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Just dropping by ... Turning my heart to a substitute great-great-grandmother

Yevet Tenney for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 September 2018

And he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

—Malachi 4:6 KJV



Why would the Lord want us to turn our hearts to our fathers? We need to remember the traditions that have led to success. If we read the scriptures, we find story after story recounting the remembering and forgetting patterns of the children of Israel.

When they remembered the commandments and teachings of their fathers, they were blessed. When they forgot, it always ended in disaster.

Our modern world is in danger of following the same pattern. When I was growing up, we told stories of our ancestors. We passed them down as we sat around the dinner table or in the living room in front of the fire. We knew the stories, and remembered and shared them. In our society, we don’t pass down stories orally. We have become too busy and self-concerned to spend time telling stories.

We sit around the living room staring at our cellphones, looking up once or twice to share something we have found on Facebook. We laugh or cry for a few minutes over the eye candy or sensational tidbit we’ve shared, but our eyes always wander back to the plastic screen in front of us.

The moment is forgotten in the rush of “hurry up, get there” so we can spend more time staring at our phones. The idea of turning our hearts to our fathers and fathers turning the hearts to the children is never more relevant than it is right now.


I love to do genealogy and found unfathomable treasures as I have turned my heart to my ancestors. I have found stories about my ancestors that have given me direction and self-understanding. Recently, I found an unexpected connection to a woman who is not my blood relative but has influenced my life through generations.

My great-great-grandfather lost his wife as she was giving birth to my great-grandmother, Elizabeth, leaving his three minor children to be raised by family members. He gave Elizabeth to his son and married daughter and the other two children were farmed out to their grandmother.

Anna Marie, Great-great-grandmother

He later married a Danish woman, Anna Marie Jensen, who would have been considered a spinster in those days. At 41, she was past the age of child-bearing and would never have children of her own. She willingly gave up the easy life of caring for herself and became the mother to the three young daughters and several married sons.

It could not have been easy becoming the stepmother to married sons, yet she opened her heart to bless the entire family. She would never know what it was like to cuddle her own child, and would always know in her heart when she was called “mother,” she was only a substitute and would never really be a mother or grandmother.

As I heard her story, my heart knew her heart – because that was my story. I raised 11 children who belong to someone else. I don’t regret it because I have had many delightful experiences as a substitute mother, but I understand Anna Marie deeply. We became kindred spirits, even though she was born in 1835.


This wonderful Danish woman made a bridge between the mother who passed on and the children who were left motherless. She connected them to God by teaching them to pray. Once my great-grandmother, Elizabeth, and her sister, Annie, were out gathering the milk cows when a huge rainstorm hit. If you’ve ever lived in Arizona, you know flash floods are common.

A dry wash bed can become a raging river in a matter of a few minutes. The red muddy water carries debris, broken limbs, even trees rolling and tumbling downstream. These little girls were on the other side of the wash when the flood came down.

It was getting dark, and they didn’t know what to do, but they did know how to pray and get answers. “Dear Heavenly Father, help us know what to do,” the little voices cried. The answer came immediately: “Drive the cows into the water and grab hold of their tails and swim them across.” The little girls didn’t hesitate.

The cows swam the river of muddy water with the little girls clinging to their tails. The little girls knelt and gave thanks for the miracle they had witnessed. They probably didn’t say thank you for the wonderful substitute mother who had taught them to pray.

This substitute mother taught them many things, and her work was not always appreciated. Mothers all over the world have felt that pain. And I am no different. This Danish woman would spend hours spinning and making beautiful clothes for these little girls.

She tatted (tatting is a technique that takes hours and is done with a needle and thread) lace on their cotton bloomers and bleached them white so they would look beautiful.

One afternoon, the little girls decided to go fishing. Fishing in Arizona is not always in beautiful lakes and streams where the water is clean and fresh. It is often done in hollowed-out dirt tanks resembling huge mud puddles. The red water stains whatever it meets. The little girls went fishing and decided to use their brand-new bloomers as fishnets. I am sure when this dear mother saw those mud-stained bloomers, she cried a few tears of frustration.

When my grandmother, Elizabeth, became a teenager, she was like many other teenagers. She was headstrong and made decisions on the spur of the moment. Her stepmother had worked hours on a new dress. She used a spinning wheel to make the fabric and hand-stitched the seams.

Elizabeth wanted to wear it to the dance, but the old schoolhouse where the dance was held was furnished with rough lumber benches. The dress was made for church meetings, and Anna Marie didn’t want Elizabeth to wear it to the dance. She feared it would be torn.

Elizabeth thought she knew best, so she put the dress under another dress and went to the dance. When she arrived at the dance, she took off her outer dress and proudly strutted around in her new dress. The first dance set, she was horrified when she rose from the bench and tore a three-corner rip in the skirt.

Butterflies swarmed in her stomach. What would she tell her mother? She left the dance and trudged home. By lamplight, she worked tirelessly mending the tear. She was careful from then on to make sure she washed and ironed that dress so her mother wouldn’t see it.

One day, however, Anna Marie washed the dress and was ironing it. She said, “Lisa, how did the dress get torn?” Elizabeth had to tell her then what she had done. The mother didn’t scold; she simply said, in her Danish accent, “Vel, Lisa, you can do your own darning from now on. You darn very vel.”

When my grandmother grew up, my substitute grandmother didn’t quit loving her. A mother’s commitment is forever. She remembered birthdays and sent gifts. Weeks before she passed away, she wrote a sweet letter of love to my grandmother.

My grandmother grew up to be a generous and kind woman who worked hard. She taught my mother to garden and passed on a legacy of love. I am sure her life would have been so different if it hadn’t been for this Danish woman who gave up her comforts to become a substitute mother.

I have lamented I could not bear children of my own, but I am grateful I became a substitute mother. I have often wondered if I did a good job. My daughters have missed their real mother, as I think probably Elizabeth did. There’s just something about the physical bond between baby and mother. Though the bond is different between a substitute mother and her children, there is an eternal bond of love deeper than friendship or even sisterhood.

This treasure I have found in my substitute great-great grandmother has allowed me to know being a substitute parent is worth it. I may not realize all the blessings today, but eternity will tell. The story will continue for generations and will be written in the hearts of our children and their children if we take time to turn our hearts. end mark

PHOTO: Substitute great-great-grandmother, Anna Marie Jensen. Photo provided by Yevet Tenney. 

Yevet Crandell Tenney is a Christian columnist who loves American values and traditions. She writes about faith, family and freedom.