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Down the Family History Rabbit Hole

By Maryssa Dennis 

Church Magazines 

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    I used to cringe at the words “family history.” Until I met Hazel.

     

    It all started with an email.

    “Maryssa, you’ve received a name for the temple,” the subject line read. It was from FamilySearch.

    Usually I cringed internally at the words “family history.” But this email piqued my interest. I didn’t care much about genealogy, but I loved the temple. Since I lived close, I went at least once a week. And if they had a name ready to go for me, I might as well take it with me next time. I clicked on the email.

    Hazel Frances Swank

    1899–1931

    The name didn’t sound at all familiar. I looked at my family tree, and with a little deciphering, I figured out that Hazel was my second cousin four times removed. At least, I thought so. It was pretty confusing.

    Two ordinances still needed to be done: endowment and sealing to parents. I decided to do the endowment that week. Then I could do the sealing at the YSA temple night the next week. I clicked “Print.” Easy.

    When I went to the temple, I felt pretty good. It was the first time in a long time that I’d done a family name and possibly the first time ever that I’d printed a name myself. It made the ordinance even more special. I always pray that the deceased person will open her heart and choose to accept the ordinance, but the person is usually a complete stranger. This time she was family—distant family, but still family.

    A few days later, I logged back on to FamilySearch.org to see what other ordinances I could take to the YSA temple night. I noticed that Hazel was missing some information, so I did a few searches to fill it in. I came across a picture of her gravestone. The inscription said, “Hazel Frances Kirkwood, Dec. 5, 1899–July 18, 1931. Our mother, asleep in Jesus.”

    I hadn’t realized before that she’d died on my little brother’s birthday. Or that she was only 31 years old. Part of me felt a little sad. I could picture her family gathered around that gravestone. She must have had a husband—her last name was different from her birth name. And the inscription said, “Our mother.” She’d had children too. And I was determined to find them.

    With that, I dove straight into the family history rabbit hole. Over the next few days, I researched for hours. I even stayed up late to keep going. I could hardly believe that I was so invested in it, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. Everything I did—searching for records, comparing names and dates, even deciphering the old-timey handwriting—made me feel like a detective searching for clues to a fascinating puzzle. And the more I researched, the more real Hazel became to me.

    Bit by bit, I pieced together a fuzzy picture of her life. She was the oldest of three girls. She got married when she was 19. Her husband’s name was George. They had three children, Robert, Sarah Jane, and Virginia Lee. She died of tuberculosis before she could see them grow up.

    I didn’t know much about the details of her life. I didn’t have any pictures or personal stories. All I had were names—her parents, her siblings, her husband, her children. But those names, all together, were a family. Hazel’s family. My family. And something was pulling me to them. For the first time, I understood what it meant for “the hearts of the children [to] turn to their fathers” (D&C 2:2). It was strange that I could feel such a strong connection to someone who had lived 100 years before me, but I did. Hazel was no longer just a name to me; she was a person. A person who needed my help. I felt like she was counting on me to keep her family together.

    Later that week I went to the YSA temple night and served as proxy while Hazel was sealed to her parents. This time it was even more special. Because this time I knew her. I thought about how happy she must be to finally receive these ordinances. And how much she must long for the rest of her family to receive the same blessings.

    This whole time I’d been wondering what the big deal was about family history. But I was missing the key ingredient: temple ordinances, which bless individuals and seal families together. Family history isn’t just about knowing the names of distant relations; it’s about doing something for them that they can’t do for themselves. I saw firsthand how family history brings power to the temple, and how the temple brings power to family history.

    I wish I could say that I became a champion of family history after this experience. Most of the time, I’m not. But I’m trying to do better. Because now I know why it matters so much. I used to think of family history as optional, but really it’s not. Not for Hazel. She needs me. I still have more work to do for her family.

    Sometimes I imagine Hazel in the center of a web, connected to each family member by a glowing thread, out and out and out, one giant eternal family, all bound together with unbreakable ties. I’m there too—two cousins and four generations over.

    I’m part of Hazel’s family. But more importantly, I’m part of God’s family. We all are. And that’s the essence of the gospel. Family “is central to the Creator’s plan.”1 It’s why God sent His Son. Because we are His family, and He wants all of us to be “bound to him by loving ties.”2

    Show References

    Notes

    1. 1.

      “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 2010, 129.

    2. 2.

      “Our Savior’s Love,” Hymns, no. 113.