Thursday, October 28, 2010

Among the Bones ~ A Season for Ancestor Reverence

 I collect bones... Skulls and fingers and teeth from smiling jaws, I dig up, brush off, and polish smooth. Many now I have, piled high around me. I know their faces, their voices, can see their walk and hear their laughter. Inside me they breathe again. I am their blood, their skin, their sighs. These bones are the spirits of my ancestors, and among them I find truth in and of my past.

Inside this dwelling of bones, my spirit can locate its history. It delves and dives, and searches through what these bones really are:  names and faces, and words written on faded paper in old-fashioned writing.

I have come to know those who have come before, as if I am indeed holding them in my hand, solid and smooth.

Once I visited a graveyard in the most perfect little spot I can imagine. It sat in the yard of a very old clapboard church that had been built by some of those ancestors. It was quiet beneath a bright blue Spring sky.

It was during a trip to Virginia, along the border between states. A few nights earlier my older brother and I had shared the same dream, three hundred miles north, as the moon was rising higher into the night. My brother and I have this connection, and since that dream, always call the other after having anymore like it, in which someone close to us has passed away.

We took a train with my father south to Winchester, Virginia, to attend my grandfather's funeral. I was a kid, and didn't much like the looks of my Grandfather Lee in his casket. His face had fallen from a recent stroke, and I remember thinking he had been stronger. The sight was startling, and my brother and I silently swapped looks, sitting on a bench several feet away.

Lee wasn't buried in that small graveyard in the perfect spot. He was buried in a city cemetery, though also a very, very old one. It has a massive stone entranceway, and is even well known for some of its residents. Some of the bones I've dug up were buried there, in the earliest graves, away from their folks across the state line, back in the perfect spot.

The perfect spot was up on a hill… Being a kid, I was becoming restless with the trip to my grandfather's town. Staying in a motel with its concrete floors and brown plaid bedspreads, trekking around the historic little city of apple blossoms and presidential past, my spirit had gone dormant. But up on this hill, on a beautiful sunny day - the kind of day in which I always imagine the South now - I gathered my first bones.

Tall grass scratched my legs and the wetness of dew got between my toes, as I looked out at faded names on old stone markers. Then I did not know these names, and only a vague feeling crept up that they belonged to me. Like strangers I had once known, but had since departed from, they curled their fingers and spoke to me, to come, to seek.

A spell cast by the dead, my dead, and I follow backwards. I am a mirror, and like a mirror's mirror, I keep going in further, deeper, the image smaller but still as strong.

The ancestors have found me in dreams. They have whispered their names to me, brought me religion, made my heart nostalgic for places I've never been.

They have enriched my soul with memories of land and music, love and oppression. They have given me a history that begins hundreds of years before my conception; heritage.

Soon it will be Halloween – and appropriately, All Soul’s Day – and one of the traditions my family has practiced at this time of year is a simple ritual of ancestor reverence. My husband and I will create an altar – we’ll lay out a cloth, place upon it photos, favorite heirlooms, written names, prayers, words and poems, and we will light candles. It is a quiet, reflective way to celebrate an otherwise exuberant holiday, a date for remembering, honoring, and giving thanks. Celebrated beside the ancestors whose origins are known, will be our unknown ancestors. My husband will light candles to the ancestors of his adoptive family, those he knows, and as significantly will offer his heart to those who remain mostly unknown, part of a past kept secret from him.

But outside this holiday, throughout the year and throughout my ages, I have held my ancestors in reverence. I do not have an easy explanation for this, except perhaps, that I have simply been listening. I believe that the ancestors wish to guide us, wish us to know of them, and understand them.

I have often been surprised by the messages I have received from ancestors. They have shared with me tales I would not have expected to own, have blessed me with spiritual insight, and have brought me visions of religious beauty. I know too, that they had their place in my childhood. They stood as testament that death is not an end, in a time when many in my family were dying.

I can list the times when something significant happened to me on an ancestor's birthdate, a connection between me and them that has become manifest in a gold ring, a hummingbird in hand, or a packet of genealogy in the mail. It would be a long list that would at least intrigue a skeptic.

But it is their simple presence that awes and comforts, that pushes and inspires, and always in my life, opens my sky to more mystery.

~ Nellie Levine

The image used to illustrate this essay is a photo I took recently in St. Albans, VT. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pics of the graveyard described in the piece. However, there is a small pic here (my great-great-great grandfather Jeremiah Reid was one of the first residents of this cemetery). Also, my maiden name is Brill, and from the list in this graveyard, my family names also include Anderson, LaFollette, McKee, McKeever, Reid / Ried, and Spaid.

Among the Bones was originally published in a slightly different form, in SageWoman Magazine

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  1. Nellie, I found this very moving. I lost my mother recently and remembered all the rituals that were performed after her death. The idea of conecting with one' ancestors in death is deep among the Hindus.In fact, death rituals are most elaborate of all life cycle rituals (14 days). It is believed that after the person dies, on the 10th day their soul begins its journey to join its ancestors. It is considered a joyous occasion and friends and relatives join in to partake on a big feast. The 12th day, the soul has met with its ancestors in the heavens and it is a solemn affair on earth with only the immediate members as witnesses. The eldest son symbolically performs the rituals that bring the departed soul to its ancestors. When the person has lived long and is leaving a line of children and grandchildren behind and join the departed ancestors, life does seem eternal without a beginning or end.

  2. Nellie, "opens my sky to more mystery"! Beautiful telling of poignant truths. Thank you for eloquently sharing your bone singing.

  3. Indira, thank you so much for your comment, and for sharing. I wasn't aware of those traditions - they're beautiful and powerful (as is your explanation), and I appreciate learning about them.

    Thank you, Kay!



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