Dear Grandma Sina: WHO Year of the Nurse and the Midwife

Guest post by Inquiring Mind

Dear Great-Grandma Sina,

Doubtless you were present for the family call last Sunday. If there’s one good thing to come of the CoVid-19 Pandemic culture, it’s a facility with group video chats. Mom changed the meeting time on our family text thread, but I didn’t check my phone and the original starting time suddenly became two hours too late. Sorry I missed you all. By the time I hopped on, my siblings had disappeared and it was just me and Mom, with her PowerPoint presentation on a shared screen and a smattering of old photos. The news to me was now common knowledge to everyone else—two hours old. As for myself, I felt like the bottom dropped out of our buttoned-up family. But I just kept thinking about how you must be feeling, with your secrets being the topic du jour. What do you think of us airing your dirty laundry like so much gossip fodder? If you had wanted us to know about it at all, wouldn’t you have told Virginia when you had the chance?

Sina Watson, LDS Nurse’s Training Program, about 1928

Admittedly, your story had been flimsy at best. Even so, I never questioned it as a child. I guess I never had reason to. Everyone loves a romantic tale. Grandma Virginia: the girl who lived. Four months premature, so small she could fit in a shoebox. Warmed in an oven, she began the Duke Family before anyone had expected. And the modern adventure-loving girl in me didn’t need an explanation for why you would leave your parents, precious siblings, in-laws, friends, and career to seek your fortune a thousand miles away. Isn’t that what newlyweds do? Leave their father and mother to cleave to their spouse? Your return to Heber a scant six months later didn’t raise any red flags for me either, listening to this story at bedtime.

Grandma Virginia gave me the first tool of skepticism for my baptism—a Book of Remembrance. Now even those feel obsolete. Why painstakingly rewrite the seminal dates of each of your forbears now, when it’s all on Family Search? Mine was filled, consulted and loved, copied and recopied for years before I upgraded to the app. I didn’t notice until I was in college that your temple sealing date was in May, and Virginia was born in October. Five months didn’t seem long enough to cook a baby who lived, so I began to wonder why you and Wendell chose to be sealed in the temple when you knew you’d been, um, hasty. I brought this up to Mom, and we concluded that the shame of poorly-timed sex would have been paid for voluminously with the self-flagellation of a first-time mother’s forced isolation. You, Sina, who delivered so many babies, were alone when your own time came.

Your calling as a nurse has permeated every story about you that I have ever heard. While your high school sweetheart, his friends, and even your closest sister prepared for church missions, you followed your heart to the nurses’ training program at LDS Hospital. The skills you gained there defined your life’s purpose– caring for the suffering. I read about how you cared for the patients of the Koosharem meningitis epidemic, and how, in Tooele, you delivered a perfectly formed 5-month old stillborn child. Dependably competent, you ran the show when doctors were absent, and sometimes even when they were present. You raised your family in the Heber Hospital, often evading contagion by sending your daughters to find refuge at Mazie’s. You must have wondered at times if your sister could have offered them a more stable home than you could, with your all-hours shifts and professionally-inclined attentions. Virginia never mentioned so much to me, but I’m a mother now, and I know how the guilt can settle. Were you proud when Virginia graduated from the U as a nurse? Or when baby Laurel grew up to have a nursing photograph taken that looked just like yours? Trees and apples, Sina.

Virginia Duke, University of Utah Nurses’ Program, 1952

My Mom said she felt nursing wasn’t for her, despite her maternal lineage, because she could never poke anyone with a needle. She discovered her own professional path to relieve suffering as a therapist. I found mine with speech-language pathology, but I still felt close to you when I began work at LDS hospital, testing the hearing of newborns and imagining you: same halls, earlier era, whiter uniform, delivering the babies.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” was how you described your nursing work. In your writings, you gloss over graduation, a guest shift at the Ely Hospital, and even your job in Tooele with that “hurry” mentality. Each gap in your history is neatly pinched together with a brisk setting change. Suddenly you leave Tooele to work in Salt Lake again. Quick as a wink, Wendell Duke returns early from his mission service, weak from malaria. Without delay, you and Wendell marry and set off to find work and a healthier climate in Portland. And when you come back, you hurry to Heber Hospital to begin your long-term post. Virginia’s birth as a hurried event dovetails nicely with your life’s outlook. You squeezed in four more pregnancies along the way, without skipping a beat. Five happy daughters, five happy weddings, Duke family reunions in Heber where your great-grandchildren proudly sing “We are the Duke posterity/we all fit on the family tree.”

And that’s why we were so surprised when Mom got a Facebook message from Diana. Diana? Diana who? Diana why? Yes, I took a DNA test. No, I’m not familiar with anyone on your family tree. We need to talk? Talk about what? Turns out Diana’s dad was more closely related to Mom than Diana was. And if her grandfather was still alive, it would only confirm what Diana already discovered: the sleuthing work pointed all the fingers to you, Sina. You and Diana’s grandfather, Henry Lynn.

Who is Henry Lynn? And what business did he have in your life? The questions pour out of me the more I sit with this new information. How long did he stay? A month? A moment? Did you even want him there? When did you cross paths? Maybe in Tooele? Maybe in Salt Lake as he scraped through the depression as a student custodian and a taxi driver? All he writes about the pertinent months was that he wasn’t living the gospel as he should have. Now that is, pardon the pun, a pregnant statement indeed.

You never breathed a word. Not to your daughters, anyway. As Virginia attended you at your deathbed, she asked if you wanted to clarify anything about the wonky circumstances of her birth. You closed that door with a firm, “Nope. You know all there is to know.” Maybe if you died with the secret, it would disappear.

Your funeral is one of my earliest memories—flitting from umbrella to umbrella as the grown-ups say a prayer. My older siblings remember more about your last home in Salt Lake and your penchant for Coca Cola. But all I have is a cemetery. Wendell I remember better. Transition lenses, plaid shirt with suspenders, slicked dark hair that never grayed. Bouncing on his knee as he sang, “Old Dan Tucker.” I remember great-aunt Laurel telling us about how much he hated the rest home, how he removed the window screws for his great escape. No one seemed sad when he died. His heavenly reunion with his dream girl Sina gave a laser-focus to his funeral services.

Did Wendell know, Sina? If so, when did he find out? Maybe the conversation was a lengthy heart-to-heart the evening he returned from his mission, prompting the hurried nuptials. Or did you write your missionary with the news? We have a telegram from him announcing his return– could his note have been a reply to a frantic need? Sina pregnant. Stop. Baby needs father. Stop. Perhaps you locked the secret away from every soul having the power to ruin everything you had hurried to create—Wendell included.

Everyone except the birth certificate recorder, who needed the truth when it presented itself so obviously. Full Term? Yes. But the recorder couldn’t have known that your response to the next question—Legitimate? Yes—conflicted so starkly that you fled a thousand miles to say them without reproach. Even her name incites a plea for purity: a fresh start.

Virginia influenced my life in a thousand precious ways. Her love of music, her love of people, of walking, of education, of children – she abounded in wealth and she shared this wealth with me. Her last words to me were spoken with labored intensity, “Where’s Brandon?” Indicating I didn’t need to be at the hospital with her, witnessing her stroke aftermath when I could be with my husband. And when she died, I could not be comforted. But Grandma believed in an afterlife and the value of family. I could not help but think it was her doing, when the baby I waited a year for finally sparked in my womb 4 months after she passed away. I felt she had used her newfound spiritual influence to encourage little Quincy to make the journey from the world of spirits to the vale of tears. Three of her great-grandchildren joined our family that year, and I believe they were all invited by Virginia, the generous soul who had so much to learn about her own beginnings.

The world after this one mystifies me. At times I have felt the tugging of a life beyond, but I have no scientific evidence, and so much in my world depends on evidence and proof. I am confident that there’s more to learn about the circumstances surrounding you, Henry, and Virginia, and we will find earthly evidence that supports these claims of new family. I also believe that what we learn here is a direct result of what you have learned in that spirit world: the truths you are confronting and the connections you are forging. So although sitting as a silent witness to our Zoom meeting was likely as excruciating as a spinal tap, I believe you haven’t forgotten that some types of pain can lead to growth and repair. Once again, you are an instrument of healing, in Heaven as you were on Earth.

Love, your great-granddaughter


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