Home > Up Close > Women's History Month

Silent

By Maralise Petersen

I fear a Man of frugal Speech–
I fear a Silent Man–
Haranguer–I can overtake–
Or Babbler–entertain–

But He who weigheth–While the Rest–
Expend their furthest pound–
Of this Man–I am wary–
I fear that He is Grand–

–Emily Dickinson

I am the product of a long line of opinionated, flawed, and strong women. My grandmother, who stubbornly lived to be 93 years-old, raised nine children while working full-time as a night nurse. She suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis. In her later years, her back was so stooped that her once voluptuous breasts rested comfortably on her thighs. I never saw her take an aspirin, a Tylenol, or an ibuprofen for her pain. Her daughters, my six Aunts (and mom) pursued careers, managed family farms and family businesses, raised copious amounts of children, survived difficult marriages and still can’t help but cross their legs and giggle at almost every opportunity.

These women are my Mount Rushmore, my historical and institutional memory. Recently as I was reading a popular book, I was reminded of another face for my mountain. This book recounted a history of fundamentalism. It covered settlements in Utah, Arizona, Canada, and Mexico. It spoke of the nascent beginnings of these sects, their destructive past and present, and their dysfunctional and severed relationship with the mainstream LDS church. As I was looking at the maps in the book, I noticed a telling similarity between the locations of these sects and the birth and marriage locations of my great grandmother. I compared and dissected their similarities with both amazement and dismay. Now, obviously, my great grandmother lived before these sects became disassociated with the church, but her closeness to their beginnings and their locations caused questions for me. I went to my own family history for answers.

Emma Isabella Carroll married my great grandfather at the age of 21. He was 53. She was his third wife. They were married in Mexico in 1889 (one year before the Manifesto). They had five children together in less than ten years. He was murdered by a neighbor over water rights in 1899, when their youngest (my grandfather) was four months old. Emma married again (not a polygamous relationship), a man who died only a few years later. She raised five children on the sheep and cattle left to her from the sale of my great grandfather’s ranch in Pipe Springs, Arizona (the proceeds of which were divided among the three wives and a co-owner of the ranch). In my grandfather’s history, he speaks lovingly and lauditorily of his mother mentioning her frugalness, her strength, her testimony. He said, “She will always stand out in my mind as one of the great women of that day. She was active in the church and took part in public affairs.”

I can read the words of my grandfather and guess at their accuracy. I can look at her genealogical records (although she was shown to be born after she was married). I can think of her, wonder, and empathize. And yet, she is silent. She wrote no record, recorded no history. Maybe with all of her responsibilities, she just didn’t have the time. And yet, her account might illuminate something about women of that time, something about the beginnings of fundamentalism, something about being faithful to the main LDS Church in a time of change.

I am often amazed at the strength of my women heroes. I think of Emma. I think of the women who were my examples when I was young, those whose children had strayed, whose husbands had strayed. And yet they came to church every Sunday, they testified of the wholeness of the gospel, of its power to resurrect, of its ideals even when their lives were so much less (even though they knew that everything doesn’t always “work out”). My heroes are not women who live perfect lives, but women whose lives are imperfect and yet are ever-present laboratories that somehow refine and solidify their faith.

I feel both honored and inadequate to carry such a legacy. I wish I could sit with Emma and ask her what it was like–to be a third wife, to be a widow, a single parent, and a faithful saint despite of all of these things. Sometimes, I feel that the weight of the contradictions and the beauty of the nuance is too much. But I am continually enamored, confused, and awed by women like my great grandmother. I want to know the secret of their lives and their faith. I want to know what their silence says.

Do you?

About Maralise Petersen

(Emerita)

11 thoughts on “Silent”

  1. Yes.

    Thank you, this was lovely.

    Your research made me think of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's "A Midwife's Tale." She had a diary to work from, but the entries were often very brief. So she took short entries, researched the stories behind them, and made the diary's near-silence into a powerful work about the life of the midwife Martha Ballard. I confess I haven't read her other works, but I need to. I love the way she brings a voice to the silence…

    You've brought a voice to your great-grandmother,too.

    Reply
  2. This wonderful post allowed me time to ponder about my own pioneer heritage though not Mormon, and how brave and unique these women were with their own trails and hardships.

    Reply
  3. Did the murder happen in/around Kanab? I've run across it in my research. That event totally shocked that poor little town.

    Reply
  4. Emily M–For obvious reasons, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's quote, "Well-behaved women rarely make history" has crossed my mind repeatedly this month. My grandmother did behave "well." And in this case, Laurel is right. She didn't make history, but her history (even the lack of one) is very important to me. Is that enough? No. But, at the same time, it is something. Something not to be devalued.

    Glenda–What documents do you have of them?  How do you know them?  Do you feel you do/can?  Frankly, in my opinion, it's impossible to "know" these women.  But, I don't think that excludes us from trying, from dealing with the difficult issues, from grappling with the sometimes haunting nature of the past.
    Justine–Thank YOU for reading it 🙂

    Kylie–Yes! His name was Daniel Seegmiller and his other ranch (the one where he and his wives lived) was located in Upper Kanab, Kane County. I would love to know more…

    Reply
  5. Enjoyed this Maralise! What an interesting history. I am so thankful for the few things my aunt has written down about my grandmother and her family. Hmmm. Guess I'd better improve on my own journal writing!

    Reply
  6. Great post, love the image of Rushmore… I have had many spiritual experiences with my Grandmother, whom I never met, that have revealed our similarities in life. These were so valuable to me at times when I didn't feel like I had any answers. I wish I had some first hand writings but I know what I had is even better and come to think of it, I should write them down!!! Bad ME! Thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

    Reply
  7. Thanks for the story. Your great grandfather, Daniel, was my grandfather. My father (William West Seegmiller)told the story of the killing differently than I have read in some versions. I think I will write my father's version as I can best remember it. When/if I do I will try to remember this place and post it.

    Reply
  8. Maralise, I just stumbled upon this entry while Googling "Mt. Seegmiller" and I have to tell you that your great-grandmother Emma left pages and pages of her life and history. She's my husband's "Grandma Great" but I claim her as a sister in spirit and intend to publish her writings in the next year. She probably rolled over in her grave when you wrote "And yet, she is silent. She wrote no record, recorded no history." She loved writing and had a beautiful way with words. She had strong feelings and expressed them. Her life was difficult, but she lived it fully. Why don't you email us at kseegmiller@bresnan.net and let's get acquainted.

    Reply

Leave a Comment