by Martha Sonntag Bradley
and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward
Martha Sonntag Bradley
[p.483] Where are the traces of the Zinas in Zina Brown’s story? In what ways did her life follow a pattern drawn before her birth and in what ways did she redefine her life to make it her own? Like her mother and grandmothers, Zina Brown’s life was prescribed by gender. Hers was the traditional Mormon family, and in some ways she was the quintessential 1950s housewife. But if asked to define her life, she would have said she did not want a life made easy because of modern conveniences, but rather one that was good. She did not receive many accolades—she was known primarily throughout the church as the wife of a distinguished man. But how much did that cost her? Her life ended with a husband who adored her, children who spoke fondly and respectfully of her memory. Hers was the story of a marriage in the truest sense. Undoubtedly she would have said it cost her nothing to have such a life, that rather she had been richly blessed.
Four generations of women. Each unique but each engaged in a dance through space with sheets of silk billowing in the air behind them. What dreams sustained Zina Baker during her move to upstate New York? What convinced Zina Diantha to enter plural marriage? What did Zina Card give thanks for and celebrate? In Zina Brown’s dream of romantic love fulfilled, what lessons does her life teach of sacrifice, selflessness, and support?
What questions does each woman’s life pose? The “knots,” the conundrums, the paradoxes, the parts they would have diminished or explained away. Zina Baker’s unfortunate slide down the economic ladder [p.484] until her death, Zina Diantha’s sacrifice of a good man in a loving and stable marriage, Zina Card’s practical first marriage and sacrificial second marriage, Zina Brown’s marriage for love and the resulting abandonment of education and career.
As writers, we know that a certain level of engagement with our subjects is inevitable. But here, our subjects are also our muses. Perhaps it is impossible to satisfy all our queries, but even as these questions linger we feel their answers—reflections of four portraits. It matters that they lived, for these were four women of strength and courage who persevered on the frontiers of their time. They built communities and homes, had babies and buried loved ones, gave speeches and spoke in tongues, were recognized by leaders of countries and by the children at their feet. The cycle began with Zina Baker in Watertown, and moved through her daughter, to her granddaughter to Zina Brown. Faith, family, work, and mutual support spun the fiber of their lives. Their legacy may ultimately be indecipherable, but the effort is rewarding.
Many modern women—Mormon or not—are engaged in the struggle to redefine themselves. In this they must reconcile traditional historical definitions of women with modern scripts our culture says are worth living for. Sometimes the pull seems to be between two incompatible poles. Yet while these definitions appear to be mutually exclusive, modern women must somehow integrate them into their lives.
Most often they are defined by their tribal identification or association with their church, its history and future. Their destiny is necessarily that of their people, and their sense of identity is in many ways proscribed by the group and is difficult to separate out. In this history, in this cultural mythos, there have been few female figures of significance who have had exemplary lives and whose stories show the way female lives fit in. More often than not, it is left to the historian to ferret out the meaning of their lives.
When a botanist studies the forest, she celebrates the richness of the ecological balance—the ways the maple and chestnut coexist, the ways underbrush and weed sustain and nourish the earth. Diversity makes the forest strong. Diversity makes the system work. Similarly, the traditional telling of Mormon history often fails to recognize the rich diversity of experience that formed the past—women and men contributed differently.
[p.485] If Zina Diantha were to recount to her daughter stories of what it meant to be female in nineteenth-century Utah, she would tell about cooking and childbearing, menstruation and pregnancy, gods and heroes, angels and devils. She would tell stories about the land and the sky, of the trail west, of Illinois and Missouri—stories of snakes and spiders, horses and cows. Zina would tell her about dressing and undressing; about herself, her mother, and her sister; about grieving and laughing; about healing with herbs and faith; stories about who she was, where she came from, who she was supposed to be. Through the words she used and the images she spun, she would capture what life was and was not. But most of what she told would not be of the traditional history of great men. Women like the four Zinas lived both ordinary and extraordinary lives, defined in large measure by the routine familiar to all women of their time, the fulfillment of dream and mission and satisfaction together. Each might have hoped for more or better, perhaps for less pain or difficulty, but they made the most of what they had.
It would be tempting to make heros of these women, and one catches oneself using too many superlatives—the most generous, the most spiritual, the most kind. They made the people around them feel better; they worked with them, cared for them, tended to their every need. They did this because it was who they were. They defined themselves by what they did and they handed that heritage from mother to daughter with each generation.
As historians, we hope our readers will love the read. The narrative of the lives of these women is rich and entertaining. But there is also much to learn here. We can never make the journeys these women made—traveling in the back of a bouncing wagon crossing to Missouri, riding the train to Canada, or moving through a series of marriages or homes, for it seems that such great journeys or challenges no longer exist. But the journey still informs each day we live.
It has been a remarkable experience to walk with the daughters of this last Zina, to dine with them, to watch them move through their kitchens or homes. Each gesture seems to take on added significance, as I have thought, “That must be the way Zina taught her to make pie crust, or to set a table.” When my father was dying recently, I complained of a sick stomach. Zina’s daughter Mary told me to go home and make [p.486] ginger tea using a recipe recommended by her mother. The lines that run from mother to daughter are not as tangible as rope, but are nonetheless gracefully strung through women as strands of gold. It matters that Zina was their mother, Zina Presendia their grandmother, and that Zina Diantha and Zina Baker are in them too. Their stories are our stories yet unfinished.