It isn’t just Memorial Day weekend that makes me think of the ancestors. Over the decades of my life, May has collected more than its share of anniversaries of deaths of family members. My grandmother, uncle, grandmother-in-law, and father-in-law all left their lives in May. January holds the anniversaries of my other grandmother and my mother-in-law, and June belongs to Mom.
These days stalk my year, pegging a time of remembrance and grieving. The pain doesn’t clench quite so hard anymore, but I carry my beloved dead in my heart, the depth of my missing them equaled in praise of them. I’m grateful to have known them, and I’m grateful for how they survived, bringing me here, into physical life. I’m grateful for the care I received as an infant, for the medical care my parents bought for me, for the food and shelter and love. I know that my life strand was tenuous, the third child of an only child of an only child. It makes me think I should try all the big things I imagine, since so many moments in my ancestors’ lives would have changed whether I would be me, or some entirely different set of DNA and spirit. Here I am, against all odds, with so much good in my life, that offering thanks seems the first sane thing to do, followed by offering my work to the world.
My ancestors’ voices live in boxes of letters and diaries that have flowed down the generations and gathered in my basement. Diving into them at random reveals all sorts of glimpses into their lives, but the historian in me longs to have them scanned, transcribed, and catalogued, with finding guides. I want to discover the patterns in them, to get to know these people who lived full, vivid lives, full of joys and sorrows, hope and despair. It’s a longing closely connected to my childhood desire to figure myself out by whatever means available—reading astrological associations with my sign to see what of myself I could see there. It’s the same desire that led me to dream reading—trying to discover what knowledge lay behind the curtain of the literal, rationalist viewpoint, because that wasn’t enough to explain myself to myself.
In my ancestors, I find threads of behavior or patterns of thought that I recognize within my own psyche. I see myself in my maternal grandfather, who died long before I was born, but who left a raft of letters with such a clear voice that I feel I know him. I share his enjoyment of writing and sympathize with his desire to have a chicken farm and a big vegetable garden. From my father’s side and all the relatives who kept daily diaries, I got my longing to record my life, even though I haven’t been as devoted as they. I’ve recorded much of my life metaphorically, instead, but the urge comes from the same place.
My prayer for the ancestors is that they only stay nearby in spirit if that serves the good of all of us, and otherwise to settle in to that unnamable state of union with the divine which we call God, Nirvana, the Beyond. I wish them well, and offer some words this week from the people who dwell in the family archives.
And since it’s Sunday, I’ll close with words from the sermon my great-great-grandfather, Rev. Albert Newton Spahr, preached after fifty-three years as a Methodist minister to the Cincinnati Conference. He had, at this point, lost four of his beloved family members, and was destined to outlive all his children but one—my great-grandfather.
In my back yard an old apple tree is standing. It has passed through many storms; some of its branches were dead and the trunk was decaying. It was suggested that a storm might blow it down and safety demanded its removal. But to me it seemed to demand reverence and protection for the many years it had borne fruit and given shade. So the broken and the dead branches, and a part of the decaying trunk were removed, and soon the old tree “stood dressed in living green.” Heavy storms have assailed it in vain. Its shade has brought us comfort in the recent season of intense heat, and apples are growing upon the spared branches. To me it is a thing of beauty and inspiration. I say to myself, I am an old tree with decaying trunk and lost branches; an old tree that has been tossed about by many pitiless storms of bereavement and sorrow, which have swept away one branch after another. This year, in the midst of an unusual calm, a merciless storm swept away perhaps the most promising and fruitful branch of all—our youngest daughter; so unspeakably precious! The old tree quivered and shook, bending to the earth as if utterly broken; as if doomed in the tremendous shock of the storm, to be torn up root and branch. The cyclone exhausted its fury as the loved branch was carried away. Then the sadly denuded and decaying tree lifted itself up, because kissed, strengthened and comforted by the sweet sunshine and life-giving breezes from heaven.
The old tree is not so strong and shakes often from the weakening effect of so many storms and especially from the almost deadly power of the last terrible shock; but able to reason a little, the old tree says, He “who has preserved my life from destruction,” whose sharp pruning knife has removed nearly all my branches, may yet help me to bear a little good fruit in comforting some ready to faint and fall in the stress and long, hard struggle of life’s pilgrimage and battles.
Published in the Xenia Gazette (Ohio), Friday, January 15, 1909, p. 8.