Catherine, Lost and Found

Thursday, October 29, 2020

This story is of my 7th great grandmother Catherine, pictured on the right, next to her husband Alexander. Earlier this year I felt pulled to find and tell her story. Because Catherine did not keep journals and because the only records for her are brief mentions in her husband's biography, most of my understanding of Catherine's story has come through meditative and dream experiences, as well as some creative imaginings from my own experiences as a woman and mother to fill in any blanks. Its taken me months to gain her trust and learn to understand what she most needed from me. I am grateful for the thinness between veils during this Samhain time because it has provided great clarity and purity of communication and understanding between Catherine and I. We have accomplished something we are both proud of.


Catherine Elinore Lince Beckstead, born July 6, 1807 in Williamsburg, Canada, just north of the St. Lawrence river that borders upstate New York, was a little girl once. And though I can't say for certain, I imagine her to be always in love with something. With a heart open to the sky, the trees, the river that carried her secrets and dreams out to sea, how could she not be? Catherine, who loved vanilla custard and the smell of freshly-turned dirt on her family's farm, had a heart for adventure and a lust for something more. What exactly, she couldn't say, but the way the fish glimmer just beneath the surface of rushing water and the nodding of the wildflowers at the edge of the woods whispered hints tp her every once in a while. Yes, more. Something more. And so her childhood was one of chores like baking bread, sweeping floors, planting seeds, shucking corn; but it was also a childhood of picking sun-ripened berries from the bushes. What July lass can resist the sugared promises of destiny?

Was it destiny, Catherine, that brought Alexander to you? You played as children together. Perhaps you were friends that made mud pies and looked for frogs in the irrigation ditches. Maybe there was a childhood hate there, an envy, a jealousy of the way he got to ride the horses with your brothers, swim the river naked with your brothers, be free, like your brothers. Maybe he promised you freedom when he proposed marriage to you. At 15, a girl with a heart open to the sky, the trees, the river that carried her secrets and dreams out to sea, how could you not believe him?

Together you both created a life you thought you'd love - your own home, your own farm, your own family. Not long after you turned 16, you gave birth to Margaret, your perfect baby girl. And in years coupled together, Gordon and Henry and William came too. And for a moment, everything was perfect. The babies cried and there were always chores, the same chores of baking bread and sweeping floors and then some, but all seemed right in the world. The fish scales still glimmered, the wind still shared her laughter with you, the clouds still brought in blessings like rain. Yes, Catherine. This is the life you wanted. This is the life you deserved.

Then suddenly, William died. At nine months old, that baby boy died. He slipped out right from under you, through your fingers, in your arms - no one's really sure how it happened, and neither are you. That's why you never wrote it down. He was there one moment, and the next you were hanging a freshly-cleaned cloth diaper on the line for the last time. Your breasts were still heavy with milk, your arms still heavy with the grief, nowhere to put any of it, so it absorbed into the same softness your body was using now for another baby, already 3 months along in your womb.

Things were different after William. You stopped hearing cloud songs and the river lost her sparkle. Even when Harriet was born, you couldn't stop the flood of worries. Who will you lose next? Who will will disappear into the cold softness of your grief? You were sure it would be another one of your children. You were so wrapped in your shawl of tender loss and increased responsibility, you had no time, no energy, no life left to pay attention to Alexander. That's when you lost him. You may hate me, Catherine, for speaking the truth out loud, but you must allow me here to open this wound. With William, Alexander lost himself too.

He was alive enough to plow the fields and trade and barter and lick the lingering lard from the biscuits you baked for dinner each night, but not enough life was left in him to love. The warm arms you slept in turned cold from blame and hatred. His affections didn't turn elsewhere; they just up and vanished, just like your little William. And then, you were alone in most senses of the word. Alone, with Margaret and Gordon and Henry and now, Harriet too. Alone, with emptiness to hold and no one to hold you.

Years went by, and with them more children came. But it was around this time too that Alexander met the Mormons. With the missionaries, everything changed, especially Alexander. He was alive again. Not alive enough to love, but alive enough to find Jesus and try. That's good enough, you thought to yourself, and it was out of this sheer woman's hope , that you agreed to move to the United States and put down roots in Missouri.

But you weren't there long. Catherine, you never kept journals, but the horrors I know you saw in Missouri haunt you to this day. I know, because I have dreams of them. Eventually your family escaped with the Saints to Nauvoo, Illinois. And for just a moment, everything was right again. Not perfect, maybe, and not the warm life you'd known in Canada, but it was right. William was gone, but Alexander, was born anew. There was warmth in his eyes, in his arms, in your bed again. You were familiar with not enough by now, so good enough felt just right to you.

Then Joseph Smith died, and the Saints, led by that character Brigham, made their way across the plains to Utah. You had 10 children now, and the trek was intimidating. More than that though, was a feeling. Just a feeling, you told yourself, but the sinking, writhing in your stomach said otherwise. You tried to convince Alexander to stay, but he was determined. "After all, we've come this far," he said, and like a good wife, you didn't argue. Your energy was spent elsewhere - on the twins growing in you.

Your journey began, and I refuse to desecrate it now with primary songs of pioneers singing and dreaming and come come ye July 24th fireworks and parades, because the walk and the handcart and the story of your crossing is nothing to sing about. Screaming, perhaps, but what song can honor the truth of Lucy Ann, your 13 year old baby lady, buried in an unmarked grave beside the trail?

The books and records don't say why, from what, or exactly how. But it matters little. Lucy Ann was there one moment, and the next there was freshly-turned dirt and wildflowers sodden with tears where her freckles and soft-beating joy used to be. Lucy Ann, who had never rested safely since moving from Canada, who walked from violence to violence as one changes coats for shawls as the seasons turn, rested now.

I know you wanted to mourn. I know you wanted to scream at the sky, beat your fists on the heart and Alexander's chest, but everyone urged you to stay calm and press on. After all, the babies needed you. And so you endured, like the good Mormon girl you'd become. And on an August summer morning, there was blood, birth, breath as John Alma arrived earthside, pink and hungry. And on that same August summer morning, there was freshly-turned dirt and wildflowers sprinkled with tears for Mary Ellen, who arrived long enough to breathe a breath that was both her hello and farewell.

Mourn not, they said. I can hear it now. What do they know? You couldn't see it then Catherine, but I can now, and I will tell you: they, the grand "they" of prophets and prideful men, have forgotten what it means to be alive. They have forgotten the rightness of sodden wildflowers, of bursting and breaking and the beating of chests. They have forgotten that it is from the ashes of grief that love is reborn.

William. Lucy. Mary. You did not grieve them then. Can I let you in on a little secret? Glimmering fish and sparkling waters that carry your secret dreams out to sea makes for a good story, but it makes for a shallow life. Even if you've never admitted it to anyone, you know in the way important things are known that fish, especially those that glimmer, are caught, gutted, roasted, eaten; that rivers that sparkle run over rock and carry sediment and shells sharp as knives out to sea. Life is rarely kind, Catherine, but it was especially not so to you. Can you see that now? Can you grieve that now? Come, let us gather the tattered scraps of promise and weave our stories together. I'll warp, you weft. It is the tension between us that binds.

You made it to Utah, and This Is The Place looked more like tumbleweed and crumbling rock than it did a blossoming rose. Alexander decided to settle the area of South Jordan. I'm not sure if you'll be happy to know this or not, but the city still exists and their website, unlike their monuments, lists Alexander and your name as the founding members of the city. But Catherine, I know this matters little to you, and so it matters little to me. You'd rather be remembered for William, for Lucy, for Mary, and Amanda Jane, who died just a year after arriving to Utah, right after her eighth birthday.

What you'd rather not be remembered for is your husband, who had forgotten the love and the family of his youth, who had all but abandoned his heart somewhere between Ottowa and South Jordan, and spent his days digging ditches that would one day be known as the South Jordan canal. You spent your days split, looking after the 12 children living, and looking for the 4 gone in the darkness of the dirt dugout you had to call home. I know you looked for them. I know you are looking for them still. Catherine, between you and me, you've really messed up my ideas of heaven and hell. You come to me in dreams and tell me you can't find Lucy and Mary, and you weep the bitter tears I used to think were reserved for sin alone. All is not well, and has not been for some time.

When Alexander came to you and told you he was taking a second wife, you had no fight in you left. That was always his way - to ask for just the thing when you were too tired and overworked to give an opinion one way or another. He didn't love you; not like he used to. Not like he should. So what did it matter to you that he took another wife?

Indeed, I would like to know Catherine, what did it matter to you when Alexander, 52 married Keziah Petty, 19? What did it matter to you, to see his arms and lips and legs wrapped around a woman, a ghost-in-living-flesh of the woman you used to be? Young and bright like the glimmering sea? What did it matter to you that Keziah's son looked a spitting image of William, the only difference being that her's lived and yours did not? And what did it matter to you that soon after that, Alexander, 54 married Clarissa, 19? And kept wrapping and kissing and sleeping and being, but not with you? What was it to you to be together apart?

Catherine, there is an old story from your homeland of creatures called the huldra. Perhaps you know it? The huldra are a species of shapeshifting forest creatures. Sometimes they are fox, or deer, or wolf, but they all have one thing in common in their human form: from the front they look like a beautiful woman, but if you were ever to catch a glimpse of their back, you would see a gaping hole that revealed the emptiness inside their being. They were known for seducing men into their bed, allowing the men to live if they pleased them and killing them if they did not. Therefore, it is always a risk to love a huldra.

It might please you, Catherine, to hear me call Keziah and Clarissa huldra, but I cannot tell a lie. The huldra your husband loved and worshipped was known by different names: polygamy. pride. gluttony. greed. lust. fear. privilege. pain. This huldra called to him from the edges of being to satisfy her again and again with more, more, more. Again and again he answered, spilling his seed from his hard and hollow love into a creature that wanted nothing more than a warm body to suck life from. For what can fill a bottomless chasm?

Alexander died in the arms of the huldra that had taken over what we now call the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-Day Saints). If only they were as picky about the way they treated their people as they are about their name. Even after his death, you watched the huldra consume the people you loved most - your sons, your daughters, your friends. You died in 1889. You were warm and safe in your daughter's home. I'd like to think that then, just for a moment here, a moment there, everything was right. Not perfect, and not the life you'd have known in Canada, but good enough.

You passed, Catherine, but only to the other side. I've never been there, and I can't claim in good conscience to know anything about what it might be like. But I met you in a roller skating rink in a dream once. Was that a hint? Either way, I have a message for you.

Catherine, you have wept in the night to me that Lucy Ann and Mary Ellen are lost to you. This has always confused me, because even though I too have wept for their pain and yours, they don't feel lost to me. They have never visited me, nor I them, but I feel them, nearer than breath if I slow down to notice. I couldn't understand why you couldn't feel them too. But then, last night, I remembered the huldra.

Catherine, my friend, my mother, with all the love in my heart I must tell you that Lucy and Mary are not lost. You have simply been looking in the wrong place. There is no life for the living or the dead in the back of a huldra. Sometimes promises are so beautiful that they obscure pain and untruth behind them. I say this with the gentleness of a mother wrapping a blanket over a sleeping child: perhaps you were lied to. Perhaps the huldra, wrapped in the guise of a patriarchal religion with a vengeful god and a thinly-veiled suspicion of women, still is keeping you enraptured. Will you come away with me, Catherine?

Stories from your homeland, from the wisdom older than history tell of a place, not so unlike the "other side," called the Other World. Here there is food and dessert of every kind, of fine wine and great halls full of laughter, of joy and pleasure. Here families feast together, love is found again and anew, and something with a strikingly Godlike is there. But here in the Other World, she is known by different names. I wonder what hers is to you?

You know, in the way important things are known, how to get there. Go to the bank of the river. Yes. The very same one with glimmering fish and shimmering secrets and dreams carried out to sea. Begin walking. Wade until you must swim, for what do you see on the opposite bank? Could it be?

William, Lucy, Mary, Amanda, waiting for you in the warmth of the arms of the Queen.

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