Category Archives: Ancestor Work
When this topic came up in the genealogy challenge, I immediately thought of my maternal third great grandmother Rachel Bobo. She was born in 1824 and died 1908 having spent her entire life (as far as I can tell) in Hardy County, West Virginia. She married a farmer, William Seymour Baldwin (1823-1864) in 1839 and they had a passel of children including my great great grandfather Isaac Hamilton Baldwin.
(yes, the birth date is off on the photo – welcome to genealogy)
The first time I saw her last name, I was amused so of course, I had to research it even further. It’s a French name that can also be spelled Beaubeau, Baubeau, or Bobeau – keeping in mind that there was no standardization with the spelling of names until well into the early 20thcentury). Turns out, Rachel is descended from Gabriel Bobo, an Huguenot immigrant to VA c. 1681. Originally from St. Sauvant, he was fleeing religious persecution in Catholic France. The Edict of Nantes, issued in 1598 had given Huguenots the right to practice their faith free of persecution but this was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685 leading to government sanctioned persecution, pressure to convert to Catholicism, imprisonment, and violence. Many Huguenots fled to Britain and Denmark (and some, eventually to the American Colonies). I was surprised to learn that they had a reputation for being fine craftsmen of various sorts, though I can’t tell if that was also the case with Rachel’s family. I do know she was tough and you can see it in her face too. My impression from her photo and the stories that I have of her is that this is a woman possessed of grit.
Rachel’s Grandfather, Leonard Ludwick fought in the Revolutionary war and I’m amused by the names she chose to give some of her children: Andrew Jackson Baldwin, Isaac Hamilton Baldwin, etc. Obviously, this was a generation proud to be part of the new America. It doesn’t seem like she or her husband were literate but they sure made certain that their children were. Her son Isaac, my second great grandfather was a mechanic, and his daughter was, at least for part of her life, an opera singer. One can see an upward educational trend.
It may seem strange to write about Rachel on a week focused on “prosperity,” but she and her husband worked hard and it’s clear that they did so in order to give their children something better than they themselves had. I wonder what the word “prosperity” meant to her and I very much wonder what I can learn from how she lived her life and her values.
This is a hard one because each time I learn something new about my ancestral lines, I get excited. Each discovery is my favorite one. That being said, I think the thing that I’ve been focusing on recently the most, that just tickles me pink, lol, is something I’ve mentioned before; namely, that my 11thgreat grandfather is Jakob Boehme, seventeenth century theologian, mystic philosopher, and gadfly to the establishment.
Given that I myself am a theologian, I like knowing that I’m carrying on a family tradition: pushing the boundaries within my religious community. Boehme is not the only clergy person or theologian in my maternal line, but he’s the one that I found the most surprising.
For more info on him, see the wiki article here.
For you, my readers, for those of you who’ve done genealogical work as part of your ancestor practice, what has been your favorite discovery?
I actually don’t have any ancestors that I know of who share my first name. I was, however, very nearly named Ursula after my paternal grandmother, so I’ll share her story this week. (I think I would have liked sharing her name as an adult—it means “little bear”—but I’m not sure I’d have been overly thrilled with it as a child).
(Ursula and Karl with their children Julia and John)
Ursula Blasis was born in 1888 in Kurliu, Lithuania (though unlike her husband Karolys, she listed “Russian” rather than “Lithuanian” on her immigration forms, making me wonder if one of her parents was Russian – I haven’t been able to find out anything about them yet) and immigrated to the US in 1910. She had three children: my aunt Julia (1912-1999), my dad John (1917-2005), and my uncle Joseph (1921-2011).
She was married to Karalys (or Karl) Dabravalskas (1882-1973), a dairy farmer and carpenter. This is the story that my dad told me of their courtship. Apparently, Karl was originally betrothed to Ursula’s older sister. My impression from what my dad told me was that this was, more or less, an arranged marriage. So, Karalys immigrated to the US, settled in Albany, NY and got himself settled and set up and then sent for his bride to be. She, however, decided she didn’t want to leave Lithuania so without telling him beforehand sent her younger sister Ursula over. Once she was here, in those days, one couldn’t just send her back so they married and that was that.
While I didn’t know my grandfather (he died when I was less than a year old), I do have memories of my grandmother. She was birdlike and thin, spoke very little English, and was very affectionate. She scared me as a child – she always wanted to hold and pet me but even as a child I wasn’t much for being crowded and as a very small child I thought she was Baba Yaga! Now I wish that I had had the opportunity to know her when I was just a bit older. I think she was very tough and very brave.
She is buried in Albany and I visit her grave regularly (as well as that of her husband, my aunt Julia, and her husband Kurt Wagner). It’s probably time I visit again. It’s been awhile…
This week, I want to talk about a group of men that I honor as ancestors, even though they never had physical children. For years now, I have honored the baroque castrati as a group of honored dead on my ancestor shrine. I love them, I truly do and they’ve become an integral part of my spiritual practice of honoring the dead.
Music has always been an important part of my life. I spent the first quarter of my life as a professional ballet dancer (retired in my early twenties due to injury). That was the first way by which I was introduced to ecstatic spirituality. It was the first way I ever touched the sacred. It’s an art intimately connected to that of music. One of the first really famous ballet dancers, Marie Salle, who was herself a gifted choreographer, worked with Handel and his castrati in London. Ballet and opera evolved one from the other. There’s a lineage there and in a very small way, I was part of that. Even now, when I listen to music it takes me out of myself and brings me to a place where I throw myself far more deeply into holy work. It’s a visceral, full body experience. It roars through my blood and then carries me to the spirits and worlds I seek. It was from the castrati that I really came to understand what an important journey maker music has always been for me. Now I use it consciously in my work and often under their auspices. I am grateful.
Anyway, for those who may not know – since I do have a number of new readers –the castrati were singers, first in church choirs and then in the opera, who were castrated before puberty to preserve their voices. So, they were adult men with the chest and lung capacity of adult men, but the vocal chords of prepubescent boys. They were sopranos, mezzos (both classed as “soprano” in their day) and altos and their voices were ethereal wonders. We don’t know exactly what they sounded like. There is a recording of the very last famous castrato, but he was well past his prime during the recording, had never been an operatic virtuoso, and turn of the century recording technology lacked the capacity for recording the fullness of his voice. What we get is warped and thin. The same thing occurs with female opera singers who were recorded in the first decade of the 1900s too. All we really have are descriptions from those who heard these men. They were the rock stars of their day. One woman, upon hearing the famous castrato Farinelli sing was moved to such ecstasies by the sound that she burst out with an enthusiastic, if slightly blasphemous, “one God, one Farinelli!”
Now, we usually think of the castrati as belonging to the the baroque era but they worked roughly through the 16th to 19th centuries. In reality, even longer — the first castrated singer that I’ve encountered (thanks to the work of scholar Neil Moran) is the 5th century Brisson, who was choir master in the Byzantine court of Empress Eudoxia. We know that the Byzantines had castrati in their choirs though there is no indication of an industry that castrated boys purely for their vocal potential. That comes later in the 16th century in the Vatican states where women were forbidden from performing on stage (because of a prohibition in Paul). The last well-known castrato was A. Moreschi who died in 1922. He’s the one who was recorded. Today, their repertoire, which created opera as we know it, is usually performed by women or counter-tenors. I prefer the latter (I like lower female voices, probably because I’m a tenor myself and higher male voices. Female sopranos tend to annoy me—the quality of the sound is different from a man singing in the same range. I’d rather listen to a female contralto but in the end, I’m glad for all the vocal instruments we have). By the way, that Byzantine choir master Brisson was a bad ass. He is recorded (by the 6th c. historian Socrates) as getting into fist fights with religious heretics lol.
Anyway, I consider these men, men like Atto Melani, Cafarelli, Carestini, and Senesino to be part of my ancestral house. I honor them regularly. They have immortality like the heroes of old, and it is up to those of us who recognize the beauty and sacrality in what they did to serve the function of progeny: that of remembering those who came before us. So, I hail them, regularly and very soon, I will complete a small novena book for them too. I will conclude this with one of the prayers I give them. May they always be remembered, valued, and praised – both those who were famous, and those who broke in the process.
Prayer for the castrati
By Galina Krasskova
Your predecessors haunted the courts and choirs of Constantinople.
The enchantment of your voices was heard from Italy to Spain,
England to Germany, and well beyond even to farthest Russia.
The ghostly memory of your glory haunts every operatic stage,
everywhere in the world today and that is good. We should not forget.
We should never forget the debt our artists owe to each of you,
with every voice lifted in song, every note resonant in modern throats.
You rose up from the ashes of Rome,
glittering jewels in the crown of the world,
bright, hard, glorious, unbreakable.
You shone like the sun
with the glory of the moon at your backs:
magic, allure, erotic power.
Your voices tore open the heavens
and left frenzied desire in their wake.
No king was ever more feted.
No saint ever more reverenced.
Let us taste anew that frenzy–
pouring ourselves out in offerings to you.
White, cold and unyielding,
with hearts hungry
and less than angelic,
each of your voices a blade,
inviting longing, revealing desire,
leaving ecstasy in its wake.
I praise you today and every day.
Your names sanctify my lips.
(from the forthcoming “Viva ‘il coltello: In Honor of the castrati” by G. Krasskova, Sanngetall Press).
The closest we can get is the modern counter tenor. Here are three of my favorites.
Andreas Scholl singing Bizet’s “Habanera” (he’s known for his interpretation of Bach and his voice is exactly the same vocal range as the castrato Senesino. He also went to the same conservatory in Basel as my adopted mom. I just get a kick out of him singing “Carmen” so I chose that one instead of Bach).
Michael Maniaci singing Mozart’s “Exsultate” (written for the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini).
Philippe Jaroussky singing Gluck’s “Che faro senza Euridice” (originally sung by the castrato Gaetano Guadagni).
Jakub Jozef Orlinski singing Hasse’s “Mea tormenta, properate!”
I grew up amongst my maternal kin. Rather, I should say, I grew up amongst the Shoff and Heffner descendants. There wasn’t much awareness of continuity or genealogy in the immediate family – for instance I was in my forties before I realized my great grandfather and great-great grandmother were buried not 20 minutes from my childhood home—and with one exception, my maternal grandmother’s children seem to want to cut themselves off from their heritage. There’s something emotionally unsettled and rootless in them, a brittleness that I put down to that conscious abrogation of their ancestry. I could speculate on why they feel that way, but that’s not where I want to go in this post. Rather I’d like to focus on connection.
There is a cemetery, St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran in Chanceford Twnship, PA where I am related to 98% of the inhabitants and if I looked closely enough, I could probably find connections to the remaining 2% as well. So many of my direct descendants are there. Visiting was overwhelming. I’ve been to cemeteries before where I had one or two relatives buried but never six+ generations of my maternal line! It was one of the richest and yet most disorienting moments I’ve ever had in my genealogy work! I sank down in the grass in front of my great, great, great grandparents’ (Elizabeth Oberlander and Jesse Runkle) stones and it felt like a homecoming. I wanted to stay there for hours and hours.
My friend MAG was with me (she took the picture of the cemetery shown here) and helped me to stay focused. She’s a good handler lol! It was blistering hot and all I could think of was finding relatives but she made sure I stayed hydrated and kept an eye on me as I staggered from grave to grave. She was a trooper too. When we started out, we knew the cemetery was off route 425 but not the exact address. When we found it after about an hour of driving around, the sense of “this one is mine” was so strong it knocked the breath out of me. (I found this page, by a librarian and genealogist talking about the cemetery for those interested).
My third great grandparents are there, second great grandparents, my second cousin twice removed who died in WWI, his parents, assorted Revolutionary and Civil War dead to whom I’m related. There’s a list of the burials MAG found as I was staggering through the cemetery and when I started reading through it, I think all I could say over and over was ‘Oh my Gods. Oh my Gods. Oh my Gods.” Shoffs, Runkles, Oberlanders, Heffners, Smeltzers oh my. (Even as I typed this up I went off on a genealogical expedition through cemetery records. I had to stop myself lol).
Not belonging to an Abrahamic religion, I often ponder the fact that we have no universal “holy land” comparable to what Jerusalem is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. One could say that all land is holy to us but that, I think, is a cop out. This cemetery is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a place that felt holy on an inter-generational level, on a deeply sacred level and it was a joy.
One of the prompts for this particular week on the official facebook page for this project asks if there is an occupation that seems to recur in one’s family tree. Ironically, there is and it’s one that I myself am pursuing too: theologian/clergy.
On my maternal line (through her father), my 7thgreat grandfather is Alexander Underwood (1688-1767), a Quaker minister who settled in Pennsylvania. I’ve actually been in the Meeting House that he helped to build in Warrington Township. He was apparently very prominent in his community and travelled frequently to help build up Quaker communities in the colonies. (Warrington Meeting House — my photo).
I’m descended through his daughter Ann Underwood, who married Stephen Ailes. Their son Stephen Ailes (1750-1828) and his wife Elizabeth Swayne (1751-1820) had a son Stephen Ailes (1771-1816) – my family has never been overly creative with naming their children lol. It’s a pain in the ass as a genealogist—who married Sarah Byland (1773-1830) had a daughter Esther Ailes (1798-1887) who married James Andrew Hanna (1800-1874) and their son Stephen John Hanna (1832-1897) was my great great grandfather. I’ve been able to visit his grave and the graves of his wife Elizabeth Johnson, their son Perry Hanna, and his son, my grandfather Roland Hanna within the past couple of years. It looks like Stephen John Hanna was a farmer primarily (quite common on both sides of my family as well).
Also on my maternal line (this time through her mother), theologian and mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) is my 11thgreat grandfather. This was really exciting when I discovered this. He was considered rather controversial in his time but had tremendous influence on German romanticism. He was trained as a shoemaker but read extensively, becoming effectively self-taught. He was a visionary and mystic and wrote extensively on various theological topics like angels, theodicy, and theological anthropology. He wrote several books including “Forty Questions on the soul,” “The Incarnation of Jesus Christ,” “The Six Mystical Points,” “The Signature of All Things,” and “On Election to Grace.” His work is still in print today. He engaged with leading clergy of his day and also leading religious controversies. There are strong Platonic elements in his work. His work also birthed a theosophical religious movement called Behmenism (an English corruption of his name) which influenced Romantic poets and artists including William Blake.
So, I am descended from Jakob Boehme through his son Jakob Boehm (1599-1670) –there was no regulated spelling of names until the early 20thcentury, so I tend to alternate spellings depending on the document with which I’m dealing. He had a son also Jacob Boehme (1643-1734) who married Barbara Karrer (1637-1737) and they had a son also named Jacob (1668-1692) who married Anna Marie Sherer (1671-1750) and they had a son of the same name (1693-1781) who married Barbara Kendig (1695-1780). They were my immigrant ancestors on this particular line, coming to Pennsylvania in the 18thcentury, and they had a daughter Magdalena (1738-1804). She married Frederick Shoff (1732-1800), himself an immigrant from the Palatine and they had a son Jacob Shoff (1765-1838). He married Nancy Hess (1775-1810) and by this time that particularly family line was already well ensconced in Chanceford township in PA (there’s a Lutheran graveyard there where I’m literally related to 98% of the inhabitants and If I looked hard enough, I’m pretty sure I am probably related to the other 2% by marriage!). It looks like by he and his father were too young and too old respectively to have fought in the American Revolution (I have other maternal relatives who did that). Anyway, their son David Shoff (1800-1881) married Barbara Smeltzer (1801-1844). Their son Christian Shoff (1815 – ?) married Catherine Markley (1793-1859). He fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union. His son Rudolph Reuben Shoff (1842-1886) married Mary Jane Adams (1846-1936) and their son Hugh Clay Shoff (1873-1957) married Lucinda Alice Heffner (1875-1952). They are my maternal great grandparents. Their daughter Linnie May Shoff (1909-1987) married Roland Isaac Hanna (1903-1991) though they later divorced. Their daughter Mary Ann (1947-2012) is my biological mother. Whew!(Linnie Hanna as a young woman, c. 16).
Throughout the line, at least through my great-grandparents’ generation, there has always been a strong thread of interest in things spiritual. My great-grandfather’s sister, if my grandmother’s stories are correct (and given some of what I learned from her and later researched and checked, I think they are) was a spiritualist of some note in the family. My great-grandmother was apparently “very, very spiritual” (as far as her grandchildren’s accounts go). My grandmother herself was a mystic and visionary – I know that from my own time with her– and it’s from her that I learned the importance of devotion and prayer. I myself have been a priest within my religious tradition for almost 30 years (a terrifying thought lol) and I’m pursuing a PhD in theology.
Likewise, lest I forget to mention them, also on my maternal line, we’re descended from Huegenots who immigrated rather than betray their religious principles. We also had several Swiss immigrants who were Mennonites. I’ll admit to having little patience with Protestantism (I’d rather deal with converts from Catholicism any day in our tradition, since there are elements of prayer, devotion, and shrine work that seem to come easier to them and the Protestant focus on the written word has had problematic influence in my own polytheistic tradition) but I’m proud that my ancestors would not be swayed from what their conscience at the time dictated.
Basically, I’m descended from a long line of people who had no problem stirring the religious pot and causing trouble and I’m happy to say I uphold that particular family tradition proudly. Lol.
I don’t know if this is a favorite photo per se, but it was certainly one that I was overjoyed to acquire.
This is my great grandmother (maternal father’s side) Edna Baldwin (with her then husband and my great grandfather Perry Barnes Hanna). She haunted my family for years (metaphorically speaking lol). There is tragedy and loss and bitterness and so much there in her life on which I wish I had clarity; she was really the lynch pin that set the tone for not just her children but theirs as well and by extension my generation too. Intergenerational pain and trauma but also courage and perseverance and the ability to survive with all the viciousness that sometimes entails. While parts of her story are bleak, I respect her and I honor her as one of my disir (protective female ancestors).
Edna was born c. 1879 in Hardy, WV to Jane Newhouse Baldwin and Isaac Hamilton Baldwin. She was one of at least a dozen children. The 1900 census lists her father as a car repairer. All I know of Edna is that she got the hell out of WV as soon as she could. She married Perry Barnes Hanna, my great grandfather (though I haven’t found their wedding certificate yet), and had three children by him (I have my doubts that the first child was his. The boy looks significantly mixed race (most likely part Native– my husband is half Blackfoot so it jumped out at me immediately) and I really do wonder if that’s why she left Hardy County to begin with, attitudes being what they were then in small, 19th c. towns. I looked at the photo I finally got of the two brothers and immediately blurted out: “No way they have the same father!” In 1900 that would have been an issue, a serious one, but I digress. (I am a genealogist. Mysteries like this drive me absolutely crazy. I want to know. Everything my dead tried to hide, I want to ferret out lol. I’ve had intensive email correspondence with an archivist in Hardy county – amazingly wonderful woman – and we came to the conclusion that Edna lied on her second son’s birth certificate. There, she said she was born in Alabama. Census records place her at less than a year old in Hardy County and I have far more documentation for her parents than I do for her. We thought, all the evidence considered, that she was trying to hide her background and town/county/state of origin. Like me, did she just move as far away as she could at the first opportunity when she was of age or is there more to the story? I will probably never know but I also won’t stop looking).
My grandfather, apparently her second son was born in 1903. Her relationship with Perry was volatile. My aunt told me that her father (my grandfather Roland) told her that once the two of them were fighting and Edna threw a knife at Perry, the latter saved only because he held up a thick newspaper to block it. He himself was, according to his son, an alcoholic (family lore says Perry was a pediatrician but I’ve searched the census records and find zero evidence of that. The only place it’s mentioned is in his mother’s obit. My grandfather told his children that Perry had to give up medicine due to his drinking so maybe that is the case. Certainly Roland believed it was and remained a committed tea-totaler for his entire life). At any rate, their marriage did not last (haven’t found the divorce decree either but I will) and when Roland was six and her older son Van nine, she abandoned them in a local park in Baltimore. She told them to wait there, that she’d be right back but never, ever came back. That’s all I’ll say on that, because I cannot imagine the horror and terror and pain of those two little boys.
They were adopted by different families and Roland’s was less than kind to him, using him more as farm labor than anything else. He was brilliant, however, a polymath who started out as a surveyor and ended up a self-taught civil engineer (still possible in those days). He helped build dams, including the Conowingo dam near where I grew up. He taught himself to play the violin and could play anything he heard by ear. He was a math whiz. While he reconnected somewhat with his mother as an adult, the relationship was never warm and his older brother Van flat out refused to have anything to do with her (this is, at least, what I’ve been able to pry from Roland’s children, my aunts and uncles). Roland himself was physically brutal to his own wife and children. He and my grandmother eventually divorced at a time when that was simply not done. He, by family account, went off to live in the woods. She was scared of him even after he was out of the picture I think. Before he died he did try to make amends to the family, especially to my bio-mom who was, it seems his least favorite child, but I think for her it was a matter of too little too late. He died in 1991. It really shows how one generation can open the door to trauma that just travels down the line. There is no “away” for things like this unless they’re looked at hard in the face and dealt with. On a lighter note, let me just add that I did not get his math gene. LOL. Quite the opposite in fact as I have dyscalculia but he instilled in his oldest daughter a love of learning and she passed that onto me.
Edna was a pianist and opera singer in Baltimore. More than that, I haven’t been able to find out. Family records indicate that she trained a niece to sing but the girl gave it up to get married, pissing Edna off (something with which I quite concur…art is a grace and a blessing. If you have it, use it BUT it highlights the choices women were forced to make at the turn of the century. When I first found out about Edna leaving her children I had to wonder why. Was she turning into someone she felt might hurt them? Was she herself abused in her family? Certainly, it seems like she might have been by her husband even if it also sounds as though she gave as good as she got. Abuse travels down through family lines after all. Maybe she thought it safer for her children to give them up. Was she bitter about being held back in her aspirations as a singer? Was it something else? It hurts me to think of those children and for a long time I had hostility for her because of this but the more I study history the more I realize that in 1909, the year she would have abandoned her children, there were zero resources for a woman fleeing a drunk and probably abusive husband. Maybe it was the best she could do. There’s too much I don’t know and I’m hesitant to judge ancestors who may very well have been doing the absolute very best that they could with a lack of resources we cannot imagine. I do recall standing at my ancestor shrine once a couple of years ago thinking about her and I said out loud, “I don’t understand how you could make that choice” and ringing like a bell, clear and loud in my mind, heart, and soul I heard: “you assume I had one.” It brings home to me my privilege as a woman in 2020 with resources and in a city and country that has far, far more options – not just for women in danger but for a woman who wants to work, to be educated, to do things, to go places, to live, and maybe to not have children (reliable birth control is a wonderful thing). I’m lucky, but I’m lucky in part because of women like Edna and the other Mothers of my ancestral line who suffered and sometimes did brutal things to keep their souls from being broken; and yes, that may have meant breaking someone else, and that had consequences, sometimes painful ones for the next generations but maybe it would have been even worse if those choices hadn’t been made. It’s way too easy for us to judge. I’d rather learn and pray and elevate their wounded spirits because they are my strength and I’m here because of them, and sometimes I see more of myself than I would like in some of the choices Edna made and I wonder if I would have done better or worse in her place. (I was a ballet dancer through my early twenties professionally. I didn’t and don’t have children and never wanted to have children but I wonder what I would have done in 1909 in her place and sometimes I don’t like the answer).
Eventually she married again, Ernest O. Armiger and they had a daughter Dorothy. I have a copy of a letter that Edna wrote in the thirties. She was excited for the New Deal, supporting herself by working as a seamstress through the depression, and deeply invested in workers’ rights. She even wrote at least one article for a magazine, though I’ve not been able to get a copy (yet). She died of heart trouble in Maryland in 1944.
She was never close to my grandfather, for all he always craved her love. One of her letters to her brother Lynn mentions all of her children and updates Lynn on the goings-on…except she doesn’t mention Roland. She did visit him at least once. My oldest aunt was about two at the time. She came, met all the children and then left. My aunt remembers her as an elegant woman, describing exactly the woman in the photograph above. My aunt thought that she herself must have been about five but I don’t think that’s possible with the time line. This would have been when my aunt was between 2-4 though so my thought is that maybe she didn’t remember the visit but was told about it by her mom later, and shown the photo as a child, which imprinted on her memory. She told me that she was held on Edna’s lap and was impressed with how elegant she seemed. I remember things from when I was 2 ½-3 so it’s entirely possible my aunt does recall this. It’s just within the realm of what I would consider possible. For that visit, I don’t think my grandfather was there, but he was sent overseas in WWII so he may still have been on active duty. Edna was only 64 when she died. From her death certificate, she was cremated but I have no idea what happened to her ashes so for me, that is where her story stops.
My youngest aunt sent me photocopies of the photo (and others, including one of Van and Roland as children). The man pictured with her in this photo is my great grandfather Perry Barnes Hanna. So, while it’s not my favorite photograph, I had been searching for an image of her for at least a decade and by happenstance and ancestral blessing, it was there all along, just waiting for me to ask the right person for it to fall into my hands. I am grateful.
So, I joined this genealogy project consisting of year long, weekly prompts about my ancestors and it seems pretty cool and so today I receive the first prompt: Fresh Start and I thought: what does that mean?
I know that most people doing this are probably not polytheists and are probably going to choose to write about something new they discovered about a particular ancestor, or something relevant like that and I thought about doing the same thing, except the current state of my ancestor shrine really has me moving in a different direction. Namely, it’s a mess. One of my goals this year is to get back to where I was two years ago with my ancestor work, when my shrine was like a living extension of my heart, a vital, vibrant seat of communion between me and my dead. I’m not sure where things went awry (actually I am. We had a horrible, absolutely horrible contractor working on our home that we had to fire for sheer incompetence and during the course of his tenure here my ancestor room became cluttered. (1) He brought such disorder and pollution into the house I could not work there. I never actually recovered from that).
It really reminds me that honoring the dead was so much more difficult for me at the beginning, years and years ago than honoring the Gods. Gods are, well, Gods and as such the level of respect I have for Them is much, much greater than what I bear for any human being no matter how beloved and for me, that is how it should be. The problem, in those early years, was not actually that, but rather two-fold: I could sense/hear the Gods so much more strongly than my ancestors and Odin was and is overwhelming in so many ways that early on there wasn’t much room for anything else and also, I don’t much get along with my living family. That’s gotten a lot better over the years partly at the push of my adopted mom and partly at the push of my ancestors (they do tend to like to put the living house in order) but twenty years ago it was a far, far different thing and the thought of actually honoring people I’m related to was vastly unappealing for all I knew it had to be done. It took awhile to learn to love them, but I did and they’ve sustained me through more things than I can name. I don’t think I’d realized until quite recently how lax I’d become in my ancestor veneration. It’s not an insurmountable gulf, but it is something that I need to recommit myself to bettering over the next year.
So, I set myself some goals for the next couple of months around this issue. I want to completely scour and clean my ancestor room and shift some of the furniture around – I’m going to need help with that, I think, but I have a friend who has amazing spatial sense. He can look at furniture and tell me with 100% accuracy whether something will fit in a particular space. He’s agreed to help me sort it out physically. Then I want to totally take apart and redo my ancestor shrine. This takes at least four days usually longer. My ancestor space when it is in good working order takes up three of four walls floor to ceiling. When it’s in good condition it takes the better part of a week to totally redo and it’s in anything but good condition now so I’m estimating at least a couple of weeks’ work with that. After that, it’s merely a matter of submitting myself to the discipline of regular offerings and prayers again – that at least I’ve been doing to some degree, though not as I ought to have over this past year.
It’s an opportunity to reconsider what this part of my practice means, why it is so fundamental, and the role each of my ancestors plays in helping me maintain right relationship with the Gods. This whole experience over the past year has really shown me how easy it is to take for granted those relationships which we assume to be solid. The moment I ceased concerning myself with tending my ancestral work is the moment it started falling apart, assuming it would be ok to let it go for “just a little bit.” There’s a reason that the word cultuscomes from the Latin colo, colere, colui, cultum – to till, tend, nurture. All devotional relationships have to be nurtured. Hell, all relationships have to be nurtured, devotional or simply the human ones we also cherish. There’s a lovely line from the Havamal that counsels friends to visit each other often and exchange gifts often too in order to strengthen the friendship (stanza 41). It holds for devotion too and that I think has been the lesson my ancestors have really driven home these last few months. Now, it’s time for me to pick myself up, dust my ancestor shrine off and get back to the work of ancestral devotion. #52ancestors
- To give an example, lest you think I’m exaggerating this man’s level of gross incompetence, he was creating a shrine nook in one of the rooms. All looked well from inside…that is until we went outside by chance and saw that he’d driven the nails through the siding of the house from the inside. The kicker was coming outside and seeing him sawing wood, not on a sawhorse like a normal, competent contractor, but on the hood of my fucking car. Fired immediately. If you’re in the dutchess county area, I have an awesome contractor now who is an angel and just an amazing human being. His work is pristine. If you ever need a referral I have one. If you want a warning in the Long Island area about whom to avoid, I got that one for you too. Just email me.
My friend December sent me a link to an awesome ancestor/genealogy site. The site is running a “52 ancestors in 52 weeks” project for 2020 and I think it’s a wonderful idea. I you’re interested, check out the site here. You can register for prompts for free and there is a facebook group too (I’m not associated with it in any way, fyi). I’m definitely going to do it. I’ve gotten lazy with my ancestor work this year.