The word sallow wasn’t in my lexicon when I was a five year old staying with my Great Grandpa John Alfred and Grandma Hannah Hanson in Shelley, Idaho in the mid-1940s. To me my grandma was just old, puffy, and yellow. My grandpa was a bent skinny stick with a mustache. We were only with them a few months before my family moved into a rental house in Idaho Falls, but that was long enough to have memories indelibly scribbled on my mind-slate. After all, how many folks do you know who lived with one of the Mormon pioneers?
Grandpa was born somewhere in Nebraska in 1866 as his family drove a wagon across the plains. Since that trip was pre-transcontinental railroad, he was an “official” pioneer. His family’s ocean voyage, their railcar stint across the eastern United States, and their 1000 mile trek from Omaha to Utah were pretty typical pioneer. However, a drama played out during their journey that was a stark type of our telestial tour.
My great-great grandparents, Hakan and Karna Hanson, joined the Church in Sweden in the mid 1800’s and decided to leave all and become pioneers. The ocean crossing was uneventful, and the problems didn’t really start until they boarded the train that took them to Omaha. I’m certain they weren’t expecting first class accommodations, but riding in stock cars that had been used to haul hogs to market and were filthy and filled with lice was unimaginable. That was their transportation.
Grandma Karna brushed this off as a temporary inconvenience. After all, they were pioneers, and they knew things would be tough. Grandpa Hakan stewed. “To think we are no better than hogs!” I don’t think scenery was on his mind as the train bumped along the tracks to Omaha.
Karna was expecting another child, and Hakan was concerned about her health and the safety of the baby given the difficulty of a journey across the plains. The wagon master assured him that births among the pioneers on the plains was common, and competent midwives were available. So they began the trek.
The baby (my great grandpa) was born healthy somewhere along the trail in Nebraska, and Karna was okay. But that blessing was mitigated a few days later when they discovered their three-year-old son Neils had contracted cholera. The disease hit hard and fast. In the middle of the night, Hakan went to a neighboring wagon to borrow a candle so he could see to better care for the boy. The neighbors wouldn’t spare one, and Hakan fumed as he sat in the dark holding the limp, feverish body. He didn’t even get to see his son’s face before the boy died.
In the morning the wagon master said they would hold a short funeral service and bury the body in a shallow grave. He apologized, explaining they were in dangerous Indian country and didn’t have time to do anything more. Hakan didn’t accept this. He insisted on staying behind and digging a grave deep enough so the animals wouldn’t get to the body. The wagon train left, and throughout the day and into the night Hakan built a strong wood coffin and dug a grave five feet deep in the hard soil. Exhausted and sobbing he buried his son then walked all night to catch up with the wagon train. He was heartbroken and mad—mad at the wagon master for not waiting to give his son a proper burial. Mad at God for letting his son die.
So this was what it was like to be pioneers!
Karna tried to console him. “Father, we have to make the best of it. The baby and I are all right and, thank the Lord, the rest of us are well. If we get to our journey’s end without any more trouble, we must be very thankful to our Heavenly Father. We have joined the Mormon Church because we believed it was the only true one, and I have faith that it is. We are not the only ones that are having sorrow and trouble on this trip” (from the history of Hakan Hanson by Hannah Anderson Hanson).
They made it to the Salt Lake valley, but hardship and adversity dogged them through the rest of their lives. They each faced these challenges differently. Hakan withdrew himself and became cantankerous, bitter, and caught up in his own miseries. He stopped going to Church, and the light of Christ grew dimmer and dimmer in his life. On the other hand, Karna’s faith increased. Each new problem seemed to make her stronger. She sought to be empathetic, compassionate, and charitable, becoming an angel of mercy to many. Her family gravitated toward her and looked to her as their leader.
Grandpa Hakan and Grandma Karna for the most part had identical temporal experiences. Hakan chose to turn sour and disbelieving. Karna chose to find happiness and faith. The same experiences, different results. The experiences themselves were neutral!
By definition we are eternal beings, and what we are personally confronted with here in our mortal probation is only temporary. That being the case, each of us literally chooses the ultimate direction our experience turns for us. In essence, whether the experience becomes something “good” or something “bad;” something that leads us to the Savior, or away from Him. That’s not an advocation for Pollyannaish naivety. Rather, that’s really the way it is. Our extremities are, in fact, our choosing ground. We discover there who we are, and who we want to be.
“We will prove them herewith . . .” someone once said (See Abraham 3:25). This telestial tour we’re all on seems the perfect place for doing just that.
Note: This account of Hakan and Karna’s experience can also be found in an article I wrote for the Ensign some 35 years ago.