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Twila Van Leer: Even cousins count

Twila Van Leer and her cousin LaFay Thornock Erichsen get help from a missionary in Kirtland, Ohio, to look a copy of a receipt made out to their common ancestor, Martin Hortin Peck, for purchases at the Newel Whitney store.
Twila Van Leer and her cousin LaFay Thornock Erichsen get help from a missionary in Kirtland, Ohio, to look a copy of a receipt made out to their common ancestor, Martin Hortin Peck, for purchases at the Newel Whitney store.
Ray Boren

LaFay Thornock Erichsen and I are cousins of a sort. Even though she died last December, to my great sorrow, I am certain that relationship will last forever. Friendships like ours couldn't possibly end after just one lifetime. Or even two.

I'm going to give you the details of our relationship, and you can figure it out. In the mid-1920s, my father, Donald M. Peck, and her father, Faye Thornock, served together in the old Western States Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the mission covered a very large block of the Mountain West.

When they returned home, Dad introduced Faye to Dad's niece, Nannie Peck. Love blossomed. Within a fairly short time of each other, weddings were held for Dad and my mother, Twila Gagon (whom he had met in the mission field), and for Faye and Nannie. In due time, I was born, the second child to join the Don Peck family. A few months later, LaFay was born, the first child in the Thornock menage.

LaFay's grandfather, Carl Peck, and my father were half-brothers. That made LaFay and I first cousins once removed, I think.

But wait. There's more!

Uncle Carl's mother and my dad's mother were sisters. When Grandfather Dorr Peck's first wife died, he married her sister. That made their respective children not only half-siblings but also cousins. LaFay and I figured that made us first cousins once removed and a half, or something.

The degree of relationship was a moot point. Mostly, we were just best friends. Throughout our childhood and teens, we visited back and forth between Nevada, where I grew up, and Utah, where she resided, spending summers together. We began rearing children at about the same time, and when our children were grown and gone, we started a new phase of the friendship. We traveled the world together with a group of special friends.

Her death was a shattering blow to me since it was so entirely unexpected. One week, we were comparing notes on the quilts we were making. (Her quilts were works of art that won blue ribbons at the state fair. Mine aren't.) And a few weeks later, she was gone. I look forward to a time when we'll maybe travel the galaxies together.

(Side note: My father and LaFay's father died the same day, June 21, 1978. After a nightlong vigil, my father passed at about 11 a.m. LaFay was on my list of people to notify, but she called me first. Her father had died at about 5 a.m. that morning. Missionary companions forever.)

The purpose of all this? Since receiving a call to serve as a missionary in the Family History Department, I have thought a lot about families, having thoughts I'd never had before. If I can love one first cousin once removed and a half so much, how much more love is there in store as I come to know my eternal kin better? If I spent just a small part of the time I spent nurturing my relationship with LaFay in coming to know and appreciate other members of my very large pool of relatives, think of the potential for more love and caring.

I know the stories of some of my LDS pioneer ancestors and have felt very deep admiration and gratitude for the sacrifices they made to follow their religious convictions and the many things they did to influence what would eventually be incorporated into my life. When I try to imagine a family tree growing not only into the past few generations but also towering up and constantly branching out for generations before and generations to come, I am overwhelmed.

Just to be a little leaf on that great tree is a privilege.

In spite of my many concerns about my weakness in the technology that embodies modern family research, I just may come to love this assignment.

Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who has recently been called to serve as a family history missionary.