Vernal – behind the scenes

My family has a powerful connection to Vernal, UT.

My great-grandmother, Eva Pope, lived in Vernal and loved it – so much so that she named my Grandfather for the city. His middle name was Vernell. I only learned this year that he was named for the city, though I had long known it was his name.

How did I learn that he was named for the city? My daughter was called to serve an LDS mission this year – and was called to serve in the Utah Provo Mission. Her first area of assignment was: Vernal! In talking about that with my mom, I found out that her dad – my grandfather – was named for the city his mother loved.

What is my daughter’s first name, who served a mission in Vernal? Eva – my daughter was named for Eva Pope – that very same great-grandmother who named her son for the city. That son – my grandfather – grew up and had his own daughter. And that daughter of his grew, and when she was about the same age as my daughter, died in a tragic car accident.

The city in which she died? Vernal.

Susan Vernal

My aunt Susan, who I never met.

Maggie Vernal

My daughter, named for Susan’s grandmother, on her first day in the city that my great-grandmother loved (together with her missionary companion, Sister Tongi).

This powerful alignment, of missing my daughter as she left to serve a mission, learning of these connections to this place, thinking of my mom’s sister that I never met, thinking of a God who brought all of this together, all made me think of a great compass. The compass needle made me think of needle ablation, and I thought of all the hopes and hurts and sorrows and joys inscribed by that great compass, and how personal and how universal they are. And I wrote a poem called Vernal.

vernal 2 jpeg

Vernal when it had just begun


I also love how the word “Vernal” reminds of spring, and rebirth, and a hope of life after death – ultimately central in our most important hopes. That connection is what I hope most readers will think of when they read the title of the poem.

A few other thoughts about my grandfather. First, he had a hard, hard life. All growing up I had heard stories about his summers shepherding to provide money for his mother and brothers, about having one pair of clothing for school, about his own father’s accidental death and their family’s fall from riches to rags – his mother taking in laundry, etc. My grandfather walked the gas pipelines in winter to support his own family, and suffered pneumonia, and health effects throughout his life from the difficult exposure he had endured. He loved the outdoors and the mountains. He was a builder – and he built a motel that his family (including my mom) ran to support themselves. He had a hard life, and he was a strong man.

Something that just makes me love him more, and wish I could talk to him now, is that through all of this my grandfather was truly an original cowboy poet. I come by my love of poetry through him and through my mom. We have two collections of my grandfather’s poetry, lovingly collected by his family. My mom has also written poetry prolifically.

Four days before the passing of his daughter, Susan, who died in Vernal, UT, my grandfather wrote a very personal and tender poem:



Beyond this life there is another

Where Christ will reign and be our brother.

And there our life will have no end

We’ll walk a road that has no bend.


If we could see through the veil of time

We’d never doubt that God is kind.

The life we live is filled with sorrow

But builds our faith with each tomorrow.


We hold the hand of someone dear

And pray for help. Does the Master hear?

We count the things that he has done

And know He’s God’s begotten son.


He holds the power over life and death

He can make us live or stop our breath.

I wonder if my faith is true

If he should take my precious Sue.


And leave me stunned with tear-filled eyes

Could I look upward to the skies.

To know she filled her mission here

And found the life that’s far more dear.


Oh God, I pray for strength from you

And know you’re just in all you do.

Whatever the things that come my way

I’ll find you near when I kneel and pray.


R. V. Calder – May 15, 1964 — 4 days before Sue’s death

This good man, who lost his father to a tragic hunting accident that reduced his family to poverty, and then years later lost his daughter to another tragedy, used his poetry to express his anguish, his faith, his hope, his thoughts, and his yearnings. This man who had been through so much, who knew how to camp and hunt and live off the land, was a poet through and through. I love you Grandpa. I’m sorry you lost your daughter. I think you would love to have known that your great-granddaughter, named for your mother, traveled to a place called Vernal, a place your mother loved and where your daughter died, and healed a family wound. God knew where to send your great-granddaughter. “If we could see through the veil of time we’d never doubt that God is kind.”

Calders Vernal

My grandfather with his family, shortly after the passing of Susan. My mother and my daughter have a strong family resemblance. This photo is from the mid-1960s.

A few other thoughts…

Vernal came immediately after the writing of Three Worlds, and carries on ideas I was contemplating when writing it, but ideas that weren’t appropriate to that poem – thus Vernal’s introduction sounds like it is completing a thought. It was part of a burst of creativity in which about half of the poetry I wrote in the last year was completed in about 2 months.

There are ideas in that poem that I’ve carried for as long as I can remember. Things that I have felt for years – and they found voice when my daughter found her new, albeit temporary, home: