Saturday, August 8, 2020

Grandmother: Cornelia Agatha Lenzi McAllister

[Editor's Note: The relationship between Cornelia Agatha Lenzi McAllister (1844–1920), Maurine’s maternal grandmother, and Clorinda Agatha Lenzi MacIntyre, the petite and irrepressibly spritely heroine of The Giant Joshua, is clear. Maurine was seventeen when this grandmother died, and for years afterwards she fondly recalled her visits with Cornelia and their close friendship.

To the young Maurine, Grandmother McAllister was a romantic and enigmatic figure. Elegant in her black silk dress, and isolated in her deafness, she radiated dignity to her impressionable granddaughter, who wrote this sketch for a high school or college English assignment on ancestors between 1921 and 1926.

Cornelia’s husband, John D. T. McAllister, was a polygamist whose personality provided the fictional portrait of Abijah MacIntyre in The Giant Joshua. As his third plural wife, Cornelia bore McAllister six children, and like Abijah MacIntyre in the novel, McAllister became the second president of the St. George Temple in 1884. The fictional Abijah left Clory behind and took another, younger, plural wife north with him when he was called to preside over the Logan Temple. McAllister, likewise, in reality left Cornelia to become president of the Manti Temple in 1893, taking with him only his youngest plural wife and providing literary fodder for his granddaughter in the years to come.

But if Cornelia was indeed the model for Clorinda MacIntyre, Whipple spared “Clory” many of the trials which her grandmother endured. By having Clory die as a comparatively young woman, the fictional heroine missed the dependent old age of Grandmother Cornelia, and more dramatically, Clory was not deaf, as was Cornelia for all the years that Maurine knew her, the result of a childhood illness.

Still, the strong, enduring, female character is there. Grandma Cornelia was obviously well remembered and in her own way played a significant role in Whipple’s masterpiece.1]

Every life must have a purpose—some main idea or main motive by and for which it exists. For instance, one man might from his earliest conscious thought, dedicate his life to music and make human life richer by that contribution; another might choose business, another writing, and so on. The more I read biography, the more I am convinced that every really worthwhile life has a definite plan, whether the person is aware of it or not, and that when this supreme aim is accomplished, and the pattern has been completely traced, the life is finished, no matter how many more years the person might live.

In studying my grandmother’s life, I have tried to find such a plan. I have tried to lay my finger on the one thing which she stood for more than all other things. Certainly it was not fame, for she had little of that; certainly it was not among the arts for although she loved music, she was deprived of even the physical means whereby she could do much of that and, indeed, in her later life, her hearing made it impossible for her even to enjoy music as she would have done. Her mission lay not in public service for her hearing prevented that, also. Her life had no great problem to solve, no great tragedy to fight and overcome, no startling happiness to single her out. None of these purposes were hers, and for a long time I could not find her mission. Then suddenly it came to me that, simply in the lack of these usual aims, her greatness lay.

It is easy to sing songs or write books or labor for the public, battle against great odds, or conquer great sorrow, for the world is more or less cheering you on. A man can always win when he is being urged to do his best by admiring throngs. Anyone can easily live a good life when he is being constantly praised by friends or neighbors. To me, true and rare nobility lies in doing one’s best where nobody but God knows about it, in living every day, no matter how obscure and commonplace, faithfully and honestly and beautifully, not because the world is going to point you out as a wonderful example, but because that is the only way you know how to live. And so, I think that was my grandmother’s mission and, since accomplished in two- fold loneliness, perhaps the greatest mission of all.

If we try to find one word which encompasses all her years, the word would be faith. When she was twelve years old, the gospel was brought to her home in Philadelphia. Her father thought the new religion was right and joined it. Her mother, not believing, left her father. To little Cornelia was left the choice of grow- ing up amid the luxury of her accustomed surroundings or going away to a strange land, the very thought of which was filled with terror. She must have worshipped her father. Being almost too young to decide the question herself, she unhesitat- ingly and quite trustingly went with him; and it must have been a very sad going, indeed.

Her love for the beauty and peace and order of those early years never left her. All her life, those memories remained, and who knows that they were not the cause of many a silent battle against the fate that took her from pretty clothes, lovely surroundings, handsome suitors, the grace and dignity that are the divine right of every girlhood, to crude, primitive pioneering and responsibilities that made her a woman before she was a girl. We do know that she never complained. She was doing what she thought was right. That was all sufficient. But the memory of her father’s tobacco store with its life-like dummy which smoked a cigar so realistically, the memory of her father’s struggle and final conquering of the life-long habit, the memory of his dancing classes (what a man he must have been—the moral strength of Job and the poetry and grace of David), the memories of her home and her hap- piness were always as real to her as the sunbaked alkali stretches that greeted her every morning from her back door.

The story of that crossing of the plains is familiar to us all—so familiar that perhaps we forget that those pioneers were human beings and could not always avoid harsh realities. To little Cornelia and her brother, there were days of weary marching on throbbing, bandaged feet, where they forgot the great principle which prompted their sacrifice because of the pain of their hunger and the ache of their fatigue. Those two children comforted each other’s longing for just a crust of bread with a game called “imagine.” “Imagine a turkey dinner, imagine a whole chocolate cake, imagine a mountain of ice cream.” Sometimes when the little girl faced that endless stretching road that must be walked over, somehow, someway, only to meet another endless stretch, another terrifying vista of plain and sand and illimitable mountains, her faith must have faltered. I can imagine the road seeming to her like a great white dragon greedily waiting to gobble bloodstained footsteps. But if her high optimism faltered, she never admitted it.

Of her life in Salt Lake, we know little beyond the actual facts. Her father married again soon after their arrival and she grew to young womanhood amid the doubtful pleasure of caring for many little stepbrothers and sisters. It is characteristic of her that, in telling her story, she always hurried over these unpleasant parts to the days when young men came calling and when President Brigham Young took her riding in his coach to the Salt Lake Theatre where she entertained early-day audiences with her singing.

But she was not destined for happiness. At the time of the “move,”she went with her father to help settle Sanpete County. Here she faced not only loneliness but bitterest poverty all over again. There were even no shoes for her feet, and she walked barefoot in the snow. But here, as elsewhere, her memories are of the brief pleasantnesses, of the friendly Indians who came to her father for counsel and aid, and of the Big Chief who called her “Canary” partly because he could not pronounce “Cornelia” and partly because of her sweet singing. It is enough to say that she could sing, though starving and freezing.

When better times came, and they moved back to Salt Lake, there came what I can imagine to be the greatest trial of all. Her church said, “Marry this man.” And she married him, even though he already had two wives, was many years older than she, and even though she hardly knew him.The fact that he was a good man and that she learned to love him devotedly does not make her early struggle less real.

Her marriage was the beginning of her life in St. George—a land at that time of nothing but sagebrush and horned toads and treeless sands. Only a person with vision could have seen beauty in such ugliness. She saw the hidden beauty, but she longed for her Salt Lake home until the day she died. Perhaps that home came nearer than anything else to her memory of her childhood home. Tragedy lies in the fact that even after her children were raised, circumstances would not permit her to end her days in her beloved Salt Lake.

She grew from a beautiful young woman with black eyes and hair and red cheeks to a sweet old lady in St. George. And from the day she arrived another spec- ter dogged her footsteps—ill health. The climate never agreed with her. However, here she raised her family, most of the time alone and on fifteen dollars a month. And here she found, perhaps, her truest happiness, when her children were little. In spite of bitter poverty and fear—of the marshals who came seeking her husband, of bad Indians, of death who stalked her household and claimed one of her precious brood—in spite of everything she found much happiness. Her worst trial, perhaps, was that she could not afford advantages for her children; she could only impart to them her own high courage and faith and serenity. Thus, those children became men and women to have, in turn, children of their own.

My memories of my grandmother all resolve themselves into two pictures. One shows her to me, a little figure in a black silk dress. Her lovely white hair is nicely waved, her fine aristocratic nose is powdered (she was always proud and would have it so), her youthful black eyes are sparkling with anticipation, her small, wrinkled hands tremble as they open a package. It is from her youngest son. It contains some bars of the good soap she loved to use, some surprise boxes for herself, and, what delights her most of all, many, many presents to give to her friends. More than any- thing in the world she loved to make gifts. Indeed, one of my earliest recollections is her giving me peppermints. As children do, I learned to always expect candy when Grandma came.

The rest of the picture concerns the details of the room in which she sat. The walls were covered with literally hundreds of pictures, all sizes and degrees and shapes; and every available inch of space harbored a treasured knickknack. Every article in that room, no matter how insignificant, had its tender memories. Those inanimate objects represented all the friends of her varied life, all those she had loved so much; and she almost reverenced them. Like a picture show, one could look at walls and bureau and see the years of her life unfolding.

The second picture of my grandmother is what one might almost term “the gathering of the clan.” I see her on the front porch of her old home, under the stars and the moonlight, surrounded by her husband and her children. They are singing the old beloved songs; and though she cannot hear all they sing, she is very happy. During such a one of his visits to her, her husband died. It is characteristic of her that, at his deathbed, she stood with her arms around another one of his wives and they wept together.

Not so very long after, the end of the road came for her, too. She suffered a great deal during her last illness. She seemed to be unconscious most of the time, but do any of us really know? At least, the watchers by her bedside could see that her face was distorted by her agony and that, suddenly, in place of the misery, a smile of utter sweetness flooded her countenance. She needed no words to tell them that someone had come out of the dim past to help her begin the long journey. Her passing seemed to be symbolic of her whole life—a soul that could smile in the face of death itself.

And so, the story is ended, the whole plan lies before us. And out of the seem- ing tangle and injustice and sacrifices of her life, we see clearly the greatness of her mission. Not to do great things but to do small things in a great way, to struggle on when the road was all uphill, to sing when the sun was hot or the wind was cold, to just keep on keeping on, come what may, which is perhaps the hardest mission of all. And not long after she was dead, did people realize with a start that they could [not] name her faults, for she had no [very] terrible ones, and to say with sudden conviction that they had lived all unaware with a rare and noble spirit, one of the few angels God places on earth. As a flower perfumes the air, she had, in passing, sweetened all the lives about her. I can best express my thought, perhaps, in the words of one of her favorite songs:

I live for those who love me

Whose hearts are kind and true,

For the heaven that smiles above me And the good that I can do.4


1. For more on Cornelia and John McAllister, see Clara McAllister, “Biography of Cornelia Agatha Lenzi McAllister,” c. 1917. Family Search record for Cornelia Agatha Lenzi (KWN2-WMK). Annie M. Sullivan Hall, “History of Cornelia Agatha Lenzi McAllister,” typescript, 1920. In Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum, St. George. Wayne Hinton. “John D. T. McAllister: The Southern Utah Years, 1876–1910” Journal of Mormon History, 29:2, 2003, p. 106–136.

2. Whipple here is referring to the excavation of the Mormons from the northern Utah counties during the arrival of Johnston’s Army in the spring and early summer of 1858.

3. According to Annie M. Sullivan Hall, another granddaughter, Cornelia’s marriage was arranged by her father, Martin Lenzi, who knew John McAllister from when they had both lived in Philadelphia, and was concerned with finding a good husband for his twenty-three year old deaf daughter. Wayne Hinton. “John D. T. McAllister: The Southern Utah Years, 1876–1910,” p. 113.

4. From the poem “What I Live For,” by George Linnæus Banks (1821–1881). 

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Meet the Mormons (Look Magazine, March 10, 1942)

 Maurine Whipple, "Meet the Mormons". Look Magazine, March 10, 1942. Photographs by Earl Thiesen