Category Archives: Ancestor Work
Catching up here, both on my 31 Days of Devotion to the God Dagr and also on my 52 Ancestors in 52 Days. I love doing these, but I can never seem to keep up in a timely manner these days. Oh well, better late than never!
First, let’s start with the 31 Days of Devotion to Dagr:
- Share any Music that makes you think of this deity (August 3).
I really suck at making play lists. I was hoping to have one for Dagr, but I just don’t think of organizing music in my brain that way. If anyone has one, feel free to post in the comments. I’m still working to get my sorted!
- Share A quote, a poem, or piece of writing that you think this deity resonates strongly with (August 4).
William Carlos Williams’ “Summer Song” and “Spring Storm” (Sort of if only because of their topic)
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” (though I also very strongly associate this with Loki).
Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Summer Sun”
and finally, this excerpt from Hafiz:
“The Sun Never Says
Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe Me.”
Look what happens with
A love like that,
It lights the Whole Sky.”
– From “The Gift,” by Hafiz
(translation by D.Ladinsky)
Now, onto my 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Project. I think we’re up to Week 31 and 32.
Week 31 (July 29-Aug. 4): Large
Two of my ancestors stand out here because of the remarkable size of their families. The first is my maternal great-grandmother (1875-1952). Her name was Lucinda Alice Shoff, nee Heffner. Like so many of my maternal ancestors, she grew up in Pennsylvania not too far from the man who would eventually become her husband (Hugh Clay Shoff). When married, she moved to Conowingo, Maryland, her entire world bracketed by the Susquehanna river and generations of Swiss and German ancestors who settled the area. She was deeply loved by her grand-children (and as far as I know her children too, though I only really knew her daughter, my grandmother Linnie Hanna), perceptive, kind, and apparently strong as an ox since she had 17 (seventeen!!!!) children. She and Hugh Clay Shoff (1873-1957) married in 1892 – I’d always wondered how they met until I looked at the census on day and realized they grew up nearly next door to each other. She had two sets of triplets and one set of twins. I find it a little mindboggling. Not all of them reached adulthood – one set of twins for example, was stillborn (they were buried on property my parents later owned, named Faith, Hope, and – I kid you not – Death according to family lore)—but the majority did reach adulthood, no mean feat. Of the ones who lived, their names are John Shoff, Elmer Shoff, Howard Shoff, Chester Shoff, Virginia, Luther, Linnie (my grandmother), Violet, and Rose. I think there was also a Charles, Emerson, Mary, Huey, and possibly a Louise…give or take one. I only really knew my Grandmother growing up. For whatever reason, we had almost no contact with the rest of the family. I met Rose Adams (nee Shoff) once, possibly Violet – I was so small I can’t remember—also Olive Shoff (nee Shultz) who married Charles. I remember I was very, very small, maybe three or four when I met her. She had all these knickknacks in a glass cabinet that just fascinated me at that age. I also went trick or treating one year at Hugh’s house. He was nicknamed “Bo,” ostensibly because his father’s name was also Hugh.
The second is my third great-grandmother Elizabeth Runkle nee Oberlander (1824-1900). Like Lucinda, she also grew up in Chanceford Township, PA. She married Jesse C. Runkle (1821-1894) in 1839 and they had thirteen children. Here is the amazing thing for the time: all thirteen lived to adulthood. I hadn’t thought about this at all, certainly not enough to consider it a remarkable feat until a cousin, a serious genealogist pointed this out. You know, we look at pictures of our ancestors, or these collections of facts, and they often look staid and straight laced but I wonder about their lives. What were their hopes, their dreams? Were they satisfied with their lives or is that a luxury that we have looking it from several generations past? I want to know what Elizabeth was like as a young girl, what her courtship was like, what challenges she and her husband faced as they made their lives together in those first few years. Hell, I want to know the how and why of each of their children’s names! One odd fact that I did learn about Elizabeth’s husband Jesse: he died on Christmas day exactly one hundred years from the year our immigrant Runkle ancestors (Jacob 1724-94) died.
Let’s see if I can name all her children: Mary Ann, Catharine (my great great grandmother – she married W. Henry Heffner and one of their children was Lucinda), Sarah Elizabeth, George Washington, Samuel, John, Rebecca Jane, Susanna Ann, Margaret, William James, Jesse David, Henry Franklin, Emma Lucinda. I find it interesting that as far as I can tell, in neither her case nor that of Lucinda Shoff was the first boy named after the father. They all had a namesake, but I don’t think it was the eldest boy.
I never felt much like I had anything in common with these women, for whom children and household formed the bulk of their lives, but over the years as I have run my own household, I realize just how tremendously difficult their work was, and how important and I am grateful they were strong and capable in their work. I know from family oral history that Lucinda was the real heart and soul of her very large clan. She is remembered by her grandchildren with deep, abiding love.
Week 32 (Aug. 5-11): Small
I was a little stumped with this topic, so I asked my husband, “Thinking about my 52 ancestors in 52 weeks project, when I bring up the topic “small,” what comes to mind? He suggested I think about a small artifact and talk about that. I like that idea because so often ancestral pieces are memory pieces, they provide a physical conduit to those who came before us. They’re treasures, not because of what they may be constructed of, but because they are a physical means of connection to ancestors we may have never met. So, I’ll tell a story.
My grandmother Linnie Hanna was beloved by her family. When she died, her children lost their fucking minds. Though she had been a devout Catholic all her adult life, two of her children who had converted to Protestant religions decided they didn’t want her body in the church for the funeral mass because it ‘made them uncomfortable.’ I was a child at the time or I’d have had some words because she was entitled to the funeral she wanted according to the religion she followed and our comfort or discomfort with it was utterly irrelevant. The Monseigneur worked with the family and allowed it though it was against Catholic practice. Fine. Then my grandmother’s youngest son took it up on himself to empty out her house without telling anyone. He kept key pieces for himself and sold everything else to a local antique store. There was only one problem: that store was across the street from the ballet studio where I worked. In between rehearsals one day, I went over to browse and found all my grandmother’s things. I called my bio mom who came down. She was horrified. The poor old lady who owned the shop was ready to cry she was so upset. She couldn’t afford to give us everything back, which I understand, but she gave us as much of a discount as she could afford on key pieces. So, one of the few things I have of my grandmother, who pretty much raised me while my parents worked, is a small trinket box. I’m lucky to have a couple of her afghans that she knitted too, and a few tchotchkes that she gave me when I was small. My cousin, that particular uncle’s daughter, with whom I rarely got along, did me a major solid. She ran into the house and pressed a few pieces of jewelry into my hand shortly after my grandmother died: stuff my grandmother wore all the time, a ring, a small pot metal heart that said ‘I love you grandma’ that I’d given her when I was small, and her cross. I’m grateful for that. My grandmother’s death tore those siblings apart, due to the small mindedness of many of them in their grief. My uncle tried the same trick with my bio mom – throwing her stuff out rather than selling it – but I had been there first for the funeral and salvaged key pieces as did my brother. Trash is trash and every family has at least one person who qualifies.
(Linnie May Sarah Catharine Shoff Hanna and the box and pot metal pendant I mention above. The spoon is her baby spoon, which she’d given me when I was small).
One of my readers, Coastal Pagan asked a very good question about Ancestor Elevation. It wasn’t one that I’d thought to discuss initially but it’s actually a very good question. Also, when we understand the rituals that we do more fully, we can put more into them, perform them more effectively and that is all to the good.
So, Coastal Pagan asked:
“I’m probably drastically overthinking this, but is there a specific reason why you and others suggest using books for the physical raising parts of Ancestor elevations? I’ve never been thrilled with the idea for a variety of reasons. It’s probably either OCD or scrupulosity on my part, but I worry about the books picking up miasma if the elevation goes poorly or even good contagion if it goes well. I use my books regularly, so either of those things could cause problems. I also have visual processing problems galore, so admittedly the idea of having to figure out if several books are approximately the same size stresses me out a bit, lol. I’ve been thinking of buying several bricks and using them exclusively for Ancestor Work, especially specifically for elevations. I have several Ancestors who were bricklayers or related jobs, and one who was a stonemason but switched to bricklaying when he came to America because there wasn’t much call for stonework here. I have no experience with brickwork myself, but it struck me as way to help my Ancestors be more closely involved in the process by using a medium some of them are familiar with, and struck me as similar to the practice of giving the Ancestors tools or other items to help and work with. I also like the idea of the symbolism of bricks being used to build things, including strong foundations. But then, a lot of the nuts and bolts of religious practices seem innocuous, but in reality, aren’t at all. Is there a reason why books are best?”
I was really thrilled to get this question because while it may seem simple, it’s actually touching on a significant part of the elevation process. So, here is my answer:
Hi Coastal Pagan, Ok. for those not familiar with what you’re asking about, ancestor elevations are an open rite that comes originally from spiritualism, one that has been adopted wholesale by the Afro-Caribbean religious community – a testimony to how effective a ritual it is— but also by ancestor workers in general. l learned it at two separate times from Lukumi practitioners. It is a sequence of prayers done nine nights in a row while working a special type of shrine. You can learn more about the ritual itself here. A caveat about the whole process may be found here. While seemingly straightforward and even simple, this ritual has the capacity to heal, strengthen, and “elevate” an ancestor, helping them to do the work they need to do to become better human beings, better keepers of their line, as well as personally healthy and whole and work like this can actually transform an ancestral line, not just extending that healing forward, but allowing it to flow back in the line as well. That is a very, very powerful process.
Now, as part of the elevation, a shrine to a particular ancestor, the focus of the elevation, is set up on the floor. This shrine should include an picture of the ancestor in question, or names written out on paper if you don’t have photos, or something representing him or her. Prayers are given for nine nights and each night, the picture, name, or token of the ancestor being elevated is physically raised up a little bit more, usually by putting a book or brick under it, adding one more each day.
I firmly believe that the raising up of the picture is there as a visual representation for both the dead and for us of what is happening in the elevation. It sends a powerful psychological message to us, our ancestral house, and most importantly of all the ancestor for whom the ritual is being done, one that really drives home the prayer and devotional process being put into play.
Your question about miasma is also an important one. I cover the books with a white cloth so there is a barrier. Furthermore, I handle that by ritually cleansing everything afterwards. Because I usually use books, I will rekan them with mugwort (smoke them by lighting some mugwort or other cleansing incense and let the smoke run over the books). When I elevate, I use one book each night, usually one that’s about an inch thick. I think using bricks would be absolutely brilliant, not only because that solves the problem of variant sizes, but most especially I think it would be potent for you personally Coastal Pagan, because you had ancestors who were bricklayers, so that’s a nice bit of continuity and connection. Also, it is a perfect representation of a foundation that supports.
I use books because I learned this from two urban Lukumi practitioners and for years I lived in a small NYC apartment. ^_^ I had books. I actually really like the idea of using bricks. It doesn’t matter what you use, so long as the image is visually being elevated daily. Don’t stress if they’re not all exactly the same width and size. The important thing is the actual act of raising up the image or token of your dead. Good question and I’m really glad you asked it!
Week 29: Newsworthy
I had to think long and hard about what was newsworthy and it finally occurred to me the other day that maybe I should tell the little bit that I know about my third third great-grandfather William Seymour Baldwin (1823-1864). William was born and raised in Hardy County, West Virginia and according to the 1850 census was a farmer. After the civil war, a neighbor by the name of Isaac Pratt, a friend, had a horse stolen by a group of horse thief. Apparently, these horse thieves had formed themselves into a gang at the end of the Civil War and were causing trouble. When Isaac went to retrieve his horse, William went to help him, and in doing so was shot and killed. I think this did make the local news at the time. He’s buried in Snodgrass Graveyard in Hardy County, WV and maybe one of these days I’ll get to visit him.
Week 30: The Old Country
Throughout my childhood whenever I asked my bio mom about our genealogy, she would say that her father always told her he was “Scots-Irish” and that was all she knew. Of course, I’ve since researched her maternal line and found all the German and Swiss ancestors there, but for a long time I wasn’t able to make much headway on her father’s side. It was only in the past few years that line opened up at all to me and surprise, surprise: we actually do have Scottish ancestry (and a bit of Irish).
My grandfather Roland Hanna is descended from the Irish immigrant James Hanna (1725-1798), a man who fought in the Revolutionary War as part of the Pennsylvania militia in Captain John Graham’s first battalion. James came from Ulster, Ireland. These Irish Hannas apparently trace their lineage back to the Scottish clan Hannay. The Clan history may be found here.
My impression is this clan was a rather fractious bunch. LOL. They held a clan seat at Sorbie but feuded with the Kennedys, Dunbars, and Murrays eventually getting outlawed because of their feuding. According to the history given at the site above, a portion of the clan moved to Ireland. Some eventually came to America and my ancestor James Hanna was one such immigrant. I really like the clan motto: Per Ardua ad Alta (through difficulties to the heights).
Affiliate Advertising Disclosure
Senneferet asked me a really potent question in the comments section of one of my ancestor posts: “How do you cope when finding out bad information about someone you had previously loved and respected? I know everyone has their flaws, but I feel a bit foolish. (I adored my grandfather and assumed he had a deep love for my grandmother. I recently found out how violent and cruel he was to her and their children. His photo has been relegated to a drawer in my shrine room for the time being.)”
This is such a good question, and I’ll bet that an awful lot of people are in this situation and don’t know what to do. I certainly know that for myself, it was so much, exactly like this, that tripped me up in learning to honor my ancestors when I started out. That’s why I decided to parse this question out and answer it in a separate post. Hopefully, it will be useful to many of you starting out in your ancestor work.
Firstly, I want to say that if this is the situation in which you find yourself, there’s no reason to feel foolish. People are complicated. The person (your grandfather) you may have dealt with either in life or during ancestor veneration is not the person your grandmother endured. Think about how parents can have very difficult and damaging relationships with their own parents, but those self-same parents will watch their own children having wonderful and loving relationships with those [grand]parents. It’s ok to love someone who was flawed, damaged, and even damaging. One can love without supporting the terrible behavior.
In fact, as another ancestor worker once told me: it is categorically impossible to have ancestors who were all wonderful people. Sooner or later, you’re going to encounter one that leaves you aghast. It’s likewise categorically impossible that they were all assholes. Your ancestral house is a mixed bag but they’re yours. I’m also going to say something that probably isn’t popular: just because an ancestor was a complete dick in life, doesn’t mean A) they can’t change and continue to grow when they’re dead and B) doesn’t mean they don’t have your back. That’s…uncomfortable but it is a reality of ancestor work.
I dealt with this situation with my maternal grandfather Roland Isaac H. He had a horrific childhood, which at least helps me understand his later behavior (though it doesn’t excuse it). He also tried to make amends later in life to his children. He was physically and emotionally abusive to my grandmother and his five kids. She divorced him in the fifties when, in the small town in which they lived, this was not common. I remember her telling me once (it’s odd the ancestral stories we carry – my brother, twelve years younger than I, doesn’t know any of this) that for a while after they divorced, he lived rough in the woods near her home and she was always afraid he’d come back. A police officer at the time, frustrated because in the 1950s in rural Maryland there were absolutely no laws on the books that protected domestic abuse survivors, told my grandmother, who herself was a crack shot with a rifle, that if he came back to go ahead and shoot him, but to make sure he was inside the house and facing her when she did. That was the best he could do. Fortunately for all concerned, it never came to that. There was a time, about ten years ago, when I started sensing my grandfather’s spirit strongly, along with the sense that he wanted to help and be an active part of my ancestral house. I also sensed my grandmother was still scared of him. Much divination later, I worked this out. It’s this experience that taught me, more than just knowing theory ever would have done, that it is possible for our dead to continue to heal and grow and that we can be part of that if we wish. So, what did I do?
As an ancestral spirit, Roland was always fine with me and supportive, so acknowledging his behavior to his family and making sure he understood the full weight of the damage he caused, I explained what I was doing and then moved his image to a separate and physically lower place on my ancestral shrine – as far away from my grandmother (his wife) as possible. I did a series of healing elevations for her. Knowing the situation within Roland’s life that contributed to his damage, I then did a series of elevations for him, and then started working doggedly with his mother. That took several years to begin to untangle. I also visited my grandmother’s grave and did venerative work there. I bought a gravestone for Roland, whom I discovered had none, visited his grave and also made offerings to heal and refresh his soul. I tried my best to find where my great grandmother (Roland’s mom) ashes were buried but was unsuccessful so I had memorial masses offered for her (she was Presbyterian but they are kind of low church so I had Catholics do it. Not the best solution probably, but she also wasn’t particularly religious). I visited Roland’s father’s grave and had it out with him too, but also made offerings. (to him and to his mother and father. I really like the way his mom’s spirit feels). I acknowledged them ALL as significant parts of my ancestral line.
Now I could do this because Roland wanted to make amends. If he had still been violent and abusive, I would have cut him off from any veneration, offerings, or acknowledgement. I would have called on my Disir, my ancestral guardians (there always seem to be a couple of female ancestors who step forward to order one’s ancestral house) to assist with this. I would also have called on the rest of my male ancestors to help here as well, because his behavior in life was not honorable as a man. A real man doesn’t work out his emotional damage by beating his wife and children.
No one is obligated to work with an ancestor that was abusive in life. When this comes up, it’s really very situational and I would definitely go to divination. I’d also, however, take one’s own feelings into account. Sometimes, they’re not relevant. We, as adults, often have to do things that are uncomfortable because they are the right things to do. This is called having character. There are many times I don’t feel like making the offering or prayer I said I would for whatever reason, but I gave my word and it is my obligation and privilege to get off my butt and do so, even my body may not be cooperating that day. I do the best I can. This isn’t necessarily one of those situations. The thing is, as long as this lies unaddressed and unacknowledged in one’s ancestral house, the damage keeps on happening. It doesn’t go away – there is no magical place called “away.” Sooner or later, ancestral damage needs to be dealt with and we as ancestor workers, have some small capacity to contribute to the healing of our lines. How that healing is accomplished (whether by prayer, elevation, and engagement or by cutting someone out of the line) really depends on the who, what, when, and why of the situation and on the potential for further harm to the living.
Some spirit workers will talk about ‘ancestral curses’ and yes, these are a thing. They can have many, many causes, but one of them is unresolved trauma and hurt. So, an ancestor worker’s willingness to engage via elevation can retroactively and proactively both, help the entire ancestral line. For most though, this is not an obligation. It is a choice and sometimes, for many reasons, the choice will be to not engage because more damage to the living family, or to their own hearts might ensue. Sometimes even in this case, an ancestor worker will choose to engage rather than allow that to pass on to their children. It’s complicated and messy. Wading into something like this can tear open pain for living family members. I’ve talked before about how really getting into proper ancestor veneration has the corollary that often one’s ancestors (whether one can hear/sense them or not – some develop that sensitivity, some don’t. it’s not a pre-req for ancestor honoring) will push one to deal with one’s living relatives, heal rifts, bring concord and healing there too. Multiply that a thousand-fold where something like abuse is involved. Make the best choice for you and your family living and dead and don’t let anyone make you feel badly about it. Each situation is different and needs to be handled carefully and respectfully by any spiritworker or diviner who becomes involved.
Also, know that no choice you make with regard to honoring or not honoring a particular ancestor is immutable. There may come a time where you change your mind and decide to engage. Perhaps the situation with living relatives has changed. Perhaps a living relative has died. Perhaps other ancestors are requesting it. Perhaps healing has occurred to a degree with the ancestors that were harmed and now thread of wyrd are open that will allow you to cleanly work with the abusive one for his or her healing. No decision you make no is necessarily impossible to change at a later date.
Ancestor work, healthy ancestor work is a balance. There are multiple sides to this process. You’re balancing the needs of the living and the needs of the dead as well as the needs of those who will eventually come into the line. You’re working with your values and ethics and familial loyalties through the lens of your own experience and sometimes deep hurts that have been caused as a direct result of a particular ancestor’s behavior and choices. That’s not easy. It’s never easy though it does become easier with more engagement (partly, I think, because other ancestors will eventually feel empowered enough to step forward and help).
I also wouldn’t assume that an abusive ancestor didn’t love the ancestor he or she abused. I would say instead that maybe that person loved to the best of their ability but were crippled by their own damage. Maybe they just had poor character and were in capable of loving properly. Maybe they were a dozen other things, but I wouldn’t assume that one facet of their nature, good or bad, was all they were. That too, is deeply uncomfortable, even as I sit here typing it. It’s true though. Whatever else they are, good, bad, or indifferent, people are complicated.
So, to finally answer this question, I would go to divination. We’re polytheists and our religions are religions of diviners. This is how it was in the ancient world. This is how it is with unbroken polytheistic traditions, and this is how it can be for us as well. I would seek out someone who understands this sacred art. I don’t think I would do the divination myself because in such a situation I would not be unbiased, and this could make it difficult to read accurately. Strong emotions and involvement skew our readings, and also confirmation bias is a real thing. I would pray to my Gods and healthy ancestors about this and ask for clarity and insight. I would probably (provided this person was also an ancestor rather than a living relative!) begin elevations for the ancestor who was hurt by the abuser. What happens next would depend on a number of factors outlined in this post. There isn’t any hard and fast rule.
For more about ancestor veneration, check out my book “Honoring the Ancestors: A Basic Guide” available here. This book was born out of an online class I taught several times, designed to teach people the basics of good, solid ancestor work. I’m also happy to answer any further questions here.
Again, I’m still playing catch up, so these will be short and sweet vignettes. Once I get caught up, I’ll start writing longer meditations on my ancestors again but the spring term just kicked my butt, what with the transition to online classes and a heavy course load.
Week 25 (June 17-23): Unexpected
One of the things that stood out to me, really smacked me in the face, as I was delving into my maternal line, was the number of clergy and religious rebels. It’s almost like theology and pissing people off go hand in hand in my line. Ha ha. I’m upholding the family tradition.
Just off the top of my head, there’s Rev. Alexander Underwood (1688-1767), my seventh great grandfather. He was a Quaker and instrumental in helping to build the Quaker community in PA. I had the pleasure of visiting a Quaker meeting house in Warrington, PA, that he helped to build with his own hands. I wrote about that previously here.
My favorite is my eleventh great grandfather Jakob Boehm (or Boehme), the sixteenth century Swiss mystic and theologian. Apparently, his written work was considered scandalous. He had a tremendous influence on German Romanticism, theosophy, even Hegel. He also wrote about angels, alchemy, and some of what he wrote in “De Tribus Principiis” seems to anticipate themes that we see again in the 19th and early 20th century occultists (though I’m sure he would never, ever have defined himself thusly). I had no idea what a big deal he was in early modern theology (I’m a medievalist focusing on early Christianity) until he came up in conversation with a Protestant colleague and I mentioned, ‘Oh, he’s my 11th great grandfather’ and the poor guy’s jaw hit the floor. That was kind of cool. One of the difficulties in beginning a practice of ancestor veneration is finding commonalities and points of connection with our dead. I’m no exception to that. It was immensely satisfying to find theologians in my line, even if they do belong to a religious movement that I don’t follow. They were pious and thoughtful and their devotion to their God guided their lives and I can appreciate that, and it gives me a way to further my reverence and veneration of them.
Of course, I also had Mennonites, some of whom were clergy, and Hueguenots – all of whom came to this country to escape persecution in their own. I might disagree with their religious positions, but I appreciate their commitment and devotion. They were tough, stubborn, and deeply committed to living their faith. I hope I have inherited half their grit!
Week 26 (June 24-30): Middle
This one is particular difficult topic. The obvious thing to write about is middle child, but with each foremother having upwards of a dozen plus children, who constitutes the middle? Lol. Dr. Henry Gates, Jr, who hosts a popular genealogy show on PBS said once in an episode, ‘Genealogy giveth, and genealogy taketh away.” He’s so, so right. I grew up thinking that I was the eldest child in my family. Through genealogy work, I’ve discovered that I have two older sisters, one of whom I believe is deceased, and then of course I always knew I had a younger brother (we grew up together). Suddenly I went from being the eldest child, to being the middle child. Ha ha. I do not have the stereotypical temperament for a middle child. I’m definitely just a little type A. LOL
Week 27 (July 1-7): Solo
I had to stare at this week’s topic for a long time before I decided what to write. I’m still not completely satisfied with my choice because it highlights for me how much I don’t know about the ancestors on both sides of my family. I really wish I had their stories, particularly of personal challenges met and overcome. It makes me all the more grateful for those living relatives to whom I can speak, tease out their stories, and talk to them about their challenges. My aunt, LBH (she’s very private so I’m not going to use her name here) for instance. She left a small town of Conowingo when she was 18 and moved to DC to start working at the Pentagon. She worked there for forty years and loved every minute of it (except for 9/11. She was in the office that was hit. She said she’d gone out to deliver some papers and came back, saw the plane flying low and thought, “that’s way too low. Something’s wrong.” She turned on her heel and walked out and so was out of that office wing when the plane hit. Thank the Gods she trusted her gut!). But she was eighteen when she moved to Washington. That was a huge culture shock for a backwater young woman who ‘d grown up in a very poor family. She had courage. My bio mom was supposed to go with her, the plan being they’d both start working at the Pentagon but at the last minute backed out. She worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground where she met my father instead. I appreciate that courage. I remember when I moved to New York to dance. I closed the door to my shoebox of an apartment that first night thinking, “What have I done?” It’s a terrifying thing to leave everything you know behind and then the experiences you have, outside the expectations and experience of family that you left, ensure you’ll never be able to comfortably fit at home again. Maybe if one never fit really before, that’s no big deal but I imagine it was a tremendous sacrifice to some and I want those stories. In the meantime, I honor them, doing my best by those living, and telling the stories of those dead.
Week 28 (July 8-14): Multiple
My great grandmother (my bio mother’s maternal grandmother) Lucinda Alice Shoff (nee Heffner) had seventeen children. That included several sets of twins and at least two sets of triplets. One set was stillborn, and I grew upon land where they were buried. I know only two things about them – and I count them as honored ancestors: firstly, when they were born dead, they were named Faith, Hope, and Death (no joke. This is what my grandmother told me about her siblings). Secondly, they were buried in a corner of property that had once belonged to my grandfather but eventually was sold off. By chance, the house that I grew up in, that my parents bought when I was maybe a year old, rested on land that held the bones of these three little ancestors.
I never used to think about the hard work involved in making sure that your children reached adulthood until someone said to me (about my third great grandmother Elizabeth Runkle, nee Oberlander 1824-1900), “Oh that is amazing: she had sixteen children and they all lived to adulthood.” (I have to add that I love how she listed her profession on census records as “keeping house.” There is something quaint and yet proud about that phrasing, an acknowledgement of the essential and fundamental work that she was doing). She married at sixteen – not unusual for the time and place and in which she lived—and I am here because of her, because she kept sixteen children alive, keeping house, maintaining a farm, and raising them up right. Respect.
That’s all for now. I think, mirabile dictu, that I may be caught up so next week look for a longer account of one of my dead. If any of you are participating in this challenge, or if you just want to talk about one of your ancestors, if one of the prompts inspires you, please please feel free to so in the comments.
Oh my Gods, I am so very far behind in this challenge. The end of term, especially moving to working from home in the wake of Covid really kicked my butt. This is going to be one of my quick and dirty catch-ups, really more of a brief pastiche for each week’s ancestor than a full blog post for each. I’m too far behind to be picky! So… * deep breath * here goes.
Week 14 (April 1-7): Water: my maternal grandfather Roland Isaac Hanna (1903-1991)
For all of his faults, and according to family lore they were many, my maternal grandfather was also an autodidact. He taught himself how to play the violin and could pick up any melody by ear. He was also a self-taught civil engineer in a day and age where that was still possible. Let’s just say that the math gene skipped both his children’s and my generation lol. Anyway, apparently, he was so good his employers wanted him to move to Brazil to work on high end projects there, but my grandmother refused to go. I placed him with water because he helped build the Conowingo dam and Hydroelectric station. Bridging Cecil and Harford counties in Maryland and crossing the Susquehanna, it was quite impressive when I was a small child and my childhood home (where my younger brother now lives with his family) was less than five minutes away.
(Conowingo Dam, Conowingo, MD)
Week 15 (April 8-14): Fire : my fifth great maternal grandfather James Hanna (1725-1798)
James Hanna fought in the Revolutionary War as a private in captain John Graham’s militia company, 1stbattalion from Chester County, PA. He was from Ulster, Ireland and died in Lancaster, PA having survived the war by at least fifteen years. I put him under ‘fire’ because he’s descended from the Scottish Hannay clan and they were, from what I could find historically, hellions. Lol. Apparently, they were kicked out of Scotland for feuding whereupon many of the clan went to Ireland. It seems to me like fighting and war are pretty fiery pursuits and I know this line had its temper (which I seem to have inherited in spades). The clan motto is ‘Per ardua ad alta’ (‘through difficulties to the heights’).
Week 16 (April 15-21): Air: Rev. John Bachman (1790-1874)
I’m still connecting the dots with this particular ancestor, but I believe I’m related to him (4thgreat uncle) through my mother’s paternal line. He was a Lutheran minister and naturalist. He worked with Audubon and had several animals named after him including a bird, Bachman’s Warbler. I thought that last was pretty cool. I’m still trying to fully confirm the genealogy – we have Bachmans all over that particular line but I’m 90% sure at this point.
Week 17 (April 22-28): Land: Johann Georg Haeffner (1698-1775)
My 7thgreat grandfather was born in Eberstaedt, Germany on October 17, 1698. He was one of my “immigrant” ancestors, meaning he was the first in a given line to immigrate to the US. He immigrated, I believe in 1749. His wife was named Maria Barbara Orstel (1698-1756) and they probably married in 1721 (I need to confirm this – I don’t trust it till I’ve seen the documents). I could have chosen any of my immigrant ancestors for this particular week’s posting, I suppose, but I settled on my Germans and Swiss because they were fairly well off. They were tradesmen or in the case of a couple threads of my German ancestry, gentry yet they chose to give that up to come to the US. I always found that surprising. I suppose it shouldn’t be. The more I research, the more I realize that for some, it was religious freedom (I have quite a few Mennonites, Quakers, and Hueguenots in my maternal line) and for others, they didn’t want to fight and die for someone else, and I’m sure I’ll discover still more reasons as I stumble across more genealogical records. I really wish I knew more about them as people (and this is doubly so for the women. Sometimes I don’t even have their full names!). All I have in many cases are dates, names and nothing more. As an interesting aside, Johann and my husband share the same birthdate.
Week 18 (April 29 –May 5): Where there’s a Will: my maternal great grandmother (my mother’s paternal grandmother): Edna Baldwin (ab. 1879-1944).
Edna Baldwin was willful as fuck. I don’t know her, but just from what has come down to me through family accounts, I think it’s safe to say she had a very strong will. She was self-made and ruthlessly so. She left her small town in Hardy, WV and moved to Baltimore (though apparently she and her first husband moved around. My grandfather as born in Alabama!). She was an opera singer for a time, and later in life, during the depression, worked as a seamstress. She lived by her own rules and took very little crap from anyone.
Week 19 (May 6-12): Service: 1stcousin twice removed private S. Wesley Heffner (30 April 1898-June 1918).
He was a young man who went to France with Pershing’s troops to fight in WWI and didn’t come back again. This may well be the only surviving photo of him. It’s odd looking at it because he bears a very strong resemblance to my brother. Wesley lived in York County, PA and is buried in a cemetery where he is related to nearly everyone there. His mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, great-grandmother and great-grandfather and a passel of other ancestors lie nearby. I do not know if his body lies in the grave or if it is just a headstone. He is very much remembered and honored.
Week 20 (may 13-19): Travel: my adopted mom Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza (1950-2010)
For someone who was born in Paris, grew up partly in Venezuela, partly in Italy, and travelled all over the world from the time she was small pretty much until she died, my adopted mom hated traveling. She always told me that she loathed it and always had, even though I think she counted herself very lucky to have had the opportunity and experience. She liked to be in her home, tending her shrines, working in her garden, in relative solitude the best. Still, it was through her that I was able to travel a bit and I am likewise grateful for that. She opened the world to me.
Week 21 (May 20 – 26): Tombstone: 3rdgreat grandmother Rachael J. Bobo (1824-1908)
This is my Appalachian 3rdgreat grandmother, directly descended from Gabriel Bobo, my Huguenot immigrant ancestor who came to VA in 1681 fleeing religious persecution. She is listed in the census as illiterate but she made damned sure her children got an education and her grandchildren entered the professions. She was born and died in West VA (Hardy County) and there is no indication she ever left it. I have no idea where her grave lies but oh, I wish I did so I could go, touch her stone, kneel on the soil and pay my respects.
Week 22 (May 27 – June 2): Uncertain: paternal grandfather Karalys (Karl) Dabravalskas (1882-1973)
I never met my grandfather as he died when I was less than a year old. For all that his last name seems unique to American eyes, I’ve not had much luck researching his line or that of his wife (Ursula Blazis). I have been told by a cousin that Karalys’s parents were named, no joke, Adam (Adomas) and Eve (Eva). LOL. I would love to know if this is true.
(Ursula Blazis Dabravalskas, Julia Dabravalskas (Standing), John Dabravalskas (small boy standing between his parents), Karalys Dabravalskas)
Week 23 (June 3-9): Wedding: Ursula Blazis and Karalys Dabravalskas
I heard this story about my paternal grandparents from both my mom and my dad. Apparently, Karalys had an arranged marriage with the eldest Blazis daughter. He came over to the US to get himself settled, started his dairy farm, etc. etc. and sent for his bride-to-be. She, however, decided she didn’t want to leave Lithuania and, without telling him first, the family sent the younger daughter Ursula. Well, she gets off the boat and what is the man to do? In those days, you didn’t send her back! So, he married her. They fought like cats and dogs apparently, according to my bio-mom but had three children, one of whom was my dad John Paul.
Week 24 (June 10-16): Handed Down: my maternal great grandmother Lucinda Alice Shoff nee Heffner
One of the things that I am always fascinated with is the handing down of names. It’s such a deeply personal connection with one’s ancestor. My family apparently bickered over what to name me. May aunt wanted to call me Victoria (which I would have liked). I was nearly named Ursula after my paternal grandmother. I ended up with a name I disliked deeply and changed it at eighteen – good riddance. When my second niece was born, my brother asked me if there were any girl’s names really common in our maternal line and I told him: Catherine, Mary, Lucinda, Alice. There are other names too, of course, but those are probably the most common, followed closely by Elizabeth. No one can ever accuse any of my maternal lines of being particularly creative with their names (the Hanna line in particular is all James, John, and Stephen. Like, mix it up guys. Give me a George, a Robert, anything else! Y’all are a naming nightmare for your descendants who are genealogists lol). (image of Hugh Shoff and Lucinda Alice Heffner Shoff).
My great grandmother’s two names were passed down to her grandchildren and I think Alice is a lovely name, with a sweet, quaint charm. My relative hated it though, so much so that for her privacy I won’t say which relative it is. Fortunately for her, in those days, when confirmed as a Catholic, one could take one’s confirmation name in place of one’s middle name so she did that. Still, I the names carry the memory and as they pass down through the family accrue layers of memory. My aunt, also named after her grandmother remembers Lucinda Heffner Shoff as a deeply religious woman, kind, loving, firm. My aunt absolutely adored her namesake and the feeling was mutual. She told me that she always felt warm and loved and safe when she was with her grandma and that when Lucinda Heffner died, it was devastating. Lucinda Alice had seventeen (17) children, including several sets of twins and triplets and most of them lived to adulthood. One of them was my grandmother Linnie May.
I would love to hear the stories of the names that have passed down in each of your families, of your own name, and the names that you yourself have gifted to your children. The stories are important.
I’ll stop here for now. I still have a couple of weeks to catch up on but boy am I tapped out. This was like ancestor stories lightning round! This will teach me to procrastinate. Ha ha. Feel free to share your own ancestral stories in the comments. It’s always a good day to remember our honored dead.
Today, my household celebrates Lindisfarne Day, a day in 793 C.E. when Vikings sacked a Northumberland monastery, giving rise to the desperate cry of English Christians: “From the fury of the northmen, preserve us, oh Lord!”. Well, maybe stop slaughtering us. Then maybe Jesus will hear you. *sarcasm* There is a theory that the raid on Lindisfarne (and other raids too) was done in retaliation for Charlemagne’s brutal slaughter of over 4500 Saxon Heathens at Verdun — he butchered them because they would not convert. Then he butchered the Lombards (who at that point were Arian Christians and he still massacred them).
So we celebrate this day with offerings to our Gods, our ancestors, and with cake. I made a Lithuanian apple cake. Have a happy Lindisfarne Day.
While the world is going happily to hell, my household has been working to become more self-sufficient. We have a long way to go but this process has been bringing us closer to our ancestors, to the land, and to our Gods too. Working with the land in any capacity is a healing thing, and since I know I’ve been getting emotionally overwhelmed by watching and reading the news more than normal these past few days, I thought perhaps those of you who are in the same boat might enjoy reading this, or at least find in it a bit of a helpful respite.
Firstly, I’ve made my first journeys into canning. I’m still a little afraid to try induction canning. I’ve never done that before, nor do I remember my grandmother doing it, but I have done water-based canning over a decade ago and I know my maternal grandmother did as well. I wanted to try it again. So, I made pickles. It was easy, much more so than I expected. First, I took myself in hand and even though I was nervous took our leftover parsnips and carrots and pickled the hell out of them. We’ve been picking up produce and eggs weekly at a local CSA. The farm is really wonderful, the people lovely to deal with, and the food organic and fresh (they work with two other local farms also, so the farm stand is well stocked. There was even a bit of fruit, though it’s early yet for that) (1). The parsnip/carrot pickles turned out well. The canning process went as it ought to have done; the jars sealed. It helped my confidence a bit, so two nights ago, I took 2/3 of our cucumbers and made dill pickles. They turned out beautifully and as soon as we get more pickles from our CSA, I’ll be making more. It’ll be even better once our dill flowers. We planted dill and have a ton of it. There’s something really nice about using produce or herbs that one has grown oneself. So far, we’ve only been able to do that with our greens (Romaine, lettuces, sorrel, spinach, some chard) and herbs but soon we’ll have more vegetables to play with. I’ve been able to freeze quite a bit, at least two mos worth of greens for a household that eats A LOT of greens) (2). I mostly pray to my ancestors when I’m doing this, but Sigyn and Frau Holle have also been strongly in my thoughts and my prayers. I remember my adopted mom talking about how tending the home is sacred. It is making clean space that nourishes our loved ones. It is worthy work. I think of Them a lot when I cook now, and thank Them always for Their guidance. I’ve always liked to cook but this is new ground for me – literally!
Secondly, we have battled woodchucks and won. I was going to cook up the one we caught, but my housemates are culinary wusses lol and refused to even consider eating it, so, I let the local critter man just take it away. We’re also seeing a lot of garter snakes on our land. This is a good thing, a sign of a healthy environment, and I like snakes. I’m glad they’re making themselves known. They can stay ha ha. My poor housemate though never saw one up close until she found one lounging in a planting pot she was wanting to use. I’m afraid it freaked her a little bit, but she’s slowly getting used to them (3). When I see one, I give thanks and sometimes make small offerings to the Lithuanian Goddess Egle, and also to Eir, sometimes Asklepius. The snake brings healing, wisdom, transmutes poisons. I’m really glad they’re present and I almost always take it as a positive sign when one appears.
This week we received our first box from Misfit Market. This company works with local growers to buy up produce that stores won’t touch. That produce might be oddly shaped. It might be weird looking. It might be perfectly good but small or a little weird in color. Usually this produce would go to waste (though farmers can turn it into compost at least) so this way, it doesn’t. They have a number of subscription boxes one can order. I was shocked when we got our box. The produce looked just fine to me and it tasted really good. I would have bought any of it in a store if I’d seen it. I am really boggled at the idea that it would have been rejected from regular supermarkets, but I’ve been horrified lately by food waste.
My husband and I watched this documentary recently – he knew about this already, but I didn’t. It blew my mind. I have trouble conceiving of such waste. When my grandmother was raising her five children, she was so poor she shot squirrels to feed her family. I was terribly poor in my twenties and the idea of having a full refrigerator and larder is still something that occasionally makes me cry. I have a pantry now, with a good three months of food at least put away (all staples like flour, sugar, pasta, rice, beans, etc.), full cupboards, fresh produce on my counter, a full fridge, a large freezer full of meat, and greens, and game and I am grateful. I remember more than once in my twenties having to eat food that was borderline bad because it was all that I had, and going hungry too. I can’t stand to see someone hungry. Those who come to my home leave well fed and with food if they need it.
I recommend watching the documentary. It really opened my eyes and maybe it will give you all ideas for small ways to cut food waste. I just decided to do what I suggest people do with ancestor veneration: to start where I happen to be at the moment and go from there. Our next step is learning how to compost (4). When I’m dealing with food, I vacillate between honoring Ceres, Pomona, Nerthus, Frey, and for cooking, Fornax. This brings me to my final update. We finally installed our Ceres shrine. There will eventually be special space for Nerthus and at least one shrine for Frey and when our fruit trees and bushes start to blossom, we want to put up something for Pomona. This week, however, we installed our Ceres shrine and it is lovely.
There is a wire arch over it and beans planted on either side that will, as they grow, climb up over the arch so that Ceres’ statue will be surrounded by green, growing things. Behind her, our main garden bed begins, and immediately behind her there are zucchini, onions, and eggplant growing. On either side of her, there is fennel, hyssop, borage, and chamomile.
We are also growing the nine herbs of Woden, but that’s a post for another day.
- The farm was originally doing a weekly CSA box, but their farm manager took a leave of absence due to family illness (not Covid) so they refunded everyone, saying that they didn’t feel they could guarantee the quality and timeliness they wished. We got our refunds, $50 gift cards, and it’s not that big a deal. We would have had to go weekly to pick up the produce anyway. We do that now and get to pick what’s in our box. It all works out well. They even have butter and eggs from another local farm, which is lovely. We’ve really been trying to eat organically but just as importantly locally. We’re trying to develop relationships with local farmers and gardeners, supporting where we can instead of buying from supermarkets. So far, so good.
- For me, working the land physically has brought me into greater communion with my male Lithuanian ancestors, but working in the kitchen brings all my Disir around. (For those not Heathen, Disir are female ancestors). It’s a place sacred to them, where nourishing the line, the home, loved ones takes real and concrete form and where stories and wisdom, knowledge and family culture is passed down from our grandmothers (and some grandfathers too but it’s simple historical fact that gender roles were much more divided prior to the twentieth century – this is not to say that women’s roles were treated with disdain. They weren’t. They were utterly essential. One of my Lithuanian ancestors, a male ancestor really drove this home for me. He emphasized that most men worked outdoors with that type of hard labor – some women too but mostly men. Then the women took over with household gardens and indoor work (Cooking, keeping the fire). It took both to successfully sustain a family and both were sacred. There was absolute egalitarianism in his approach to it, and a sense that there were mysteries in both that were holy, complimentary and holy).
- There aren’t poisonous snakes in our immediate area, though the mountain has been getting rattlers recently. We’re just getting garter snakes.
- We have two compost boxes in the back, but I’m concerned they will attract rodents.
Today is the anniversary of my adopted mom’s birth. She was such a Taurus – stubborn, oh my Gods, and fierce, and protective, and moved deeply by suffering. She was refined, elegant…and could curse like a sailor. She was a pianist, having graduated from the conservatory in Basel and taught music for twenty years yet she hated playing the piano in front of anyone. She could cook and garden and found peace away from people; and when she saw someone struggling, she looked to see how she could make it better. She spoke seven languages fluently and could read at least two more (English, Spanish, French, German, Basel Deutsch, Italian, Latin, ancient Greek, Armenian…and could understand a few more). She had an amazing facility for languages but never considered herself particularly educated. She was acerbic and kind and singularly one of the most devout people I have ever had the gift of knowing. I am grateful, more grateful than I can ever say for having her in my life. She was and is my mother in every way that counts. Her passage through this world transformed my life. I owe her everything. Alles gut zum Geburtstag. Ich habe dich unendlich gern auf Zeit und Ewigkeit, Mutti.
(She would never let herself eat pizza, or very, very rarely when alive. She always worried it would make her butt big lol. She wasn’t vain but she said that as she got older, she needed to stay in better shape to avoid aches and pains that would get worse until they turned into a chronic injury, and extra weight hurt her back. She loved pizza though and the one time I saw her eat it, we were in Naples. The pizzas were delicious and huge. I turned my head to chat with our guide for a couple of minutes, turned back and her plate was bare. She’d scarfed it down and was eyeing mine. lol.
Anyway, tonight, in offering, she got the biggest pizza I could find, meatlovers with added olives, spinach, and mushrooms, garlic bread, tiramisu, strawberry shortcake, dulce de leche cake, fruit tarts, chocolate mousse cake and a lovely bottle of Italian red wine. There’s also a candle burning happily on her shrine. I also made offerings to Sigyn, because Sigyn and Loki were the Deities my mom honored and served. Tonight, was a good night).