I met her while walking the wrong way on the trail. I felt her before I encountered her story. I circled, fascinated by the pattern of lines and holes covering her trunk and by her absence of bark. Though she looked dead, hollow with an open knot in the shape of a heart, her presence lingered.
After I read the signage, her story, I had to sit on a nearby bench until I had strength to walk again.
They skinned The Mother of the Forest alive, segment by numbered segment, and reconstructed a shell of her as an exhibition, later destroyed by fire. Only this scorched skeletal, yet still rooted snag of her remains.
She continues to defy erasure.
Her legacy also remains. Outrage at her exploitation saved the grove, now protected as a park.
In 1854, as the bark of The Mother of the Forest was being excised, my 4th great grandmother, Mary Ann Williams prepared to immigrate to Utah, despite the recent death of her husband. Determined to join the Mormon Saints, she sailed to New York and joined the ill-fated Willie handcart company. Mary Ann and her six children all survived low provisions and being stranded by early snowfall, partly due to her ingenuity. To combat freezing temperatures, Mary Ann warmed rocks each night by the fire to keep the children warm. Because of her resourcefulness, I exist as DNA and experiences passed to her daughter Eliza, then to Emma, to Nellie, to Maxine, and through my father, to me.
Like the Mother of the Forest, these women defied erasure through sacrifice. They are the threads I am made of, stitched together through stories, actions, and heart. Their legacies live in me.
From Mary Ann, who left home to follow her faith, I gained resourcefulness and flexible thinking. From Eliza, who weakened by the trek, died young in childbirth, I learned creation despite risk. From Emma, who raised her children and those of her sister, rather than disavow their husband when he married a third, younger wife, I received the gifts of storytelling and endurance. From Nellie, who died of downwinder cancer caused by government nuclear testing, yet who never said an unkind word, I gleaned a love of learning and teaching. From Maxine, who remained with her secretly cruel husband to nurture each of her grandchildren into believing they were her favorite, I gained a sense of playful disobedience.
Official accounts paint these women as fiercely Mormon – believing, sacrificing, and dying true to the faith. Where they loved men, I love women. Where they chose faith, I choose excommunication. Where they chose to remain in toxic marriages, I choose freedom.
For years I feared I disappointed them – that my choices somehow diminished the power of their sacrifices. That walking the wrong way on trails has ancestral consequences. Part of me wanted to please my grandmothers, to remain Mormon, to honor their legacy through imitation, yet I relish the freedom to walk a pathway resonant with my soul.
One night, years after I left Mormonism, I encountered Maxine in a dream. We sat together, holding hands as I expressed my fear. She took my face in her hands, looked deeply into me, smiled and said, “you were always too big for those temple garments anyway.”
Though I walk a different path, I honor the sacrifices of my grandmothers and The Mother of the Forest by sharing stories of their lives, by showing my daughter that each sacrifice was a choice, an offering to future generations. In these stories I pass my threads and theirs into my daughter’s hands as an antidote to past erasures and as a glimpse of gifts generated in the ancestral past.