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Remembering the Ancestors
Reaching out with respect and love to everyone who came before me, especially my women ancestors.
Even as a child, I wasn't a fan of Halloween. But I love Samhain, which I learned about as an adult, along with the discovery of my Celtic roots. This day is all about roots: celebrating the end of the harvest and tucking in the root crops for eating when the snow flies, rooting down in my cozy home in preparation for the long, dark days of winter, and using the thinning of the veil between worlds to think about and be grateful for my roots on this planet.
As an only child, when my mother died, I inherited the few bits of her life that she hadn't given away to others: her gold wedding band, a damaged antique teak table that was a gift from my paternal grandfather, an empty wooden box, a brass salamander-shaped button hook that had been her grandmother's, a few polyester sweaters that had been “too good to wear” in the nursing home, a carved cane with a broken elephant head, a walker, and her wallet. I wear her ring. The table sits in my living room, its dark presence surprisingly comfortable among beige upholstery and pine. But her wallet was a surprise.
In that wallet were treasures I'd never seen before. Sandwiched between her credit card and her health insurance card were a yellowed piece of newsprint from 1939 – my parents' wedding notice – and a photo, dated 1937, of my dad passionately kissing another woman. Having been brought up in relative silence, ruled by the twin principles that a) children should be seen and not heard and (b) little pitchers have big ears, I would never have been able to ask about that photograph if I'd known it existed. It could have been a joke, a pose with one of my mother's many younger sisters, but I will never know why she carried it around after all those years.
That frustrates me a bit because I believe in the importance of knowing those who came before us. I have discovered that my family history plays a part in my understanding of the world and our place in it. All my ancestors – their migrations, struggles, pains, and joys (although I've found the latter to be harder to uncover) have influenced my family's trajectory. As I've aged, I've also realized that they are all a crucial part of who I am and how I see myself.
I began with basic genealogy research, which turned up the Celtic roots of which I'd been unaware. That prompted me to dig deeper into history to try and understand how my passions, talents, faults, and other ways of being can be traced to the experiences of those ancestors, especially the women. Many of them were silenced and, in turn, silenced their daughters. One, a young girl servant, was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread from her employers. A good number of them, with their broods of young children, dutifully left home and family to follow their husbands' passions across countries and oceans. Some of them lost babies to illness and husbands to wars, accidents, and plagues. At least two died in childbirth.
It's no wonder that photos of some of those women, as well as my direct experience with my maternal grandmother and mother, show them to be dour, even bitter, rarely smiling. But the more I learn about them and the times and circumstances in which they lived, the more compassion and forgiveness I develop – for them and for myself. Many of those women were also strong and resilient, traits I recognize in myself along with some of the less positive ones that I've come to accept. (And perhaps the lives of so many of those women has influenced my search for “home” – a subject I've been trying to write about lately.)
These days, it seems fashionable to adopt names, customs, dress, food, spiritual beliefs, and music that seem more exotic than our own inherited ones. Masks and costumes and adventures into other cultures can be fun and even enriching, but I have discovered a great deal of comfort and wisdom in being true to my own authentic roots.
So, on this windy, rainy Samhain, I am reaching out with respect and love to everyone who came before me. I will light some candles for the ancestors, invite them in to sit around that teak table in my living room, and thank them for helping me become who I am today.
Photo licensed via Shutterstock
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