Saturday, December 16, 2017

Ancestors tapping our shoulders....

"Human beings require stories to give meaning to the facts of their existence. This is why people everywhere ask, as soon as they have the command of language to do so, 'Where do I come from?' Without air, our cells die. Without a story, ourselves die."   
                                                         --Neil Postman

Feeling the strong and steady gusts blow in an Iceland fjord, close to where Jon Jonsson was born in Iceland. We all couldn't believe the ferocity of the cold wind in June where our ancestors farmed. We watched birds furiously flapping to make it to the shore.  This is a harsh and unforgiving land; a mistake at sea may cost you your life.  Clearly, there were lots of stories on that landscape to tell.

Sometimes Vikings walk the halls of our house. That's what we say when we read our family history and feel "Thin Places." Or sometimes the story of the Icelandic ship captain, Eggert, who sailed to Denmark to bring back food to Iceland in near-famine graces our discussions. Another one is a Puritan named Samuel Fuller who decided to change residences: from the Old to the New World. Or Peter Shumway, a Huguenot, who fled France to Holland and then to America in 1640. Others are English immigrants who went to America to find "Zion" in Utah.

As many more people are finding their family history and DNA, precious stories are excavated that inspire and delight us. We discover our ancestors are real people who reinvented themselves in New Worlds, fought for noble causes, laughed at jokes, rebelled against tyranny, and rocked their babies goodnight. Maybe a few caused some mischief. We are intricately connected to them, and they to us. We belong to one another.

Eggert Magnusson Vatnsdal, my second great-grandfather, an Icelandic ship captain who helped to stave off a famine in Iceland when he sailed to Denmark to retrieve food for his community in the West Fjords of Iceland. My blog on Family Bonds and being Icelandic

This summer I had the wonderful discovery of a third great grandfather named Frederick Weight who worked at a factory in England as a young teenager in around 1840. I never knew he played the cello like me. Yet, I learned that he carried his cello miles for his lessons, waking up hours before dawn to practice. Later he made cellos, violins, a guitar, and even an organ in Springville, Utah. He set up bands, choirs, and hosted a monthly music gathering for anyone who wanted to come. He called it the "Oh Be Joyful" night where everyone in the community was invited to share their musical talents with one another. Interesting fact: in Qatar where I lived I started a musical soiree (gathering) every month three years ago when we moved here. We have a potluck where friends perform. When I pick up my cello now, I think of that cello connection I have with my ancestor.

A cello made by Frederick Weight, my third great-grandfather, in the Springville, Utah HIstory Museum. Frederick was an ancestor who was born with music in his heart and hands. Sometimes when I pick up the cello to play, I think of him. I am told he was not the most prosperous farmer, but his aim was not on the plow. It was for anyone he could gather to sing and hear music on a new frontier.

As I have spoken to a Russian friend about learning more about his ancestors, he says, "Knowing  they lived and that they are there makes me feel less alone." An African friend said about her mother who had died prematurely 25 years ago, "I feel her influence in my life often. I listen to her." And then with a smile, she added, "If she were here with me, I probably wouldn't so readily listen." Just yesterday my hair stylist told me about learning to play the piano, a seemingly impossible feat for her.  She forges onward, however,  because she wants to be like her grandmother who was a musician.

When my son was diagnosed with autism, I read several ancestor's stories who had their own trials and afflictions. Their words deeply resonated with me--turning my heart around. My second great-grandmother, Grace Wignall, a pioneer, spoke often of being of good cheer when she barely survived starvation and freezing in Martin's Cove, Wyoming on the trek to Utah. Her words, like an echo through the Wyoming canyon, descended on me in my sorrow. Reading her words, I knew I had to find the cheer I had lost for a while. She had survived blizzards and near starvation, and even tried to find cheer amidst the frozen nights. And so could I.

Her words, spoken more than a century and a half before, filled some emptiness in a hard time for me. When I ventured to that remote canyon in Wyoming several years later where she had been stuck one winter, I felt as if I were rescued. Maybe not receiving food supplies. But her written legacy rescued me from inconsolable pain over my son's diagnosis. With her example resonating in my heart, I knew I could climb "my autism mountain."

When I realized the power of family stories, I resolutely tried to fit the tales into family car trips, bedtime stories, and dinner conversations. I painted a family tree, like a mural, on my dining room wall--kind of a monument to help us remember all the people we belong to. I wanted my own children to know these people. All of my children have told me on a few occasions those family stories have fueled them--especially when life has given them unexpected twists and foggy views. They have felt ancestors tap on their shoulders.

Here is the tree, in all its glory that spanned our dining room wall for many years. You can see it was not painted with a true artist's eye. The branches had my kids' names on it, with the trunk filled with ancestor's names. I liked the idea that the roots had the ancestors' names painted on it, signifying where we all came from. The fact that tree bark can be several inches thick signifies that it protects the tree from fire and disease. I always felt that tree, with all the ancestors' names on it, shaded us, protected us. As we looked at that tree in our dining room, often their names and stories would become intertwined in our dinner conversations. The names written on the trunk of that tree became real to our imaginations. We came to know them and see ourselves in their life stories.

As I travel around the world, I am intrigued by how different cultures remember their ancestors. In every place I have traveled, whether it is in remote villages in India, Thailand, China, Egypt, or Mexico, all people want to pass their heritage on to the next generation. They want their children and grandchildren to know and remember the cherished people who passed on--their talents, frailties, and successes. Our hearts grow softer when we learn about who came before us, whose shoulders we stand on now.

On a recent trip to an Indian village in Adasarlapadu, India (in the district of Khamman),  I was touched by this woman's love for her mother at a wedding that we attended. Everyone was talking about this woman, this grandmother, neighbor, loved one who had passed away. They missed her. Although she is anonymous and unknown to most anyone outside of this village, she had a huge impact on the lives there. The pictures of loved ones, in the simplest of homes, were in the most prominent positions. No one can underestimate the ripples of love that one can share; they can last for generations. Blog about  International Women's Day
Here is a collage of portraits from the Roman times in Egypt (lasting about 700 years, after Alexander the Great). The portraits are on a temple in Luxor, painted over some hieroglyphics--about 25 feet above the ground. To stare up at them, I was reminded again of our universal desire to be remembered, memorialized, and live forever. Blog about Egypt: Time and Immortality

Pictures of the Dia of the Muertos (Day of the Dead Celebrations) in Mexico--used by permission from my friend Jesus Rosas. His blog about Day of the Dead is fascinating--especially with the newly released Disney movie called Coco.  I recommend the movie!

In a Vietnam temple, seeing the food left over for their ancestors, as they do all over Asia.

In India, the idea of ancestors is all around you is always there, just as it is in China, Japan, Korea, and so many others. Incense, food, flowers are there to remember loved ones. It makes me think that we need to remember them more--their stories and lives. We need to have a reservoir of stories to fill us in our winters.