Category Archives: Ancestors
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.
Gardening is so weird. It’s awesome and wonderful and back-breaking and frustrating and just weird. We’ve had some ups and downs this past month, with unusually cold weather about two weeks ago killing our basil plants. That was shocking – not that they died, but that they turned totally black having been frozen to death. I’ve read accounts about farming and trying to save crops from an unexpected frost, about how they could turn black and be lost but I’d never seen it happen and it was really shocking to see. We’ve replaced the basil but our intense respect for the elemental powers grows daily (and for farmers, and all of our ancestors who were farmers who depended on the land and elements for not only their livelihood but for the survival of their families). I’m also deeply envious of my friend Sarenth’s rotary tiller lol. I have told him this too. Now, mind you, we don’t have that much land that we would ever *need* a rotary tiller, but that is not the point. I saw pictures he was posting on facebook of a beautifully ploughed field bed and now I have rotary tiller envy. Ha ha.
Our greens have grown lol. I’ve been harvesting and freezing romaine, lettuce, chard, spearmint (I like to add a little to salads to give it a zing), and just as of today, spinach. I’ve also been making salads and clipping our chives to use in omelets and it’s wonderful. The food grown by our own hands tastes so much cleaner and fresher than what we buy at the store. We’re waiting with bated breath for our tomatoes to decide what they’re going to do.
I’m currently waiting on two raised gardening beds for the other side of the house where we’re going to put our root vegetables. I was worried we’d be late planting, but everything we want to put there will work in late summer/early autumn so that is perfect. I just wish the beds would arrive already!
I planted a bunch of seedlings, the first time I’ve worked from seed, and they’re growing! I looked today and radishes and marjoram had sprouted. I hope the parsnips and carrots follow suit. In the interim, we planted a bunch of flowers (many of which are either edible or medicinal and all of which are beautiful), another rose bush (I love roses and have a couple more on order), and I set out some potted herbs: marjoram, basil, rue, peppermint, lemon verbena, lavender, and chamomile.
I also bought a tiny savory plant. I’ve read about this plant but have never used it in cooking. I’m looking forward to experimenting. First though, I need to make woodruff syrup so I can enjoy a nice Berliner Weise when the weather turns hot again. ^___^.
So that’s where we’re at now: waiting for things to arrive and letting the land do it’s work. We’re going to be setting up two shrines in the garden, most likely as part of our solstice celebrations: one to Ceres and one to Freyr. Working the land in this way, for me at least (I can’t speak for my housemates) has given me a far, far greater respect for my ancestors but also a deep sense of conscious connection to my Lithuanian ancestors particularly. I’d always felt somewhat disengaged from them, chalking it up to having been raised by my mother’s side of the family but since we started gardening, my Lithuanian ancestors have been so tremendously present. Farming was a way of life for them, whatever other professions they may have had. Several times they’ve actually given us suggestions to help with our planting. They know the land and what it takes to work it.
Next week, the local CSA should be open and possibly our local farmers’ market too. I’m looking forward to that and soon in addition to adventures in gardening, it will be adventures in canning and pickling. I shall keep you all up to date on how it goes.
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).
Today is so bad. I woke with a migraine bad enough to make me vomit. Too much spirit contact and unexpected at that. Last night, I already wasn’t feeling great. I had a bit of a migraine mostly from the weather so I took migraine medication and settled in to watch some tv with my housemate and my husband. I wanted to show them a WWI show that I like: The Crimson Field. It’s all about VAD nurses in WWI (got cancelled after one season, probably because it showed how fucking incompetent military leadership was). I didn’t think to first make offerings to the military dead, even though they are one of my primary group of spirits, especially the WWI dead.
I’ve since decided that whenever I watch anything having to do with WWI, I’m just going to make offerings to that family of the dead as a matter of course. That’s my new protocol now and forever a-fucking-men.
As we were watching the series last night, I started getting enraged and wanting to grind my teeth and at one point the man who had risen up with his brothers-in-arms behind me actually used my voice to hiss bitter at the story being portrayed and that’s when we all realized the dead were around us. An ancestor worker carries the dead always. We carry them with us and whether it is men who sing like angels or men and women who plodded through mud and piss and shit and hell they are with us always. I realize the story being depicted was so very close to what had happened to the spirit behind me and he was still so very angry so we gave him voice and gave him and the others there offerings and the room grew crystalline bright and I saw the spirits of the dead ringing us misty and pale and that is how we spent out night and today I feel as though I have been beaten. My head is not large enough for the multitude that wanted to pour their stories and their pain into it. The honeycombed halls of my heart are willing to receive their stories, to carry their pain but oh I feel as though someone clubbed the back of my head hard.
Sannion: “the spirits take everything.”
Me in response: “OMG that’s absolutely the truth. They so do, but they give everything too.”
And he and my housemate concurred. They take and they give and we are stretched thin in between.
52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Quick and Dirty Catching up! (Week 11 [luck] and Week 12 [popular] and Week 13 [Nearly Forgotten])
I’ve been swamped with school work the past couple of weeks, especially as our university transitioned all our courses to online, stay-at-home learning. They were prepared and the transition went smoothly, even for a luddite like me, but it was still a lot to handle in addition, of course, to preparing for the whole shelter-in-place for the next couple of weeks. It’s only now that I have a chance to sit down and catch up. So without further ado, let’s get started. These may be a bit short and to the point, but that’s better than nothing!
Week 11: Luck
I don’t actually associate luck with my family. I know we have it, we’re survivors but when I think of luck, I think of great success or fame or fortune and that’s not my family. They were, depending on which line one explores, lower landed gentry, peasant farmers, craftsmen, or clergy. We’re still here though so I guess that counts for something!
Actually, if I had to say who was lucky in my family, I’d say myself. Even through the most grueling moments in my life, the darkest and roughest, there’s been a glimmer, a lifeline. The Gods provide. I’m grateful for that and maybe I need to recognize it a bit more often. I’m lucky.
Week 12: Popular
Well, they’re not my blood ancestors obviously, but they are a family of spirits that I honor with deep love and affection so what the hell. For popularity, you can’t get more popular than the family of spirits I term my ‘masked ones’: the castrati and also the various ballet dancers that I honor (the latter because I was a ballet dancer, that is my professional lineage, and these were the men and women who inspired me when I worked in that field). Men like Carestini, Cafarelli, Senesino, Atto Melani and women like Marie Salle, Olga Spessivtseva, Marie Taglioni, et al. Now I do have one opera singer in my line (my maternal great grandmother) and one pianist (my adopted mom) but none strove for a career like these luminaries. I’m grateful for what I know of their struggles and trials and it is their popularity and success that has carried those stories down to us now.
Week 13: Nearly Forgotten
I’ll tell the story of the death of my third great grandfather William Seymour Baldwin (1823-1864). He lived in Hardy County, West Virginia and died there too on October 16. I received the story from a distant cousin, who himself is an avid and skilled genealogist. It was taken from a family bible belonging to the Pratt family, from a record written by S.Y. Simmons, Esq. in 1896. If it hadn’t been for my distant cousin being willing to share this information, or for S.E. sharing it with him, this story would have been lost to my family. Here we go:
“”Issac Pratt was killed on Walker’s Ridge while in pursuit of his horse, by some roughs who had formed themselves into a company in the late war. He was unarmed and they took him prisoner.” S.Y. Simmons says “Seymour Baldwin was with him and was killed also. I sent for them and had them brought home and buried in Snodgrass Cemetery.” According to older Pratt family members living in WV a man by the name of Klein was believed to be responsible for these deaths.”
According to a story told in West Virginia –When a man by the name of Klein and his family moved into the area many, many years later, the Pratts living nearby made his life so miserable that he and his family moved in three days. The older Pratt members living in that area still have no use for the Kleins. Received from S.E., Moorefield, WV.”
So, my three times great grandfather was killed by a band of roving thugs while helping his friend retrieve a stolen horse. No good deed goes unpunished, apparently.
There’s a lot left unsaid in the description. Was Seymour armed (one would hope that when going to retrieve stolen property, one would take a rifle at the very least)? How were they killed (beaten? Shot? Stabbed?)? Was Seymour ex-military? If you’ll note, the Civil War had just ended when all this happened. It wasn’t uncommon for (often run-away) southern soldiers to form small criminal bands. We can tell from the story that Seymour wasn’t part of such a band but did he himself have military service? Had he just returned from war? So much left to research!
Maybe one day I’ll get to visit his grave.
Because of your past writing on ancestor work, I have a question if you are willing to share your thoughts. Generally, I’m wondering if you have any opinions about organizations like Daughters/Sons of the American Revolution, Daughters/Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, etc., and the role they play in mediating our relationship with our Ancestors on a broad, national scale. And because my initial experiences with DAR in particular have shown the organization to have strong monotheist underpinnings, I am wondering if you have any general advice about how to navigate being a polytheist in those kind of organizations.
For context, in my personal ancestor work and my genealogical research, I came across documentation of several ancestors who participated in the American Revolution, which qualifies me for DAR membership. One would hope that an organization like DAR would provide access to a local community of people who value honoring their ancestors and preserving their local history. Unfortunately, although these sorts of organizations have done a lot of good for our Dead, they have been (in the past) outright racist and (in the present day) monotheist at best, aggressively Protestant at worst–to name just a few problems. Suffice it to say that I can’t, in good conscience, participate in the opening prayers of every DAR meeting because of their monotheist language.
In an ideal world, I think that such organizations could do some of the heavy lifting for the ancestral healing that American culture needs, as part of their service work. But in the world as it exists, do you think it’s worth trying to participate in these organizations as a polytheist? Is the desire to honor ancestors and preserve local history enough common ground to put up with monotheistic assumptions?
HI P. Anon,
This is a very, very good question, especially since genealogy work is one of the most concrete practices within the umbrella of ancestor work and also where many of us begin. I’ve also found myself in the same situation, having a direct maternal ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War and thus being eligible for membership in the DAR. For me, I’ve never been able to make myself do the paperwork and really, what they represent is just not part of my personal identity, and having learned about this particular ancestor’s military work has been enough for me. Still, there are benefits to joining such organizations including scholarships and access to research archives. That being said, the concerns you bring up are absolutely valid and one of the reasons that I’ve always dragged my feet when it came to filling out that paperwork.
Here’s the thing though: you can challenge those monotheistic assumptions. You can do it gently, persistently, and by your very presence. You don’t have to ‘put up with’ them necessarily. Just pick your battles. You will most likely be the first polytheist that any of these women have met. It is likely to be completely outside of their idea of what is possible in the world. Your patience may be tested.
The fact remains that while organizations like this can and quite probably should be doing the heavy lifting when it comes to ancestral healing in this country, they are not, and in some instances, re-instantiate the very patterns that need to be challenged if healing is to occur. That isn’t going to change unless and until ancestor workers and those who are deeply committed to understanding the truth of their ancestors’ lives and experiences step into these spaces and do what it is their ancestors call for them to do and that can be uncomfortable (on both sides) and difficult (also on both sides).
As to the monotheistic prayers, I would address that in two ways. Ancestor work is a two-way street: it’s those of us living and those who are dead. Some of those dead were Christians, probably the majority (or Jewish, or Muslim). It’s ok to allow prayers to be said that they will recognize. You may not be able to participate in them licitly (I know that for the most part, I could not since many praise that particular Deity as the only one or the highest one, or make claims of allegiance that conflict with my loyalty to my own Gods). At the same time, it does not hurt these organizations to realize that there are those among them (likely among the specific groups of dead too) for whom that may not be the case. When opportunity arises, gently but persistently suggest other prayers. Point out that when the only prayers are constantly monotheistic in tone, it excludes you and possibly others from participating. There are delicate ways to push the issue. Each group is different so get to know the people in charge and once they understand who you are and their intentions, gently introduce the idea of using more inclusive, or different prayers. Many don’t want to be exclusionary, it’s just they’ve never encountered someone who isn’t them.
But in the end, you don’t need to join these organizations to honor those particular groups of dead. Depending on your ancestry, it might be contra-indicated – the goals of one group may show disrespect to the other group. It really depends. There’s no one pat answer to any of this, like so much in ancestor veneration. What do they want (easily discovered via divination), what do you want? (For instance, if I had a child I might be more intent on joining the DAR because they do have scholarships that would help that child go to college. Things like this can be negotiated. Things like this, like life, like engaging with the ancestors, like so many other things are complicated. Always). One thing you may take on if you choose to join organizations like the DAR is helping them to realize the healing and service work that they can be doing. It’s likely to be an uphill battle but it is a worthy one.
Then of course, there are genealogical organizations that are non-partisan, but exist solely to help and encourage its members in good, solid genealogical research. Those are uncomplicated and actually really helpful (I particularly recommend the National Genealogical Society and their online classes). Also, be kind to your living history people. Those who are engaging in living history work, public history are giving voice to the dead. They’re doing sacred work. Be kind to them and find ways to support what they’re doing.
Thank you for a very though-provoking question.
When this prompt came up, I knew immediately about whom I would write: my adopted mom Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza (1950-2010). She formed me, healed me, loved me, and sustained me in ways large and small for the all too brief time that she was in my life (up to and including formally/legally adopting me). She was my miracle mother and it’s actually because of her that I was able to eventually make peace with my bio-mother. It’s because of her that I became a human being, that I learned to move in the world, that I gained enough footing to be able to reach out to give others a boost up too. Like some soul deep kintsugi, she carefully put me back together, smoothing out or maybe honing my roughest edges, and breathing life and color and brightness into a life I’d long thought dismal and grey.
We began our friendship, which quickly morphed into a mother-daughter relationship (that’s just how it was, a blessing) in 2004. She had read a poem that I wrote that was included in an anthology and wrote to the publisher who eventually forwarded the letter to me. Her handwriting was so beautiful that I was almost afraid to open the letter. Her regular, every day writing looked like medieval calligraphy! (no joke). The letter itself asked about other things I had written and my theological perspective on a particular issue within our religious community (I’m a theologian) and of course I wrote back, sending her a few pieces. Things blossomed very, very quickly and within the year we’d met in person. I have binders, at least a dozen, of hand written letters that she wrote me and after she died (in 2010), I inherited her binders of my letters too. Even though we were visiting in person all the time, traveling together, and talking on the phone several times a day, we still maintained a lively written correspondence. She was the single most devout person I have ever known. She’s actually venerated as a saint in (at least) two religious traditions.
There’s the famous verse from Corinthians, “love is patient, love is kind,” to which I would add, love rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. I owe my life to this woman, just as much as if she’d given birth to me. She rescued my heart and soul from a profound despair and darkness and …she was my mom. I miss her every day. I won’t say much about her life because she herself was very private and would not have liked it. She was Swiss, attended the music conservatory in Basel, absolutely could not sing lol, taught piano for decades, spoke eight languages fluently, and read at least one more, loved animals, was an avid gardener, and had a calling to contemplative devotion that I flatly envy. She quite simply loved her Gods. They were her reason for being. I think the burden of living, what she once called the pain of the world, was very, very hard for her, but she bore it with dignity doing what she could when she could in order to make it better. I had been a priest for over a decade when we met but she taught me how to pray. She taught me what it meant to be devout. She taught me that integrity and devotion were both choices that we make again and again and again each day of our lives. She taught me the grace of endurance. For all of this and more, I am grateful. Her soul was a star held aloft in the hands of the Gods and its brightness continues to guide me daily. More I shall leave to those who knew her.
I’ve put off writing about this because it’s such an ugly story and had such terrible consequences for my grandfather, and by extension his children, and by further extension me. I will preface this by saying that I respect my ancestors. They were imperfect, often wounded human beings, flailing about in the anguish of their humanity. I get that. I don’t judge them, or at the very least I try hard not to do so. I am no better when I am in pain. That being said, brace yourselves.
I don’t know very much about my great great grandmother Edna Baldwin. She was an opera singer, played the piano (I’ve been told both professionally in Baltimore) but she was a cypher. I know she had a vicious temper (hey grandma, me too), was very volatile, and tried to hide her background. I’ve found outright lies on her children’s birth certificates about where she was born. It reads like she is trying to hide her origins and I have no idea why (suspicions, but no clear proof). Her marriage (if they were actually married…) to my great grandfather Perry Barnes Hanna was passionate, violent (on both sides), and short lived. He had a penchant for alcohol and both for physical violence and she for the latter (she went after him with a knife once, and family stories point to both of them being equally ill-matched) She apparently had two children with him, my grandfather Roland Isaac Hanna and his older brother Van.
When Roland was six and Van nine, Edna took them to a local park. She told her sons that they should wait a moment and she’d be right back. Then, with no explanation, she left. She never came back. Both boys were adopted out to separate families. Roland was used as farm labor, living in conditions close to brutal, indentured servitude. He was brilliant – and since I’m sure I’ll talk about him later during this project, I won’t go into too much detail about him now save to say that this destroyed him. I don’t think he ever recovered emotionally. Later, as a teenager, he sought out his mother and showed up at her door. When she answered, he told her, “I’m your son, Roland.” She closed the door on him with the words, “I have no son Roland.” While Van detested her, Roland never stopped trying to win her love.
That one act: her abandonment of her children, damaged three generations. Roland grew up into a harsh man, a brilliant polymath married to a woman who could no way match him intellectually (my grandmother, was a very devout woman, but they were not well matched intellectually in any way, shape, or form). He was so abusive to his wife and children, that one uncle told me, “Every night he’d beat us with a coal shovel until we pissed or bled” and my aunt remembers her deep fear coming home from school every day, wondering if they’d find their mother dead on the floor. My bio-mother was his least favorite child and he was the harshest with her. This left her cold, contemptuous, depressed, and angry. She was not physically abusive, but she was unloving, emotionally abusive, and mean (to me, not to my brother – he thinks she was the most amazing mother in the world and it’s a point of contention between us that I don’t agree. I do think that she did the absolute best she could and for that, she has my respect). I was blessed to have an adopted mom, and to have made peace with my bio-mom before she died. I understand why she was as she was: it was a deep, deep pain and sense of being unloved. Her father and mother divorced in the 50s and before he died in the 90s, he tried to make peace with her, but she was having none of it. The wounds were still too fresh. He destroyed her trust in the world and her ability to believe herself worthy of happiness, as his has been destroyed the day his mother left him in the park.
Years ago, I remember standing in front of my ancestor shrine and meditating on Edna Baldwin and I said aloud, “I just don’t understand your choice” (i.e. to abandon her children). Clear as a bell ringing through my mind and heart I heard her voice, “You assume I had one” (a choice.). I pray for them all, honoring them amongst my dead, doing regular elevations. There are stories there that I do not know and pain I cannot fully understand and my job is to hold it, honor them, and do what I can by way of our ancestral techniques (like elevation, story-telling, prayer, etc.) to heal what I am able to heal, for the living and the dead.
Hurt and pain echoe through generations continuing to do their damage. Nothing goes away. It must be faced, acknowledged, wrestled with, dealt with, and ultimately – hopefully with the grace of our Gods – healed. Disasters happen but I think we are made, forged and honed in how we meet them. We happen too, we become, even in the midst of generations of ancestral pain and that is an opening for the glory of our Gods.
This is an excellent article. Not only can those of us coming from European ancestries reclaim our ancestral roots, we must. I think it is crucial, holy work. To say that because one is [insert skin color here] that one should not honor one’s dead, work to peel back the layers (good and bad) and reclaim pre-Christian traditions is frankly, bullshit. It’s hateful, it’s destructive, and it’s prolonging the very systematic types of abuses such nay sayers think they’re trying to stop.
We are called as polytheists to honor our dead, to take up the obligation of cleaning up our ancestral debts, to heal those of our ancestors who are damaged, and to recognize that we are the culmination of our ancestral lines walking, with everything that entails. We are called to speak for the dead. We are not separate from these people and they call out to us to right the wrongs that tore them away from their tribal consciousness, that destroyed their traditions, that corrupted and damaged the way they and their descendants engaged with the world and with others in it.
Yes, we have to reclaim and those who say that there’s nothing to reclaim are speaking from a place of emptiness, of nothingness, of base ignorance. We have to reclaim, restore, and nourish because we owe it to our dead to step up and to stay the course despite the nonsense to which the post above was responding.
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.