Sacred Coincidences

As I write this in the dark of night, my mind flooding with thoughts, I realize that I’m about to share some things with you that are deeply personal and sacred.

I recognize as well that I am about to share some history of living individuals and that I’m going to share some stories and a history that is yet unfinished. It is a story that continues to unfold.

I do it because there is a longer view to family that I think we all need to consider.

There are forces at work that we cannot see.

And there are coincidences that in time we need to recognize as something more. They are sacred, precious morsels that connect us to family past, present and future.

I’ll begin by sharing something that happened just this week. My sister-in-law, Mary Westover, sent me a Facebook message.

“I have a Family Search question,” Mary said.

I’m still getting used to that statement. That is usually how conversations begin when you get asked something as a family history consultant.

Mary is pretty knowledgeable about family history and has about as much experience as I do in family research. If she had a question for me I figured it likely had to be something of a stumper.

But I soon learned that Mary was pretty upset, too.

She had just visited Family Search and was horrified to find that someone had swapped out her great-grandmother for someone else with a similar name. Whoever did this added a bunch of children from another part of the world to her great-grandfather, listing these strangers with similar names as his children.

To make matters worse, they had initiated temple work for all these names that were similar but not really connected.

So Mary had good reason to be upset.

This is the grandmother whose name was given to her and she had invested a lot of time in working on her information.

This is a natural and good byproduct of doing Family History: you become attached. Your names become your people – family! – so it doesn’t feel good to have that changed.

Hearts that are turned can be easily broken – or at least shaken until things can get sorted out.

For Mary, it was a time of panic and tears.

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When I returned home from my mission in the spring of 1984 I had found that the world in my family –and particularly among my siblings — had changed. The 1980s were formative years for us all and in my absence the dynamics had quickly shifted.

My big brother, Jay, was likely leading the charge in change.

I do not know the details of their courtship and how Jay and Mary came together entirely. But I can recall meeting Mary for the first time at my parent’s home and sensing something about her that I couldn’t quite understand.

It was a unique feeling and one that I would only feel again when I met my wife.

Some of that feeling extended in part to meeting her daughter, Darcy, who was maybe four years old or even younger at the time.

I was quite taken with Darcy.

She was this shy little thing, almost too scared to look at me. I tried so hard to get her to trust me and I think Mary recognized that.

What I saw in Darcy was a new experience in my life – a new level to my identity.

She would become the eldest child of my big brother – the first of the next generation in our family.

Darcy made me an uncle. I wanted very much to matter to her and to be close to her and the others who would come after.

I was experiencing a lot of firsts during these years. I was struggling to find what I felt was the right kind of person to marry. That was the natural next step in my life but all around me I could only see people my age as being much the same as they were when I was in high school. But this time I had changed – and I was looking for someone who had grown some since high school, too.

Mary’s relationship to Darcy caught my attention in a significant way.

Here was someone my age that seemed to possess a rare talent and ability.

Of course, I had seen these attributes in lots of women in my life before and they are commonly associated with motherhood.

But I had not yet seen it in a contemporary and in Mary’s love for Darcy I saw absolute devotion, duty and endless love. It gave me a tremendous amount of respect for her.

I only stayed home after my mission for a few months. Then I left for the wilds of Utah and Idaho, not to return to California for nearly five years – except for occasional visits.

One of those visits came when Mary was baptized.

A few years ago Mary told me I had played a role in her conversion story. I’m sorry to say I do not recall doing the things she said I did. But I’m sure it was driven out of not only my love for the Gospel but also of a desire to grow closer to this new sister and my first niece.

I did not recognize then that trip, that day or that event as a huge moment in our family history. I did not see it then.

But I see it now.

In fact, I see now that room was filled with a lot of people I didn’t know then as being important to me.

In the room there that day was my future wife and my first daughter – as a baby.

Coincidence? Maybe.

Sandy and Mary had met while working in the same place. They both just happened to work for the same company that both my brother and my dad did. In fact, it was the same company – Longs Drugs — that I had once worked for in high school and the one that I would work for again some four years later.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

Looking back on it now we get good laughs from all these coincidences.

One of the great artifacts in our family archives is a certificate Sandy received from completing some training she received from Longs. That certificate bears my father’s signature. It was signed years before Sandy and I met.

Sandy and Mary were both single Moms. I would also call them kindred spirits. I wasn’t there but knowing them now I can easily imagine how quickly they took to each other.

They were not only close in age but similar in circumstance and made of the same heart – sisters in every way, a fact that has not changed from that day to this.

Sandy was at Mary’s baptism because she loved her.

Sandy, as long as I have known her, has always expressed her love and admiration for Mary.

She has told me many times that she knew then Mary would be a lifelong friend.

I don’t know at what point Sandy and Mary discussed the Church but I don’t find it any coincidence that their relationship took a deeper turn as Mary embraced the gospel.

I didn’t really enter into their association until a few years later.

I came home to California in late 1988 and returned to work at the same company. On weekends I would sometimes travel out to Modesto to visit Jay and Mary and to enjoy the company of my young nieces.

I wasn’t around much when Amy was born but I was there quite a bit when Katy was born and got quite attached to the kids.

Sandy and Mary had remained friends and, in fact, Mary was sometimes babysitting Aubree, who got on famously with her future cousins.

Mary was instrumental in Sandy and I coming together because she knew us both so very well.

I’m sure it felt to her like a long-time effort to make it happen. But it happened because Mary gently urged me to pay attention to this woman whose child she was babysitting.

The story of our courtship has become something of legend and I’m not sure if I’m getting all the details right here because I wasn’t part of the conspiracy. I was just victim to it, you could say.

But Mary showed Sandy a video that was shot during a trip to Disneyland. It included me because I was there with Jay, Mary and the girls on that trip.

The way the story goes Sandy saw me in the video, heard angels singing, called the guy she was dating to break it off and then announced to her parents that she had found her husband.

That’s the legend.

But there’s another video. And in that video you can clearly hear Mary and Sandy strategizing how to set up a “chance” meeting between us.

Whatever is truth and whatever is legend in that story doesn’t really matter at this point.

What matters is that we met – and Jay and Mary were right in the middle of it.

As Sandy and I did meet, and there was attraction there, I can recall wrestling a little bit about becoming involved with a woman who had a child.

I had never considered the idea and I wondered if I should be bothered about it.

As my feelings for Sandy developed I began to take inventory of some things.

I recalled my mother’s situation. She grew up with a step-father. And I thought of him – a man who had taken on another man’s child. That worked out – why wouldn’t it work out for me?

I thought of my brother. And, by that point, I thought of my little brother, too.

Both had married single Moms.

But mostly I thought of Mary.

Her quiet devotion to her children put her heart on public display and it was good. To me it made her stand out from most other women I knew that were my age. I saw those same sacred attributes in Sandy.

She wanted all the right things and would work and sacrifice in whatever way she needed to in order to do right by her child.

Mary taught me to see that in Sandy – and for a man who suffered in the brutal LDS dating scene of the 1980s — it was like water to a man in desert.

If it had not been for Mary I doubt very much I would have had eyes to see it.

What I was learning about Mary during these years was that she had an uncommon vision for family. That she could see me as her brother or Sandy as her sister wasn’t a far-fetched idea.

But for her to see Aubree as her niece and her children and our yet unborn children as cousins is something special.

And she saw that.

What makes that so surprising was that when I met Mary she had so few family connections of her own. Her parents were living in difficult circumstances and her siblings were scattered far and wide. She had half siblings, some that at that point I don’t think she even knew about.

Her family situation was mixed at best and hopelessly disconnected. She was largely alone.

But what I was to learn about Mary Westover was that she would gather and rebuild her family – seemingly from the ashes of disaster – one person at a time.

And she just loves them. All of them.

She leaves nobody out.

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Family Search has a “helper” feature. Using that feature I was able to log into Mary’s Family Search account this week to see what was going on with her stolen great grandmother.

Clearly someone had not done even the most basic of research and attached the wrong names to the wrong people.

This happens a lot with common names and there likely is no more common couple pairing in family research than the names Thomas and Mary Brown.

These are the names of Mary’s great, great grandparents. They came from Scotland.

The people who had hijacked her family names all hailed from Canada.

I was able to detach those names and the “sources” associated with them and restore Mary’s grandmother using information that Mary was feeding me.

I peppered her with questions about her Grandma Mary.

Where was she born? Who were her parents? What were the names of her children? Do you have dates and names for them?

All these questions and more Mary knew and instantly answered me as I asked them.

I was amazed.

I asked Mary where she had found all and was keeping all this information if it wasn’t on Family Search. She told me she was using Ancestry.

That’s pretty common.

Many use Family Search just as another resource in searching for family names. It isn’t their primary family history venue.

That is a mistake.

Family Search needs your constant attention for one reason and one reason alone: that is where temple work is centered.

In the end, that is all that matters.

When you don’t keep Family Search as your primary record keeping location you will run into situations like Mary’s. And it can be heart breaking.

I like Ancestry and I use Ancestry.

But Ancestry, for all of its tools and resources, has the same problem with public information sharing as Family Search does. Much of it is wrong.

What makes Family Search better is the fact that it is infinitely better staffed to catch and deal with wrong information than Ancestry or any other paid-for resource ever can be.

After all, there are tens of thousands of Temple and Family History Consultants out there and who knows how many thousands of volunteers constantly keeping watch and helping on Family Search.

Family Search has one central goal – to have one tree for the entire family of man and to take them ALL to the temple.

Ancestry and other resources online take a different approach.

Instead of one tree they deal with millions of trees.

On Ancestry you can make your family tree public and many people do because they are looking for information from other people who might help them make their trees more complete.

In fact, you can link one tree to another in Ancestry.

That can be a good thing or a bad thing – depending on the quality of research that goes into each tree.

On Family Search we’re all together working on one world family tree.

Anyone can add to it – and anyone can take away from it.

The way you keep information from changing is to keep vigilant watch over your ancestors and keep adding sources, pictures, documents and supplementary information that strengthens the record.

Over time, with many people adding source material to the names of their family the more solid the tree becomes.

I’m not saying to get rid of Ancestry. I’m saying to use it for what it is and make Family Search your #1 priority.

Put all your information there. Sources get listed and linked there. Upload photos, stories and histories there.

Don’t leave your family alone EVER on Family Search.

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My first clue that something was “going on” with our family on the other side came when Jay and Mary went to the temple to be sealed.

I don’t recall the exact date but I’m certain it came after my Grandpa passed away in 1988.

They went to the Los Angeles Temple, I think because the Oakland Temple was closed at the time. There were not a lot of family members that could be there because of that fact but I was a single guy with a lot of time on my hands so I traveled to LA for the event.

My brother and I were both a bit surprised to run into my Great Uncle Gordon at the temple in the dressing room. Jay had invited him, as he had several other family members, and Gordon came.

To be honest, neither Jay nor I knew Uncle Gordon well. We had only had a few scant opportunities to interact with him during our growing up years.

But he came out of love and kindness. He came because we are family. He came out of respect not only for what was happening in the temple that day but also out of concern for his brother’s grandchildren.

I can never forget him for that.

I can recall how he sat us both down in that dressing room and expressed love for us and on behalf of his brother he expressed pride and gave counsel.

Jay and I then had a very spiritual experience that I dare not recount here. But we talked of it later with wonder and gratitude. It was a moment that was appropriate for the Temple and one that demonstrated plainly how connected we remain as family even after death.

After the day was over and I began a long drive home I had hours and hours to contemplate what had transpired.

It was a humbling moment of revelation that made me both giddy and breathless. But I struggled to determine what it meant and why we were given that vision.

For days I prayed over it and contemplated it.

It was only after a long period of pondering that it came to me.

This all happened because of Mary.

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I was able to get Mary’s great grandmother back in pretty short order.

Once done, I decided to see what I could quickly find on Mary’s Thomas and Mary Brown and their children.

My goal was to just pick the low hanging fruit that is so freely available on Family Search, just to solidify their records so that others who might come along and try to hijack them again would have something in front of them to give them pause.

I spent about an hour linking what records I could quickly find.

I learned that Thomas and Mary lived at least into the 1930s and their eldest son, also named Thomas, was known as Reverend Thomas Murray Brown – and he lived and died nearby and had a large family of his own.

These new bits of information, combined with the good work Mary had already done, went a long way to strengthening the Brown family record on Family Search.

This family history “incident”, common as it is, also yielded some uncommon observations for me personally – and they have kept me up the past several nights.

Mary’s family back in the early 20th century was located within a short distance of where my mother’s family lived during the same time frame.

Coincidence? Maybe.

But all the evidence we were using to re-connect her Mary Jenkins Brown to Thomas Murray Brown suggested that Tom Brown was a coal miner in Scotland who came to work the coal mines in northwestern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

That was the same situation for my wife’s family.

All of Sandy’s father’s family are from that very same area in the early 20th century – and were coal miners as well.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

But how many loose connections over time start to form a visible structure?

Just how many coincidences do you have to experience before you start to suspect something greater is going on?

After all, Mary had many close brushes with the Westover family long before she ever met Jay.

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Mary’s childhood years were spent in Northern California and she lived for long period of time in the Concord area.

Coincidence? Not at all.

But she first attended school for a few years where Aunt Evie was teaching and she lived within walking distance to where we would live later as a family.

Coincidence? Ummm…hard to say.

Mary tells me that she grew up wanting to work at Longs. She loved the women’s uniform smock, the white one with the green piping. Is it any wonder that’s where she ended up?

I’m not sure where her interest in family history took root. I’m sure it came with her development in the knowledge of the gospel.

I can recall listening to an exchange between Mary and my Mom years ago when my folks were in Concord.

Mom was advising Mary on how to find out military information about her father. I can recall Mary very anxiously wanting to know about her father’s service record and Mom being a little fearful of what Mary might learn.

I never asked my Mom why she felt that way and now I kind of regret it. All I know is that in the ensuing years Mary did learn about her father and that through whatever she learned of his history it caused her to see her father with greater respect and love.

I met Mary’s father a couple of times – oddly enough, in the company of Mary’s brother.

By the time I met him he was old and living alone. His condition and his circumstances were pretty rough. I can recall talking with Mary about him after she would visit him, too.

When he later passed away it was Mary who made arrangements for his burial with military recognition and it was Mary who started to tell the stories of her father’s life to her family.

As her mother aged and had health issues it was Mary who would travel to be there for her. Her mother’s situation was not ideal either but Mary did all she could to help.

I don’t get the impression that life was always happy between Mary’s parents or that her childhood was filled with many great family moments. All I know is that in their waning days it was

Mary who went to the rescue and since their passing it has been Mary who has honored their memory.

She has also gathered her siblings and made efforts to get to know them and their lives.

When I think of the “welding link” that the Prophet Joseph spoke of in regards to family history and temple work I think of people like Mary and my Mom – lone agents in their families with the vision of what an eternal thing the family is.

Hundreds of years from now, when Mary is someone’s great, great grandmother visible on Family Search, will they know the savior she is on Mount Zion?

Indeed, they will.

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How was what happened in the Los Angeles temple that day because of Mary?

Well, I want to be careful here. I don’t want to speak for my brother.

But let’s be honest.

Jay would not be the man he is without her.

We can all say that. I see that in my wife. I saw that in my Mom. And I see that in JoAnn now with my father. I see it in most men I know who are happily married.

I know the dark paths my brother was on during the years I was gone on my mission. He had a real rough go during those days until he met Mary.

I know that day at the temple came as a result of a lot of hard things. And Mary was the light behind it all.

God said, rather plainly, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

And that is because when we’re alone we’re lost. Nearly worthless.

That day in the temple happened because Mary gave Jay all the right reasons to be there. Those reasons are the very same ones, by the way, that draw us to do our family work in the temple too.

We are no different than they are.

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When my mother passed away two years ago we witnessed her transition from this life to the next. At one point during her final days Mom said that she could see her mother and my sister encouraged Mom to go to her.

We watched in amazement as Mom reached out with her arms fully extended, smiled and then…thought better of the whole thing.

She wasn’t yet ready to leave the family she was with for the family she knew that awaited her.

There are those who scoff at the idea that loved ones are there when you die or that the visions of family are just vivid memories brought on by a sick and dying brain.

But with my Mother I had seen the difference.

I spent many nights with my Mom at the hospital and more than once her condition was precarious. I can recall an incident in the summer of 2012 when Mom was in the hospital and saying and doing the craziest things.

I remember the fear I felt as I considered never being able to have a lucid conversation with my mother again. This came on a night when she thought she was at the San Diego Zoo and wanted to bring home a pet chicken. When she came around, days later, she had a good laugh about that.

But I’m convinced those long, desperate nights for me as her son were to teach me the difference between a mind that was sick – and one that was dying.

On my mother’s death bed she was all there – for days her physical body failed but her mind never left her.

Some 10 hours before she died she made a very concentrated effort to communicate and her message was simple and meaningful. Her last words were “I love you”.

Of course, my mother’s passing was not unique in any way. Many, many people have similar and even more compelling exchanges with family on the other side during the dying process. Ask anyone of any faith or even of no faith at all – and chances are you’ll hear a story or two of it happening. It is very common.

But I’ve also learned that you need not be on death’s door to have such sacred encounters with departed family members.

Sandy, for example, once had a very vivid exchange with her grandfather – and experience that was unknowingly shared with her sister nearly a thousand miles away on the same night.

These things happen to seemingly all kinds of people – even the famous.

I recently read a great story about Martin Harris that I had never heard about before. It was the story of how he came to Utah very late in his life.

After arriving in Utah his heart had softened to the point where he wanted to be re-baptized and fully reconciled with the Church. On the night before his baptism he had a dream. In the dream he saw his father, standing on a ladder. He asked his father why he was on the ladder and his father said that he could not take his next step until Martin had acted in his behalf.

Martin was re-baptized in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City and Brigham Young was there. He asked Brigham what the dream meant and he told Martin his father was telling Martin to do his temple work. After Martin was baptized, he then was baptized again, both for his father and for another family member.

These very personal family encounters are not chance meetings. They are not reunions. They are targeted experiences designed to get results – and the result is ALWAYS action that makes a family stronger and an individual progress.

Whether they come to us through dreams, visions, thoughts or promptings – or we go to them through doing family history, genealogy, photos and temple work – the end result is the same.

Together we work towards making covenants that will help us progress in the next life. We cannot do it without them and they most certainly need us as well.

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Okay – I’ll confess. I took one more peek at Mary’s Family Search account.

Another coincidence had made me curious.

Her great, great grandparents came over from Scotland in 1922 – nearly 80 years after my 4th-great grandparents, William and Lindsay Findley, came over from Scotland.

William Findley was a coal miner.

He lived about 90 miles from where Mary’s great grandfather was born.

Coincidence?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

I go back a little further on Lindsay’s line and what is the family name I see?

Brown.

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Last weekend I got a brief email from my Dad. Attached was a PDF edition of a Cottam family history volume – the work of JoAnn’s family.

I’m thrilled to receive it. It is 280 pages of wonderfully detailed stories and history of a stalwart family.

I include it in our document archives because Westover/Cottam history has been made. They are a part of us and we are now a part of their glorious heritage.

I haven’t had a chance to get through much it. However, I can see rather quickly that their history has a strong connection to a place named St. George.

That’s funny.

So does ours.

The coincidences just never stop.

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