Roots

“There is that in me – I do not know what it is – but I know it is in me.”

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 50

My great-grandmother’s handwriting loops and ducks, evidence of her existence. We are separated by time but death has made space irrelevant. I like to think of my great-grandmother existing in death, existing where I can’t see her because of time, but she exists right here by me.

Great Grandma Emma died the year I was born. We’ve never met, but my mind is filled with stories of her: sauteing onions and garlic in butter, slicking back pigtails with curls and ribbons, reading women’s magazines, inviting “bums” from the railroad in for a meal, living in a chicken coop, and repeating the homily “an injustice takes two people, one that’ll do it and one that’ll let them.”

There she is. I can’t touch her, time doesn’t let me, but there she is in the stories, handwriting, and fabrics she stitched. Although her body is gone, Great-Grandma Emma holds space in my memory and my mind; the science of our DNA, the verbal stories, and the unsaid, unrealized similarities she shares with my mom, aunts, and grandmother pull her through time to me.

When my one-year-old daughter yanked a crockpot of bubbling barbecue chicken onto her head and I pulled her little body from the boiling red sauce on the vinyl floor, I begged, “Oh please,” thrusting my baby under the faucet of cold water. Her flesh was red with welts. Realizing there were no cuts or bruises, I waited for the blisters, the horror of my sweet baby’s skin falling off, but, miraculously, it didn’t.

While I held my wet girl sleeping in a towel, the memory of Emma held me. I realized that in my panic, instead of praying to God, I prayed to my human great-grandmother. My mom was hundreds of miles away, my grandmother thousands; space seemed much more difficult to circumvent than time and God seemed far out of reach, so it was Emma right there by me. I wished she could have collected her atoms into one glowing apparition like men have testified of in scriptures, but I knew she would have if she could. And she kind of did.

Part of the miracle of this experience happened a hundred years ago in the generous way my angel grandmother lived her life. The person she was shaped my mom’s and my grandmother’s memory of her that they gave to me. Thus, when, as a young mother, I pulled my baby from boiling sauce and gashes on the floor and walls, my great-grandma whispered in my memory. We were no longer separated by space or time—because she lived and died, she was there when no one else was.

Faith in God is slipping from my body like condensation on a cold day. With God vaporizing around me I am left clinging to photocopies of my grandmother’s handwriting and stories of women who lived; I am left clinging to the magic of human stories and the way they can hold me tighter than God ever did. By only looking beyond the canopy of leaves for God and angels, I forgot to look down. Down at the dirty roots beneath the soil that gave me life. Down at the human family whose miracles are the stories that bring them right here to me.

Perhaps, this is how scriptures started out. Maybe they were just stories of human families and how they understood their world. Perhaps, the miracle of the stories was the ability to bring these humans through space and time, pulling them into the memories of the reader where stories could hold them when they needed it most. Perhaps, scriptures were human and real but we no longer understand them. Perhaps, scriptures were not meant to be stagnant bricks trapped in the past, held and thrown into the faces of others, but stories to teach us how to tell stories, living stories that matter, stories that bring divinity into granddaughter’s kitchens, stories about precious humans with roots, not just leaves.

I want to thank the women who gave me my great-grandma Emma; I know that I am privileged to hold an oral history of a woman whose blood pulses through me. This is my scripture. Through the stories told by the women around me, my great-grandmother entered my kitchen just when I needed her most; through their stories, I found the veins of divinity. I want to thank them for the stories of a human woman who loved her family. Who ached for her unborn babies and the babies she was forced to bury. She wore clip-on earrings, loved conversations and stories, and always let her grandkids eat in front of the television. She suffered and sang and spent the last years of her life crippled with strokes. She was human. She was real.

She still exists. Right here within me.

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4 Responses

  1. nicolesbitani says:

    Your writing is so beautiful, and I felt the power of your great-grandmother’s example through your words. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. Beth Young says:

    This is lovely! We are each our own authorities for our own lives. The women in our lives, living or dead, offer superb connection to the divine. Scriptures are the writings that we each choose to use for guidance and uplift. Classic literature, poetry, biographies, stage plays, and campfire stories can offer more than General Conference does. Your great-grandmother is with you! Keep calling on her!

  3. JC says:

    I loved reading this. It’s evident that you and your great-grandmother know each other well and share a deep bond that transcends life and death. I hope you’ll share more of your writing with us in the future.

  4. Katie Rich says:

    This is so beautiful. I’m so glad that the stories you knew of Emma gave her to you in a way you could reach for in a time of need. I love this idea of interconnectedness over time and space.

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