The Three Kindreds: Ancestors

Feb 16, 2016
I’ve never been good at ancestors. I was never terribly fond of my grandparents’ stories when they were alive - they all died when I was young. I regret that now, although I also remember listening to my mother’s father telling stories and being bored to tears. I might not be as bored now, I suppose.

My mother does the family genealogy, though, and she knows all the stories. I should ask her about them sometime. I should take notes. I know the story about her great-grandmother who put off getting married so she wouldn’t have to stop teaching. I know the story about a multiple-greats uncle who was an Irish revolutionary and became a union activist in New York after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I know the story about how my uncle, my mom’s little brother, was born, and my grandfather told off the priest who told him that if they had to choose, the mother or the baby, he had to save the baby because the baby was without sin. And I know the story of how my parents went on their first date, when Mom came to ask if Mike could come out to play, and my grandma sat on the porch cackling with laughter.

And I know some other things too, not stories but facts, that my grandpa on my father’s side was a mechanic, and my grandma a farmer’s daughter from a small, small town that barely qualifies as a town. About how my mom’s side of the family were from Kansas, and belonged to the Grange, once they got out of the cities. Prairie is in my bones and blood, which is maybe one reason why I found the thought of moving west so terrifying. The ocean is great, but I need all these grass roots to hold me together.

I almost remember my great-grandmother, who was just one generation removed from the old country (not that anyone in my family’s ever called it that). We’re all immigrants - before the prairie, we were from the Netherlands (Friesland, specifically, although I don’t know how I know that) and Ireland, Germany and France and England. Northern European, all of us. But it was that Irish ancestor, the union man, who always stuck out to me. I need to find out his name. I’m not sure I want to take over as the family record-keeper, but I want to learn the names and the stories, see if I can make them hold together.

I also can’t (shouldn’t? Won’t) forget that the great majority of my ancestors were Christian, that Christianity was very important to them, and that they would not approve at all of this thing that I’m doing right here.

There are the ancestors of my spirit, too; those who Newton referred to when he said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Yeats and Maud Gonne and Lady Gregory; everyone who taught those damn Dutch Day Camp classes when I was a kid; Isaac Bonewitz and Alestair Crowley and McGregor Mathers and Scott Cunningham and Starhawk and Selena Fox. Everyone who built this religion that I’m working in right now. But also Malinowski, and Clifford Geertz, and Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict. Without them we wouldn’t have this religion.

And all the nameless women of history, all the women whose names and contributions have been forgotten, all the women who made history and linguistics and anthropology and the theory of religion possible. All the voudou priestesses who inspired Northern Europeans looking for their own past; all the occultist’s wives who were never really equal; all the women raped by anthropologists looking for a little excitement in the field. Them, too. My ancestors are numberless, vast, and they know things I will never know.

It’s easy to think “ancestors” and think “grandparents” and discount them as smaller, less powerful, less important than the other spirits; I know I do that sometimes. But they are not. My ancestors - all our ancestors - number in the millions, and between them they know everything, and they live on in those of us who still walk the earth, in our memories and our sacrifices. It is possible that they are the strongest of the three categories of spirits, or at least the wisest.

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