September 8th, 2019
“People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”
I struggle with my ancestors, which means that I struggle with ghosts. It also means that I struggle with myself. Whether I like it or not, my ancestors are inside of me. They are in my DNA and in my memories. They reach out to me in my dreams. My ancestors are not in the past. They are here with me now.
My parents built a house in Amherst, Wisconsin. It was their dream house. One of the rooms in this house looked like a dining room, but it wasn’t. It was a shrine of sorts. The walls were lined with black and white photos of long dead family members. I knew some of them. They were my grandparents. Most of the pictures were from weddings or other official gatherings. I was curious about the other people in the photos.
I asked my dad about these people. I wanted to know about them. I wanted to know if they were drunks and/or hard-workers. I wanted to know if they were sinners or saints. Did they have hard lives? What did they do? What did they want to do?
My father refused to tell me anything. He was only interested in his past in a very sanitized sort of way. I had heard over the years about how some of my family members had been bootleggers. I had heard rumors of other less than noble activities. But my dad wanted none of that. He wanted to hang on to a glorious past that never, ever existed. So, there was nothing to tell. I just gazed at pictures of total strangers, people who would forever be strangers to me.
Both of my parents are dead. They don’t qualify as ancestors, at least not yet. Our relationships were way too close. Even after death, there is too much baggage. There are too many disturbing memories. I suppose that there are people who have wonderful relationships with their parents. I don’t know many of them. In any case, I don’t have enough distance between myself and my mother and father. I still hear their voices in my head, and that’s not always good.
I have spent a little time with Native Americans. Those people take their ancestors very seriously. They pray to their forefathers and foremothers for guidance. I remember hearing one of the Indians talk about praying to “our grandparents”. Ahhhh, that is the answer, or part of it.
I have good memories of my grandparents. They are my true ancestors. Yes, they had their issues, but they didn’t have issues with me. I know that my grandparents loved me unconditionally. They were wise, partly because they had seen many things, and partly because life had repeatedly kicked their asses. These old people just wanted to love a little kid. They no longer had an agenda. They knew that they had nothing left to prove, so they were just there for me, and for their other grandchildren.
For some reason, I also consider deceased members of my wife’s family to be my ancestors. Karin’s parents, Max and Erika, always treated me like their own flesh and blood. Those people suffered mightily through World War II (on the other side), and still they loved me, even though I was an American soldier in Germany. Karin’s other older relatives, Onkel Kurt and Tante Aga, Onkel Friedel and Tante Maria, were all my part of my history. They are my ancestors too.
I do pray to my ancestors. That may be silly. However, I believe that love is stronger than death. I believe that we are still connected.