Solutions. Today many of the advanced solutions for societal problems come from developing innovative technology and accessing global resources. However, when it comes to fundamental concerns of the human heart, few things are as valuable and effective as the character, perspective, wisdom, and support of a mentor. While mentors often are found in our living network, I found a powerful mentor in a deceased ancestor a few branches up on my family tree.
Emma “Pearl” Nielson is my great grandmother. She was born in a tiny community called Sunset, Arizona in April 1880. That moment of time stands in sharp contrast to life today. While we get frustrated when the Wi-Fi isn’t working or a shower is cold, these early pioneers of the American West didn’t even have electricity or reliable water supplies. They grew or raised everything they ate, and death was not uncommon. In fact, three of Emma’s eight siblings died in early childhood.
On the outside, it seems like it would be hard to relate to this great grandmother, but I have learned so much from her life that helps me navigate through my own.
As a young girl, Pearl and her family moved to a small community in New Mexico. Because there weren’t many opportunities for relationships or education there, she left her family as a young woman to pursue a career in teaching at a school in Utah. Interestingly, many decades later I also left home as a young woman to further my education at that same school in Utah. Pearl loved to learn and loved to teach. When she got her teaching certificate, Pearl returned to the small community where her family lived to teach the children there until she got married and left to establish her own home and family. When I completed my degree, I started my own family as well, but I loved teaching children too and taught preschool in my home as a way to use my education to help others.
Pearl and her husband Elijah Allen had a small home in Arizona. They got all their water from a well and did laundry once a week in a large kettle heated by a fire in the yard. She worked hard and chose to do what she could to nurture life and make her piece of earth beautiful. They planted trees and flowers and always nourished a vegetable garden. She gave birth to ten children and nourished them all to adulthood. Along the way she also took a year to attend law school with her husband because she loved to learn so much and wanted to do something to nourish and grow her own mind.
Pearl was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease when her home was still full of children. She found ways to stay positive and manage her condition, even when she was bedridden. Her daughters would come there to tell her all about their dates. She developed a way to communicate with her children with blinks even after she lost the ability to speak. She never stopped reading; even when she couldn’t speak or hold the book herself, her children would bring her books from the library and help turn the pages for her as she signaled to them with her eyes.
I am inspired by the stories of her life and the problems she faced of survival, parenting, community building, balancing demands, struggling with her own identity while sacrificing for others, and carving out a way to make life and the world beautiful along the way. These challenges are all so relevant to women today.
Pearl passed away in 1931, more than 40 years before I was even born. Our life paths never came even close to crossing. And yet, last year while visiting Arizona, I had the strong impression to go visit a cemetery I had never been to, where I knew some of my ancestors were buried. After a lesson from a very helpful woman about how to find the graves of my relatives, I found myself standing at the final resting place of this amazing woman. I felt like she had called me there. She had some more things I needed to learn from her…things I am still working to integrate into my own life.
It makes me feel a little like the song from Disney’s movie Brother Bear.
Great Spirits of all who lived before
Take our hands and lead us
Fill our hearts and souls
With all you know…
Give us wisdom to pass to each other
Give us strength so we understand
That the things we do
The choices we make
Give direction to all life’s plans.
Her tenacity and love for family and community reach to me as I struggle with managing my own neurological challenges. She is my loving grandmother, encouraging me to work hard, have courage, keep learning, and look for beauty on days when I feel like giving up. She wraps me in a hug across generations to give the assurance that whatever problems may come, there are always solutions.