My Spiritual Genealogy

So I’m working on an “ethnography”–basically my family history–for a class, and looked up this poem that I wrote a couple of years ago (for another class… sometimes I wonder: is there anything I do anymore that’s not for a class?).  Anyway, it’s interesting to go back and read things like this, kind of like reading your journal, so full of emotional connections…


Eliza Kate




In stiff lace collar


long skirts


simple buttoned boots


hopeful cheeks


your mother bathed with kisses


and brave tears


you climbed aboard




Arm in arm with Amy


the baby sister at fifteen


and you just two years ahead


Baptist missionaries


standing on deck in gray dawn


squinting into a salty breeze


eager to feel


the western earth


under your feet


your island home


behind the sunrise




did you know


you would never go back?




Nine years later


another passage


perhaps he asked in a letter


which you answered


with delicate lines


you would leave your single calling


become a mother


of eight




you couldn’t know


you would never live to raise the last two


who died with you




Grandma Meng has told me many times of her mother, Eliza Kate Bosworth, who died while giving birth to two-months premature twins (or more specifically was killed by doctors who apparently knew no better than to pack a suffering woman in ice to try to prevent the early labor).  Some other brilliant soul lined up the six surviving children (of which Grandma was the middle child) along with their father behind the open casket of the mother and babies, heaps of flowers all around, to take several family photographs–at once morbid and strikingly tender.  There’s a look of quiet brokenness on Great Grandpa Keyes’ wrinkled face as he holds three-year-old Glen on his hip.  Grandpa Keyes was 72 at the time, Eliza being his second wife, and these–her children–his second family.  His first were already grown and still living back in Canada somewhere; to this day, I’m still not clear as to why his first marriage ended.  He was a member of the strict Holiness Movement; I’ve no doubt this is partly why he spoke of such matters as divorce infrequently–if ever–with my grandmother.  In fact, I’m not sure that he spoke with his middle daughter about much of anything.  Aunt Ruby, Grandma’s older sister, was his undoubted favorite, perhaps because she reminded him of Eliza. 


They’d met in Canada, somewhere near Killarney, his home.  At the moment I don’t recall how the meeting came about, but I’m fairly certain it had something to do with their mutual involvement in the Holiness Movement.  Eliza may have been speaking at a series of meetings that William was attending, or something like that, when they met.  She and her sister, Amy, had left their mother and older sister, Ethel, behind in England to work as missionaries with the Baptist church in Canada.  They eventually became involved with the growing holiness revival.


Eliza was vibrant; she always had a hymn or a poem on her laughing lips, and could make almost any green thing grow.  When William Keyes moved his growing family to a run-down building in Sacramento in the mid-1920s to live (complete with holes in the ceiling), she set to work making it as homey as the wife of a hotel elevator man could.  She planted fruit trees and bulbs, shrubs and vegetables; after they’d lived there some time, Pastor Steelburg helped install a bathroom (to replace the old outhouse) and build two more rooms onto the little house somewhere on 43rd Street. 


Eliza was also an enterprising evangelist!  She would purchase Bibles, songbooks, and “mottoes” (decorative plaques engraved with verses of scripture or spiritual poems) from a local supplier, and then go door-to-door around the neighborhood selling them.  As Grandma remembers, her mother was often invited in to pray with her customers, and became a favorite speaker at prayer gatherings and Bible studies around town.  Her children weren’t neglected in all of this, however.  They were often right there with her!  She trained them from the time they could speak to sing in harmony, recite poems and favorite Bible passages, and even to preach.  Grandma remembers giving her first sermon, delivered to a congregation of goats in the backyard, at just eight years old.  The Keyes’ dream was to travel around the country as a family of evangelists, leading revival meetings, teaching and praying for the sick to be healed.  Eliza had the children practice by singing with the Salvation Army band in San Francisco.  They even had the vehicle prepared: a “scripture car,” with the words of John 3:16 in large letters painted along the sides. 


Eliza didn’t live to see the dream come true.  Grandma was just nine when the babies decided to come early.  Two little boys, Victor (“a victor for Jesus!”) and John (for his father’s middle name), never had a chance to learn their mother’s songs.  They were buried with her, one in each arm, dressed in delicate white gowns.  In the graveside photograph, the other children obediently gaze into the camera’s lense, but only seven-year-old Noble attempts to follow the ridiculous order from the photographer to “Smile!”  His half-hearted grin and large eyes belie the loss he can’t begin to name yet.  Grandma’s nine-year-old freckled grimace, her fierce blue eyes fixed straight ahead, might have told the cameraman that his instructions were out of place, if he’d paid attention.  Roy, the oldest at 12, and Ruby, standing closest to their father, look weakly in the camera’s direction.  Nelva, her dark blonde curls floating down around her shoulders, looks confused; in her five years she hadn’t had her picture taken many times and didn’t quite know what to make of the man with the flashing contraption.  Only Glen, the littlest in shorts, his legs dangling down around his father’s waist, looked down into the casket, as though wondering when Mama was going to get up.


It’s a haunting photograph.  And yet, despite the pain and grief so heavy on all those faces, I am drawn to it.  I remember looking at it as a little girl, unable to fathom the depth of loss felt by the little girl in the picture who is now my grandmother.  I still find it hard to imagine; I’ve enjoyed a close relationship with my mother and my grandmother all my life.  Grandma and Grandpa live downstairs now, in the fifth bedroom.  And the more I hear Grandma’s stories of Eliza Kate, the more I anticipate the day I meet this woman in heaven.  I feel more than related to her, almost as if I know her, and she knows me.  Her love: for God, her children, life, beauty, music, poetry, and for others resonates with me.  I can’t know why God allowed the tragedy that ended her life at 39; I do know that the hope he planted in her heart, and that she planted in her daughter’s heart, lives in me.  And I’m looking forward to thanking her.


PS: For those who emailed me responses to the character post below: thank you!  I actually haven’t dressed up for class yet.  Class… that’s a sore subject at the moment.  Yeah.  Anyone for Fiji?  Some island in the middle of the ocean somewhere, where no one can find me, where there are no content standards, or assessments, or lesson plans, or TPAs, and certainly no job fairs or departments of education….. sigh! okay, I’ll stop dreaming now and try to get back to work!


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