(Warning: this is a post probably only another Mosher could love!)
A focal point of my young life was going to grandma and grandpa’s house—we thought it was a mansion because it had two stories, but it was just a nice middle class house in the lower Berkeley hills. Gene had a box of dress-up clothes under a bed, and Burt could be found puttering in his basement workshop, listening to Lon Cheney call the Giants game: the sound track of our summer lives.
Burt was born in West Liberty, Iowa, in 1905, the youngest of six. Except for meeting mom’s Aunt Gladys and Aunt Ruth when they visited California, we know next to nothing about Burt’s life before Gene. They moved out West from Chicago in the depression—Gene’s brother knew of a job in Stockton. The only glimpse we got of Midwest Burt was when he got up in the morning and ribbed Gene with, “Where’s ma grits?” He had to explain to us what grits were.
But as soon as Bruce and I started driving across Iowa’s cornfields and neat little farms, I felt a tug to seek out the Moshers. That second morning in Iowa I woke up early, feeling a little sad that I hadn’t planned ahead so I could “find my roots” here. But luckily, for once, we had a snappy Wi-Fi connection.
At 6:00 am I started an Internet search: Moshers in Iowa. Turns out there are quite a lot of them. After an hour, I happened on a very long article on iagenweb detailing the lineage of William Mosyer of Manchester, England, from 1616 down through the spellings, crossings and begatings to Stephen Mosher, who with his wife Ruth settled in the mid-1800’s to farm in Muscatine County, Iowa. It was said of the Moshers, an unbroken line of eight generations of Quakers, “They were a plain peoples… and disposed to practice the simpler vocations of life.” After wading through six pages of this article I found myself reading the names of my great grandfather and grandmother and their six children, Burton being the youngest.
Have you ever dug into your personal history? If so, you know the feeling: you sit up a little straighter, your heart beats a bit faster, you re-read it a couple of times to absorb it. I learned the name of Stephen and Ruth’s farm, the names of their brothers and sisters, sons, daughters and grandchildren, where they lived and died. All of a sudden they were real to me.
Then, somehow, I kept getting lucky. I looked for West Liberty on the map, and discovered we’d be driving right past it on our way to Davenport (our destination for a blues festival). Digging for Moshers in West Liberty, I found their library’s geneology section with a link to, no lie, findagrave.com.
So a few hours later, Bruce and I parked in West Liberty, which felt deserted. There’s now a big food processing plant nearby, but it’s still just a tiny, quiet farm town. We stumbled on a bare store with a soda fountain in the back, with the original counter from the Rexall Drug store. And—I’m beginning to suspect this isn’t uncommon in West Liberty—the girl working there was related to the Moshers, through her dad’s uncle.
It was a warm, grey afternoon when we found the Oakridge Cemetery next to a beautiful old livestock fair yard, just as the young maintenance crew was getting off for the day; luckily, because they had a map to the gravesites. And there we found my great grandmother and grandfather, Charles and Edith Birkett Mosher, and one of Burt’s brothers. Then we found my great, great grandfather and grandmother, Henry and
Henrietta Gibson Mosher, and several of their children.
How can I convey what it felt like to stand there, not really alone in that quiet, well-tended small town cemetery with my family I had never been
conscious of, and a few happy birds. Serene doesn’t quite capture it. I felt a kind of peaceful elation.
Finding that there were other Moshers in the older cemetery on the far side of town, we drove back through West Liberty to the North Prairie Cemetery, as the air began to feel heavier. In this small cemetery surrounded by cornfields, with two lawn mowers going and a chattering family releasing a lot of pink balloons, we found little peace and a lot of illegible old headstones. But we also found my great, great, great grandfather and grandmother. Stephen Mosher was born in 1806 in the wilderness near Granville, New York, and died in West Liberty in 1891. And Ruth Smith Mosher, also of a long line of early settlers, was born in Duchess County, New York, and died in West Liberty in 1897. Standing before them, the mowers weren’t there, the balloon family wasn’t there, we were alone with them. Them and the fat raindrops that were starting to fall.
My phone rang. I expected it to be a Mosher inviting me over to visit—that’s how my luck had gone that day. But it was the campground manager where we expected to stay that night, telling me the Mississippi had flooded and the camp was underwater. Coming back to reality, we ran to the Airstream and started figuring out plan B for the night.
Bruce believes there’s a spiritual force at work here, that the pull of my family bond bent circumstances into place all day so that I could find them. I’m normally the skeptic, but who knows? Maybe the high concentration of Moshers exerted a magnetic force as we got closer to West Liberty, clearing obstacles out of the way so we could make an emotional connection. Suspending disbelief, that’s very much how it felt.
But I’m also really thankful for the Internet.