Root, Petal, Thorn traces the stories of five fascinating women who inhabit the same historic home in Salt Lake City over the course of a century — braided stories of love, heartbreak, and courage connect the women, even across generations.
While writing my debut novel, Root, Petal, Thorn, I collected a variety of story ideas from a treasure trove of family lore. Many of these can be credited to my great-grandma (and namesake): Ella Mary Nester Romney Croxford. Throughout her life, she penned details about relatives, daily life, and historic local sites. These things would be forgotten in the sands of time, if not for her words. She was an excellent record keeper and her ancestral stories, church speeches, and poetry paint an amazing image of the past. Though my novel is far from a memoir, I’ll share some of her words and reveal how they are loosely captured within the pages of Root, Petal, Thorn.
Here's a scintillating one: My great-great-great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Helm Gordon, was the third-wife to her best friend's father. Mary would have been the grandmother to my great-grandma Ella. In the novel, one of my characters is propositioned by a polygamist man, in much the same way as Mary’s would-be-husband proposed to her. However my character makes a different decision and follows a very different path.
Here an excerpt from my great-grandma Ella’s memories:
Mary had been playing about the neighborhood with other children her age and was especially fond of visiting the home of James Gordon, a man who had two wives and several children, many who were Mary's age. In those days of plural marriage it was not uncommon for an older man to take into his family a young wife. So in the spring of 1857, while Mary was a mere child we might say, she was married to James Gordon, the father of her best friend. [During the years of her marriage to James] Mary gave birth to seven boys and four girls. The first years of married life were filled with toil and child bearing, as they were for all other Pioneer Women.
Wow! Here are a few more tidbits: My novel is titled Root, Petal,Thorn because of an heirloom rosebush, called the Emmeline Rose, which was planted in 1913, the year the (fictional) hundred-year-old bungalow was built. The rose is a constant fixture throughout the lives of all five women who live in the home. Though the novel is not entirely fact-filled, the Emmeline is based on a rosebush that was planted by my great-great-grandmother Caroline (the mother of Ella). Interesting fact, when I moved into my own home, my dad gave me a start from this very same rose. It grows in my garden today.
Several parts of this following excerpt found their way into the novel, including the part about the rose. Here are a few of my great-grandmother’s recollections about her mother.
Caroline (called Carrie) was not too robust in health. She had many days she suffered severe sick headaches. She had very beautiful thick curly hair of a rich auburn brown. Her hair grew so fast it was thought in those days to cause her headaches so it was cut short for most of her girlhood days. When she was pregnant for the first time since having me, eleven years earlier, there were complications and she took very ill. In spite of very expensive operations and the best of care, she died on July 11, 1906, a month before she was thirty two years of age
The saddest day of my life was when they laid her to rest in a cemetery which was nothing then but a sagebrush and June grass waste. My papa lost no time in putting in a neat pipe railing to keep stray cattle and horses off it.
I have taken care of her white rose bush all these years and each year when it blooms in June, I feel tears well in my eyes as I think of all the kind and loving things my sweet mother did for me while she was alive.
Amazing, right? Here’s one last thing of note: my great-grandma often wrote about everyday/mundane things that are remarkable these days. For instance, her father was an iceman. She wrote several pages describing his job of cutting ice blocks out of a large pond to be delivered throughout the Salt Lake Valley. It was big business until, you guessed it, artificially frozen ice came along and by 1930 his little business was gone. She wrote about a kitchen item which was an important part of every household back in the day: the sausage mill. Do you have one? She included recipes for pioneer soap. She even wrote a poem in 1924 titled, “An Ode to the Victrola”.
My take-away from reading, considering, (and mining from) from these memories is the importance of journaling, record-keeping, or simply passing along family tales. Who knows what they will mean to your great-grandchildren and how they may honor your words.