When Refusal to Work with Ancestors Isn't an Option
For years, I’ve struggled with the idea and practice of ancestral worship. Like so many others, the people that I come from are not good people. I’ll not go into details because it’s neither productive nor does justice to the effort I’ve spent trying to not be like them. Suffice to say, I’ve got my own baggage that I’m continuously dealing with and the Pagan communities unrelenting “honor your ancestors” maxim doesn’t help. I also don’t work with human dead (clarification: the dying are not yet dead, and my work as a Death Midwife does not fall into necromancy,) although I do actively work with animal dead. So while ancestral worship is something I can agree with ideologically, it’s not something I’ve felt compelled to enact.
As some of you know, current events have thrown me headfirst into my ancestral worship dilemma again. Having returned to Wisconsin from New Mexico, my family and I have been staying with my parents –next door to my grandparents’ farm where I grew up. Part of what brought us back was my grandparents’ failing health and a death scare with my grandpa. The inevitable is facing my grandparents hard, and no one in my extended family is quite handling this well, least of all my grandparents. They’ve committed themselves fully to dying, having, essentially, given up on living. And while many other elderly individuals of more religious persuasion frequently like to claim that the world is ending (see every elderly preacher who, upon reaching their seventies, declared that the apocalypse will occur on such-and-such a date) my grandparents are doing the same, but in their own way. While the world is still ending, for them “the world” equals the family farm, and they are determined to take it all down with them.
Since officially retiring and selling off all of the cows, my grandparents have slowly cut down every large and old tree on the farm, including the giant ash tree in the front yard from which a swing hung that four generations of children played on. Of course, there is always an excuse –such as the tree being “dead” because it was struck by lightning -20 years ago. I’m rambling, forgive my emotions.
Most recently, though, a storm damaged the barn. The damage was serious, but nothing that wasn’t repairable. However, my grandparents declared it a disaster and promptly had the barn tore down. Never mind that the farm doesn’t even legally belong to them anymore, never mind the fact that this is Wisconsin and no one tears down a barn (standard protocol is letting a barn gently rot into the landscape.)
This was a decision that no one but my mother agreed with, but no discussion was allowed and the one person who could have and should have stopped it all said nothing.
Okay, this is the point where I realize I’m nearly 500 words in and you’re probably thinking “what’s the big deal? It’s just a barn, get over it.” Fair enough. I can see how some people would think that. But, I’m not some people. This barn was built by my great-grandfather. Five generations of my family grew up within this building, playing, learning about life, about death, and daydreaming away in the haymow surrounded by a handful of barn cats. This barn is steeped in memories. In the ghosts of my ancestors. This barn is a physical representation of all that is good in the world for five generations of people. It is something that was believed would always be there. And now it’s not.
Last night the decision came out of nowhere to burn what was left of the barn. My mother quickly called everyone in the family to come help –of course, everyone refused. A bit of prodding and the details of just what was planned became clear: my elderly grandparents, with the aid of our elderly Amish neighbors, were going to start a large fire with nothing more than a garden hose in case something went wrong.
I remained at my parents’ house, using the children as an excuse though my real reason for not “helping” was blatant. Once again, I found myself cursing my family in my head, unable to reconcile, yet again, how I come from these people. Occupying myself with making one of the best dishes I’m capable of cooking and some apple beer, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed.
Glancing out the window, flames a good twenty feet high licked at the black sky. As they grew higher I suddenly found myself not alone. Despite my refusal to ever engage my ancestors, there they were. I clearly felt my great-grandpa, my great-grandma (who I knew briefly and who loved me dearly,) and others I couldn’t identify. Their grief, their anguish swirled about me as they watched, horrified, at everything that they worked to build, everything that they gave to their son now being utterly destroyed. Their wails and cries filled my ears, but I could do little more than stand there, watching the flames, listening to them in a detached sort of way. They begged me to do something, but there was nothing I could do. Nothing could fix this.
Eventually, their presence dissipated or, perhaps, I managed to push them away. But, as I got ready for bed, my head still filled with thoughts, emotions, and confusion, it hit me. It physically hit me as I suddenly found myself quite ill. Waves of nausea and stomach cramps left me able to do little more than lay on my bed, curled up. My ancestors had come back. Their anger was palpable. Red hot burning rage surrounded me and filled my belly. My great-grandfather, unable to effect anyone in a position to do something, had obviously returned to the one person he knew could hear him.
I fell asleep, still curled up in pain, listening to my great-grandmother cry as my great-grandfather raged about us.
Throwing the Bones