improve my way of thinking. And it is okay to not have the perfect foundation in which to become a leader– because that is who Sarah is, really. She led 10 children. And she (and you) lead us now, through your words.

    Thank you for sharing her with me.

  10. Naismith says:


  11. Caroline says:

    Melody, this is beautiful. Thank you.

  12. Libby says:

    I love this, Melody. I grew up with the same kind of stories you did — we knew about the hardship and the unfairness, but no one in my family ever said that they were heroes or even that they were blessed for their sacrifices. Thank goodness! Because I don’t think we’re always blessed for our sacrifices. I think that life is just hard, and we don’t know what we’re capable of until we’ve done it. I also believe that stories are only inspirational when they’re about people who are as human — as hurting, shallow, and wiped-out — as we are.

  13. Melody says:

    To all the good readers who have taken time to comment:
    Libby, Caroline, Naismith, Spunky, MDearest, Rachel, Maryly, Twila, Leslee, Stephanie, Mo, Holly — Thank you for reading and responding. Your presence here and each voice is a blessing. God bless you in your journey.

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