When we look back at our past, it's often easy to see the obvious sign posts we passed on our way to the present. I'm one of those who believes that I was always a Pagan - I just didn't realize it until the age of 17 or 18. My father raised me to be respectful of fire, an independent thinker, and a survivor. My mother raised me to be a third generation feminist, to believe in magic, love nature, and appreciate the world around me. They both taught me how to be creative. They planted the seeds of animism and nature worship in me. The Catholicism they raised me in, with its archaic rituals and saints, acted as a gateway to polytheism. My mother kept a small altar to St. Theresa of the Roses in her room, prayed to St. Francis to protect animals, and encouraged me to ask St. Anthony for help whenever I lost something. Though conversion can naturally have a certain amount of uncertainty and fear attached to it, I'm sure it helped make praying to the Old Gods easier.
My Catholic, genealogy-obsessed grandfather would probably never understand if I attempted to tell him how much his interests impacted the conversion I went through in my late teens. Only, it would take me a few years to understand the importance of ancestors. As I studied Wicca, I thought of my ancestors as much as I would in Catholicism. They came before me. Some of them lived a long time ago practicing a foreign, ancient religion and I had a vague idea that this was somehow important spiritually. They died. They went somewhere else. Wicca and Catholicism honored them once a year - Samhain or All Souls Day. Pick your faith and pick your holy day.
Druidism looks at ancestors a bit differently than Wicca. We strive to remember them daily. We venerate them. We may even set up altars to them - and not just on Samhain (when we believe the ancestors are able to return to this realm for a time). Their importance to us lasts all year long. Many of us believe that, given their connection to us, ancestors are sometimes more concerned with our wellbeing than the Gods. The Gods may be busier than the ancestors. Ancestors may be in the Otherworld/Spirit World most of the time, but I and others believe we share some sort of emotional/psychic link with them.
I've never asked my grandfather why he's so interested in genealogy - I really should. I suspect he would say something about how the past is important because it's where we come from. I agree. However, I'm going to bet that it would end there. Maybe -maybe- he has some spiritual ideas about it as well. Maybe he looks forward to meeting them in heaven, impressing them with what he knows, and interrogating them for all the missing links. Why have I become interested in it? I feel that our ancestors are connected to us spiritually. They want to help us and, maybe, they've "been there and done that" and don't want to see us make similar mistakes. Grandparents care about their children so, if you believe in an afterlife, it makes a lot of sense that a great, great grandparent would care about you as well. To our ancient ancestors, family and tribe were extremely important. They meant survival. We're linked to them - perhaps they're even in us. Perhaps we are them reborn. I have small intuitions about these things but, in the end, I must remain largely agnostic.
Still, it's strange how the ancestors reach out sometimes. Over the Yule/Christmas season, I visited my family near Utica. I made a point to visit my grandparents and I found out that my prolific grandfather was working on yet another history book - this one more personal than the rest which investigate the annals of small, Upstate NY towns. He showed me the massive pile of pages chronicling his research on our ancestors - my ancestors on my father's side. We talked for some time about it. All these years he's been talking about the earliest recorded male in our family, John, and suddenly I started to learn about his wife, Susan(a). Why hadn't I ever thought about her before? At the time, he told me where she was from but I wasn't familiar with it - I only knew that it was in Northern Ireland. (That's where John met her while he was serving military time in British occupied Ireland.)
A month went by since learning of her. The other night I decided to email my grandfather to see how his project was going. I also wanted the name of Susan's hometown for further research. Today, in the mail, I discovered a CD version of the book. Can you imagine my amazement at receiving such a gift a few hours after inquiring? It is as if we were on a similar wavelength or Susan was guiding us. Here it all was - every known record of my family, including my most recent Irish foremother.
She looks so ghostly in the blotchy, black and white photo, but it's not a fearful feeling for me. It's more like... I sense her looking back at me through the ages.
The more I read, the more the pieces click into place. She's from Armagh which, according to what I've been reading, was the ancient capital of Ulster. Ulster! To someone who is enamored with ancient Ireland, that's a big deal. I'm not about to spout nonsensical claims of being related to Cúchulainn or anything daft like that - it's simply exciting to find some small connection to the place I've been reading about, loving, and yearning to see. I can claim some small connection to that magical land!
What makes the story even more interesting to me is that Susan and John immigrated from Ireland to Canada and, form Canada, settled in Watertown, NY - meaning they lived around my new home turf! My grandfather found her gravestone a few years ago. I intend to find it myself this summer. I would also love to go to Armagh when my husband and I finally get to Ireland. I would love to bring a stone back and build a small cairn on her grave. Would my presumably Christian ancestor appreciate veneration from a Pagan descendant? Who knows. I remain agnostic about the afterlife and whether or not it transcends religion or accommodates it all. Perhaps she would just be happy to have a bit of her home turf and some attention from someone who still finds her wisdom important.
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