The Face Beyond the Veil
by G.G. Vandagriff
I prayed to know my great-grandmother better.
Several years ago when I was under contract to write my genealogy book, Voices In Your Blood, a desire consumed me to learn more about my third great-grandmother, Vira Ann French. I was using my “pursuit” of her as a case study in how to research and build a family history. I had all the “data.” I knew her dates and places, her parents, and her many brothers and sisters. But I wanted more. I wanted to know her, not for my book, but because I felt drawn to her in a way I couldn’t account for. In a bold move, I got down on my knees one night and prayed that I might become familiar in an intimate way with this woman. I wanted to know what she looked like, what her personality was, what her feelings were about following her husband to seven frontier settlements. I have never said a prayer quite like that. It was very specific and full of perfect faith, even though I knew what I was praying for was a miracle.
The next morning I received a telephone call. As soon as I realized who was calling, I sat down hard. On the line was a heretofore unknown third cousin once removed, also a descendant of Vira Ann. Joyce had obtained my name and telephone number in a way involving equal parts of ingenuity and coincidence and wanted to know if I knew Vira Ann’s genealogy. I said that I had quite a bit of it and then asked her how much she knew about Vira Ann herself. She was the favorite granddaughter of the favorite granddaughter of Vira Ann and had her pictures, her quilts, and story upon story about the woman! The core of Joyce’s self-worth was built upon this heritage and it was woven deeply into the fabric of her life. When I wondered how we could meet and share these things, it happened that she lived within a hundred miles of my home!
The next day we met by design at a restaurant in a neighboring city. Within 36 hours of my prayer, I sat looking at Vira Ann’s face as it peered back at me from an old photograph. She was old, but to my eyes delicate and refined. I could tell from the picture that she had struggled through the years with her harsh environment to maintain what must have been a remarkable beauty. Joyce confirmed that she had always dressed in satin, even on the frontier, and had never let the sun touch her face, even when crossing the plains. A deep love for my ancestor grew inside me as Joyce related stories of how she made that crossing without her husband on three separate occasions driving multiple ox-teams as she journeyed between her homes in Colorado and Illinois. “She was a reins-grabber,” Joyce told me. “If things didn’t happen, she made them happen.”
I could relate. I have been a “reins-grabber” since birth. And now I couldn’t help but feel that because of this quality we shared added to the combination of our faith and desires to know one another, we had been brought “face-to-face” through this cousin of mine. In the months that followed, I listened to many wonderful stories of Vira Ann’s life further illustrating her intrepid nature. Joyce gave me a quilt square my ancestor had stitched with her own hands, as well as a pair of walnuts which had grown on a tree at the old Colorado homestead.
I had known that my ancestor was one of fifteen children born on the New York frontier and that in her adolescence the family had migrated to Michigan. What I didn’t know was that during that mid-winter migration, Annis, Vira Ann’s mother, had died. The ground was too frozen for digging and so Vira Ann and her brothers and sisters had to watch as their mother was buried in the inky waters of Lake Erie as they made the crossing to Michigan. This grim ceremony haunted Vira Ann all her life.
She was given little time to mourn, however, for she and Permelia, her older sister had to take immediate charge of Amanda, age eighteen months, as well as Louvisa and Sophia, their youngest sisters. What a bleak, unconsolable time that must have been, traveling across the vast expanse of water, shrouded in freezing fog, pursued by Arctic winds and warm memories of a life that would never be again. Now what might have proved to be an exciting adventure was turned into a horrible nightmare.
This frontier venture was only the first of many she would make in her life. Her husband, Jonas Barber, only stayed in one place long enough to see it civilized, then moved on. My mind quailed when I realized that after losing her beloved sister Permelia in childbirth just eighteen days after her own wedding in Michigan, she had soon become pregnant herself and Jonas had resolved on leaving Kalamazoo. Why did Vira Ann choose to go with him, instead of staying behind with her family and joining him later? Surely after Permelia’s death, she felt at risk! This battle between her need for security, her sense of duty, and her desire for adventure would be a constant in her life. Sometimes security won, but this time duty and adventure seemed to lie together. Heavily pregnant, Vira Ann went west to Iowa where, in the roughest of cabins along the Mississippi, attended by who knows whom, she gave birth to her first son, Charles Edwin Barber. She had given birth and survived. As I came to find out, she was the quintessential survivor. She died of old age in her nineties, outliving her husband and one of her sons, after having helped her husband tame the wilderness of four frontier communities. She ended her days in Fruita, Colorado.
The high-point of my “through the veil” relationship with this remarkable woman, however, was a manifestation at the Dallas Temple telling me that she had not only accepted her ordinances, but had done so with much excitement. This was fitting. Vira Ann had grabbed the reins again!
Now this “voice in my blood” is a very real one to me. I find myself measuring my character against hers, hoping that when the day comes that we meet, that I will be worthy of this extraordinary heritage and even more extraordinary relationship. What is eternal about Vira Ann and my other ancestors speaks to that which is eternal in me. The message is love and hope. With that I am warmed, embraced, and empowered to go on.
2002Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.