When I was young, before I started school, I was sometimes asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without hesitation, I would eagerly respond: “When I grow up, I want to be a grandpa.” In my mind this was a perfectly acceptable occupation, for even if I did not know what I wanted to do for work, I knew that I wanted to be as good, and kind, and loving and wonderful as my grandfather, Frank Alan Woodbury.
I adored my grandfather. I loved cuddling into his arm on the couch and reading “The Poky Little Puppy,” “Harry the Very Dirty Dog,” or scriptures from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. I remember Thanksgiving at Grandma and Grandpa’s home in Dallas when I, in company with several other grandchildren, crowded around Grandpa’s chair to see the test results of his blood sugar test. Was it low enough for us to start serving the banana cream pie? I remember his smile and the kind twinkle in his eye as we would work on puzzles together, play a game, or build a Lego creation.
Perhaps my clearest memories of Grandpa are centered around beautiful music. I loved listening to him sing in his deep melodious voice, “How Great Thou Art,” “Come, Come Ye Saints,” and other hymns. Other times I joined in the singing standing by grandma’s piano, or sitting around a campfire, in the church building, or in our living room. When Grandma and Grandpa Woodbury came to visit, they often helped with the bedtime routine for us younger children at which time we were treated to our favorite lullaby:
“My pigeon house I open wide, and let the birdies free
They fly over hills on every side and light on the tallest tree.
And when they return from their merry merry flight
I close my eyes and say goodnight.
Coo a roo, coo a roo, coo a roo coo a roo coo a roo coo a roo coo a roo”
So connected were grandma and grandpa’s visits to this song, that all growing up, Grandpa Woodbury was known as “Grandpa Coo-a-roo.” This lullaby is a precious part of my family heritage. Grandma and Grandpa Woodbury sang it to their children. My parents sang it to me. Now, my cousins, my siblings and I sing it to our children – an enduring four-generation legacy of Grandma and Grandpa Coo-a-roo.
Another song that has formed a family tradition is “Till We Meet Again.” Frank’s parents, George Lambert Woodbury and Susannah Louisa Capson regularly sang this song during their courtship just after World War I. Frank and his wife, continued to sing it in their family, and now a chorus of descendants sing it at every family reunion:
“Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu,
When the clouds roll by I’ll come to you,
Then the skies will seem more blue,
Down in lovers lane my dearie,
Wedding bells will ring so merrily,
Every tear will be a memory,
So wait and pray each night for me,
Till we meet again.”
Though I am still working on my goal of becoming a grandfather (and still have a way to go), and though I may not be able to adopt that as a full-time line of work, in another way Grandpa Woodbury did have a direct influence on my eventual choice of profession. The beginning of my decision to become a genealogist can be traced back to Christmas 1997, just after my eighth birthday.
For families of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an eighth birthday is an important milestone. It is when many children make the decision to be baptized and confirmed members of the church. In December 1997, I decided that I wanted to be baptized and I decided that Grandpa Woodbury was the one I wanted to do it, so Grandma and Grandpa Woodbury made the twelve hour drive from their home in Dallas to join our family for Christmas followed by my baptism a few days later.
That Christmas was not only special because of the excitement of my baptism. It was also special because of the Christmas present that I received from Grandma and Grandpa: a family history binder. It included a pedigree chart, stories and pictures from my dad’s youth, and an account of my grandparents’ courtship and early years. I was enthralled. The pedigree chart showing my recent ancestry from New England, Norway, Sweden, and France captured my attention and helped me feel a connection to those locations. The pictures of my dad as a young man, my aunts and uncles, and my more distant ancestors seemed so familiar and inviting. The accounts of my grandparents’ lives were at various times, humorous, exciting, emotional, difficult and inspirational. All in all, this precious gift helped me realize that I was part of something bigger and that there was so much to learn about the family that came before me: their lives, their struggles, their successes, their sorrows and their legacies.
To me, the lives of my ancestors seem like a song. Just as notes of music rise and fall, just as volume crescendos and fades, so do my ancestors’ lives. As I research their experiences and stories, I uncover a rich harmony of interconnecting pieces supporting transcendent melodies. Some are jubilant, some are tragic, some grandiose, some hardly noticeable. Blues, operas, ballads and folk music – all are represented in the stories of their lives and continue on through my own.
My last time with grandpa was at a family reunion in Pearl Lake, Colorado. Some of the family had gone canoeing at dusk. Grandpa and I stayed behind singing songs around the campfire. After darkness had settled, he walked down to the lake, with his flashlight. Standing on the shore he sang to the boats coming in .
“Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from his lighthouse evermore,
But to us he gives the keeping of the lights along the shore…
Trim your feeble lamps my brother; some poor sailor, tempest tossed
Trying now to make the harbor, in the darkness may be lost.
Let the lower lights be burning send a gleam across the wave
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman you may rescue you may save.”
A few weeks later, he “closed his eyes” one last time for a final goodnight. At the funeral, we sang “Till We Meet Again.” As I reflect on his life, and on the lives of so many other ancestors, I can’t help but be grateful for the lights that their lives are for me along the treacherous shores of life. Learning about their sorrows, successes, mistakes and joys helps me to find joy in my own life.
In this Easter season, we celebrate rebirth, renewal and resurrection and more particularly the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of this, I look forward to a future when “we [will] meet again.” I look forward to a reunion with my Savior Jesus Christ. I also look forward to a reunion with my grandfather, and my other ancestors. The people that I have come to love as I have studied their lives and stories.
- For my sister’s account of this experience, see: Julia Woodbury, “The Light along the Shore,” New Era (July 2010) p. 38, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2010/07/the-light-along-the-shore?lang=eng, accessed April 2020.