I looked at the photograph of her in my mother’s scrapbook, pasted in next to Grandma’s certificate of blessing. She wore plaited hair wound in a crown above her oval face. Her eyes were fine and slanted.
“That’s your great-great-grandmother Totshauna.” My mother used to point her out to me when I was a child and the relatives first started saying I favored her. “She crossed the plains with the pioneers, pulling a handcart for more than a thousand miles.”
“Is a thousand miles farther away than Grandma’s house?” We lived in Salt Lake, and my grandmother Harris lived in Spanish Fork.
“Oh, lots farther, honey. A thousand miles is … is almost as far away as the moon.” Mom was proud of her pioneer heritage, and she wanted to be sure her children appreciated their ancestry sufficiently. I still remember at five years marveling over the woman with the funny hair who pulled a cart to Utah from as far away as the moon. Now I’m 20, and three nights ago when I looked at the photograph (faded, and taped in one corner), I remembered again, and marveled.
I was born in Salt Lake City, the city that she, and others like her, built more than a hundred years ago with adobe bricks and irrigation systems fed from the streams of the Wasatch. The call to gather to Zion brought tens of thousands of Saints from the East and converts from Europe, mostly England, to the Great Salt Lake Valley between 1846 and 1900. The Church in those days, struggling for its existence, desperately needed the strength found in unity, for a scattered church stood little chance of developing into the powerful organization that would be necessary to carry out the Lord’s latter-day work.
Twenty-three-year-old Totshauna Svenstrup, her husband, Christian, and their two small daughters were four of those who responded to the call. They came out of Denmark and, after sailing to the United States, joined one of two ill-fated handcart companies that headed westward to Zion. Totshauna’s daughter, Anna Karil, at that time only five, years later wrote briefly of the trek in her journal:
“Father died just outside of Florence [Nebraska] in a wagon accident. Mother pulled the cart, and she with child. We buried Gury in the snow by the Sweetwater [Wyoming]. She froze one night next to me and Mother in the tent. We reached the Salt Lake Valley in October. In December Mother delivered a son.”
In the old museum on Temple Square there used to be a statue of two pioneers, husband and wife, their cloaks windswept, standing together beside a small grave. My seminary class once took a tour of Temple Square. We stopped and looked at the statue, and one girl said, “Isn’t that so sad?” and the girl next to her solemnly agreed, “It’s awful. How did they ever stand it?” Then we continued on to the Assembly Hall to exclaim over how beautiful the stained glass windows are.
My seminary class saw the granite temple that day, too. Totshauna died three years before its completion. Every summer thousands of tourists park their heavily loaded automobiles in the spaces posted “Out-of-State Cars Only” that surround the temple block. They go inside and listen attentively to how the seagulls ate the crickets, then flick coins into the fountain. They file into the Tabernacle where once she, too, shifted her weight on the hard, narrow benches, and they lean a little forward in their seats to hear a pin drop. They snap photos of the spired temple and murmur with admiration: “Forty years to build. Imagine that!” Totshauna’s second husband, Samual Hoopes, was killed while quarrying granite for the temple up Little Cottonwood Canyon in June 1872.
Sometimes when I stand outside the temple, my fingers clutching the iron gate, my head thrown back as I stare at the golden words “Holiness to the Lord,” I remember a widow with eight children. Anna Karil, by that time married, wrote: “Mother embroiders linens for pay. Her fine Danish needlework is admired by many. The children work as they are able. Mother also takes in boarders and washing.”
The spires of the temple and Moroni sounding his trump no longer dominate the Salt Lake skyline. The modern Church Office Building across the street now holds that position of prominence. The office building, 28 stories high, took three years to build. The project was financed by the tithes and offerings of Church members. Totshauna, I think, would be proud to see the tall building. (I can picture her craning her neck toward the top: “Twenty-eight stories high. Imagine that!”) I am proud, too, but sometimes I think of the days when a temple cost 40 years, and even lives, to build. I will be careful not to forget.
After reaching the Salt Lake Valley, Totshauna settled in what is today known as Holladay. Not long after her arrival, she became the plural wife of Samual Hoopes. (I wonder if Samual was as enchanted as I am by her plain and lovely crown of plaits.) She had nine children by Samual; only seven lived past infancy. Her husband, at one time, was two and a half years absent from his family, which included three wives and numerous children, while serving a mission for the Church in the British Isles. Totshauna later sent three sons on missions after Samual’s death, with each son proving an added hardship, for her boys were among the eldest of her children and were depended upon to aid in the support of the entire family. Her own sketchy journal (now kept treasured in soft cloth in my grandmother’s bureau), which she kept for a brief period following Samual’s death, reads: “Hyrum left with elders Whitney and Williams in a wagon and went to take the rail to Canada. I packed him two beef tarts and two loaves bread with chokeberry jam, and Samual’s Book of Mormon, and an extra shirt and pair socks. He is seventeen.”
As I reflect upon Totshauna’s life, I can’t help but contrast her harsh and simple life-style with my own. I attend Brigham Young University (named for the prophet-colonizer she followed and revered) where I study English and music and religion. Occasionally I may wash a pair of socks in the sink (she washed all her clothing with a scrub board and lye soap) or take a break from my daily routine by baking wheat bread, but these interruptions are rare. I often wonder while buzzing down the freeway in my Volkswagen or listening to the prophet at conference time on television or radio, what part of her remains in me.
Somewhere inside me I feel a bittersweet ache as I reflect upon those early days of Mormonism. There is in me a kind of wistful longing to return to the days of seagulls and crickets, days when temples took 40 years to build, days of missionaries who traveled on foot or by rail with neither purse or scrip, days of adobe bricks, and martyrs. Such days formed my roots and the roots of my church. They are a part of me in ways that I feel though do not fully understand.
Yet, despite my shadowy longings for past times and things, I am immersed in modern Mormonism—the organization she spent her life building a foundation for. That it is an exciting and marvelous age I live in I cannot deny. (Totshauna would thrill to hear about the 25,000 missionaries who now tract the earth. I thrill, too.) But as the modern church grows in strength and size, and I grow along with it—full of vast and varied possibilities for personal development and eager to discover what part in the growth and development of today’s church I might play—I will be careful to remember and strive to understand that part in me that is Totshauna, that part that is there because of her. I will go to Brigham Young University and exert my mind in the study of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Shakespeare. I’ll learn how to be a writer and maybe one day write for Church publications. I’ll practice my violin for at least one hour each day, and I’ll study the scriptures and struggle to comprehend, as well as live, the gospel of Jesus Christ. But in the mornings as I prepare to meet each day of work and study, I will plait my hair and sometimes even fashion it in a crown above my oval face.