In the hallway of the ancestors

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Self-Portraits


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My seventh entry in the self-portrait marathon

My mother’s people gaze across at my father’s people in the narrow upstairs hallway of my parents’ house. It all seems amicable enough. Some were rich, some were poor, but most were somewhere in the middle. Both sides are dominated by people of German, English, and Dutch ancestry, with a little French Canadian and Irish thrown in. A discouragingly large number on both sides were teetotaling Methodists, but for all that, they don’t look any more sober than decorum required.

Aside from genealogists, most Americans don’t spend much time thinking about their ancestors. After all, we are descended from the disinherited and the violently dispossessed — or at the least, from people who believed in leaving the past behind. And we’re still that way, aren’t we? We think of our ancestors as forebears only, and believe them quite irretrievably dead and gone — perhaps to a better place from which they might occasionally cast a fond glance in our direction, but that’s all. They’re not expected to take an active interest in the affairs of their descendents, much less transmigrate back into the clan. Sometimes one of them might come back as a ghost, but that’s about it.

I think it’s important to remember how odd this belief about our ancestors makes us, how much of an exception to the general run of societies around the world. Combine that with our astonishing ignorance of history — even quite recent history — and I think it’s safe to say that we Americans are almost uniquely alienated from our roots. It goes along with our alienation from nature, I believe, and in some respects probably helps license the on-going commodification of what used to be thought of as Creation. In pre-modern Europe, the dead were buried in the churchyard at the center of the village, and had their day on the calendar (All Souls Day). Ancestor reverence formed a minor part of a complex system of traditional observances — including local saints’ days, rogations, feasts and fasts — which all together told people who they were and where they came from. Carnival rites linked bodily symbolism, both sacred and profane, with the cosmic drama of changing seasons and renewed fertility.

The Protestant Reformation did away with most of that, and the Industrial Revolution finished it off. The 19th-century bourgeois novel and 20th-century psychology invented the isolated, narrowly sexual and generally neurotic individual, and the Great Awakening and subsequent religious movements stressed a personal relationship with God or Jesus above all else. My Methodist ancestors seem, on the whole, content with this arrangement. They knew how to compose themselves for a photograph, wearing their Sunday best and meditating on eternity, or something else completely apart from daily life, for as long as it took the man with the box and the flash to capture their likenesses. They rest easy in their frames, smiling sardonically — if at all — at the thought that some lonely fool might someday long to re-enter those frozen moments.

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18 Replies to “In the hallway of the ancestors”

  1. I’m with MB. This echoes my own feelings about my family, and helps articulate the sadness I feel when I look at my family’s graves scattered over the country–one of the nuns asked me yesterday if we had “myo,” or memorial stelea, in America. I copped an answer about grave-stones, but it’s not the same. Korean return to the same sites for generations to honor their ancestors and their connection to the past. They are, if anything, antithetical to the American rootless. So I feel this rootless all the more acutely at times, being surrounded on all sides by a nation and culture that is so deeply rooted.

  2. I’m fascinated to hear about the apparent lack of interest in genealogy. Here in Aotearoa/NZ it’s quite the opposite. Of course, for Maori, whakapapa (loosely translated as genealogy) is pivotal; but even for many Pakeha (again loosely, people of predominantly european ancestry) tracing ancestry is very popular. I suspect there’s a connection there.

    Excellent post, Dave. Plenty to think about. Perhaps alienating yourself from your roots is a necessary part of recreating yourself? And so much “outdoor recreation” really does seem to go hand in hand with alienation from nature. The environment as a playground, to be used and enjoyed, and only sometimes appreciated and respected?

  3. I don’t know about in NZ, but in America I think an interest in geneology reflects not our veneration for our ancestors, but just how extreme our rootlessness is, and how natural it has become to us. Geneology is a harmless fad, like stamp collecting; it’s precisely because it no longer has power over us that it can be a hobby, an amusement.

    Great post, Dave. I realize as I read it that I have no idea where a single ancestor of mine is buried. None.

  4. Thanks, MB. I’m glad to hear that, because this portrait was by far the most time-consuming to put into effect.

    Soen Joon Sn – I was hoping you’d weigh in. I think I commented once on your blog about how struck I was by the real affection shown toward the dead at periodic memorial services in Japan. The way they have things divided up there, by and large, it’s Shinto priests who officiate at birth, marriage, and coming-of-age rites, and Buddhist priests or monastics who officiate at funerals and memorial services. However, the Buddist cosmology is a very imperfect fit with native beliefs about the dead. One reason, I think, why the Pure Land sects became so dominant is that they don’t stress reincarnation or parinirvana, which never really caught on in either China or Japan. The difference between Chinese and Japanese beliefs about the ancestors is mainly in how long they are presumed to retain a separate identity: in Japan, in the 49th year after death, if all the proper memorial rites have been observed, the dead person basically melts away into an undifferentiated sea of family ancestors.

  5. pohanginapete – We do have plenty of amateur genealogists here – my dead grandfather was one – but Dale is spot on in saying that “it’s precisely because it no longer has power over us that it can be a hobby, an amusement.” The major exception to that is the Mormons, who try to uncover the names of as many ancestors as possible so that they can perform a special rite to give them a leg up in the afterlife, as I understand it. (In Mormon belief, souls continue to advance in knowledge and spiritual accomplishments long after death.) I imagine that this fairly unique stress on the bonds between the living and the dead helps explain the explosive growth of the LDS church in many parts of the global South.

    Perhaps alienating yourself from your roots is a necessary part of recreating yourself?

    Yeah, I guess that’s what I was trying to suggest.

    And so much “outdoor recreation� really does seem to go hand in hand with alienation from nature. The environment as a playground, to be used and enjoyed, and only sometimes appreciated and respected?

    You said it! But that’s another whole post, at least…

    Dale – Thanks for the great comment. Not a single one? Whoa.

  6. While I would say relationship is everything, without relationship there is nothing, you might extend that to community. Gary Diggins, a musician & I suppose sound healer, hard to categorize, says we long to be part of community and to contribute meaningfully to community. That the soul rises or blossoms most fully in community. A long quote, and probably I just want to use it somewhere, and you can chide me, but it seems to be expressing the same desire, not that your ancestors were drummers, or they might have been, what do I know?

    “we feel disconnected from nature, from community, from source, and from self. And so I think when we gather in a circle, whether that’s a teaching circle, whether that’s a performing circle, whether that’s a drum circle, we are enacting or calling up some of the ancient traditions that had everything to do with the shamanic and the soulful. So something happens in that space that I would say asks people to pull in great medicine. And so, when we begin to make the sound on the drum, when we begin to listen to one another, when we begin to form the energy of community, I think the soul rises up in response to that, and I think that there is, as they say, great medicine that blesses not just the circle but all those who are connected to those individuals in that circle.”

    Your parent’s wall could be a kind of ancestral drumming circle. :o) I like the self portrait, too.

  7. I like this one too, Dave – both the post and the self-portrait.

    One thing I did on coming up to Montreal this time was to bring an envelope full of old family pictures – by old I mean 19th and early 20th century. I’m not even sure why, except that I realize in the wake of Mom’s death I feel the need to look back into those earlier eyes and mouth-corners and bone structures. My family is different from most, I guess, in that we do know about our forebears and their stories have been kept alive through the generations. They matter to me, and I find with this addition, so close to me, to their numbers, I too feel closer to *them* and find myself wanting to return the gaze that comes out of those pictures. Your post encourages me to write more about this.

  8. Dave, I like this one best too. Technically I can see how it must have been time-consuming and it’s also a great idea to include your own self-modified image among the unmodified ones of your family. Layers of meaning here.

    I was told that in cemeteries in eastern Europe, people regularly bring picnics on birthdays or death-days of deceased relatives so they can toast them and include them in their feasting. In the huge cemetery in London where my parents are buried, some ornately decaying tombs dating back to the 17th century sit next to freshly dug plots sporting plastic flower pots next to vast mausoleums with weeping marble angels at the top, next to broken headstones jutting out of the earth. It’s a peaceful and quiet place, almost always deserted, and I’ve never seen any picknickers celebrating their ancestors.

  9. Brenda – Thanks for taking the time to sharing this quote, which does relate, however tangentially.

    Your parent’s wall could be a kind of ancestral drumming circle.

    Perhaps, but I see it more as a museum. No argument on the importance of community, though, and on music-making and dancing as one very good way to build it.

    beth – Thanks for a very interesting comment. I hope you do write more about this. The New England-ish branch of my family (descendents of Connecticut settlers of NE PA, small farmers and orchardists) also maintains a strong interest in family history, with regular reunions that draw folks from all over the U.S.

    Natalie – Thanks. That’s very interesting about the Eastern Europeans. Of course, the Mexicans do something quite similar on the Day of the Dead. In Japan, the whole country shuts down in mid-August when people go back to their ancestral villages to feast with their ancestors.

  10. What about Memorial Day visits – do any of you/your families go to the cemeteries to visit the graves then? It’s traditional in our family, and the graves that are visited go back at least two generations. As for reunions – no, we don’t do that so much, but the extended family is all in the same place still. At my mother’s funeral I saw some cousins I hadn’t seen for years – one, who’s her age, I recognized because he and she and my grandfather all had the same nose!

  11. I see the old men with their morning coffee rubbing the truth and rubbing the truth til it shines. I wonder if genealogy isn’t some sort of the same need to work it and work it til you get it right, til it makes sense? Who lived in the house on the southeast corner of that intersection in 1934? Who was Uncle Bill and Aunt Oma’s oldest boy?

    I love this self-portrait! I have tried to say something similar at times, but this really does it right there all at once.

  12. I’ve been around geneologists, and I have no affection for them. There are exceptions, and they are mostly those interested in the stories, and the histories.

    The Mormons have taken a great deal of flack by continuing to do “Baptism for the Dead” for tenuous ancestors who are Jewish, including many Holocaust victims. I expect my LDS in-laws, should they survive me, will do the same for me. I’m told my soul can chose, but it still makes me cringe.

    I think I prefer to feel free of my ancestry, with only a lingering curiosity. My own path has little to do with them. Your mileage may vary.

  13. Beth – Unfortunately, most of my ancestors are buried in eastern PA, so Memorial Day visits weren’t a custom in my family as they were in my mother’s. In recent years my Nanna and Pop-pop (maternal grandparents) have been buried near here, but in an extremely anal-retentive cemetery that forbids flowers! (Can’t let anything interfere with lawn care. This is America.)

    Tom – I’m glad this portrait hit home with you.

    Zhoen – Since non-Mormons presumably don’t believe in Mormon claims about the afterlife, I don’t see what the problem is. I mean, how does this differ from any religious person saying they’re going to pray for you? My response is always, “Thanks, I’ll pray for you, too,” followed by an optional belch or fart. My feeling – as someone with Mormon relatives also – is that it’s a good idea to keep all one’s bases covered!

  14. What a load of feelings and ideas came to me while looking at your self-portrait. I also loved Tom’s comment.

    I’ve spent a good deal of time reconnecting with the Jewish, Catholic, and Orthodox roots of my faith, and reconnecting with my own family after writing them off in some fashion as a teenager. These kinds of rootlessness were connected with my lack of identity that hobbled me for decades.

    Our rootlessness, once planted, grows into branchlessness. How much do I care about my progeny and the world they’ll be living in? If I’m disconnected from the past, I’ve lost the future and maybe even some chunk of the present moment.

  15. Lines I just found in a fairly recent poem by Wendell Berry (“They” from his volume Given) reminded me of your self-portrait here:

    We are the you and I who were
    They whom we remember.

  16. It seems that those particular Methodists have produced at least a few descendants who believe that naming the garden and its inhabitants means taking stewardship of the world.

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