January 25, 2009

A feast for the Ancestors...my first!

With the stone in place and my confidence bolstered by our visit with Sal, I felt ready to prepare our first ancestor feast - to be held at the traditional time for ancestor remembrance, All Soul's Eve and All Hallows Day, October 31st & November 1st. Jim, Kathy and I talked about what we should serve and I did some research about traditional Ancestor Feast and Day of the Dead Foods. On Feast days, it’s traditional to serve the ancestors their favourite foods, however most of the menus I found listed foods like tamales, candied pumpkin, & sugar candy skulls. I’d love those foods, but I’m pretty sure most of our Tolstrup-Moller-Ruggles-Tanner-Adams ancestors would have loathed them...the foods I remembered from childhood were hearty and delicious, but – as good New England (Irish and Norwegian) cuisine is – very, very plain. There’s nary a spice to be seen in most cases: the most exotic food I ate during my childhood was Norwegian Christmas Bread (Yulekaker) which featured cardamon seed. So we talked it over and decided to serve Roast Chicken, roasted acorn squash and potatoes and jellied cranberry sauce. In a gourmet shop downtown, I'd found some beautiful chocolate truffles shaped and coloured like little pumpkins, and other favourite special sweets: Turkish Paste for my mother, caramels for my father, marzipan for my Nana Tolstrup. And Jim poured a small glass of Irish Whisky (for George Tanner, I think).
While the dinner cooked, I set about creating an ancestor shrine in one corner of the dining room. Jim brought out a beautiful batik tablecloth, covered with Celtic symbols and the tree of life and we draped it over a table and backing board to create the setting for a series of photos and markers for all of our ancestors – starting with both my parents and Jim’s mother – and going back 5 generations on each line. Where I didn’t have a photo of the person, I substituted a photo of their gravestone. Where I had neither, I made a name marker that listed my ancestor’s name and birth-death dates.
On the table below the photos, Kathy placed some beautiful framed photos of her parents and grandmother and Jim placed a wooden tray, scattered with autumn leaves, that held a smaller wooden bowl of stones and candles. To it I added some quartz (Irish and Viking sun-stone) I’d picked up at Odiorne Point, as well as stones I’d brought with me from from the Hedrum Jernwerks (Norway) and Maeve’s Mound (Ireland), as well as, some wrapped birch twigs I’d carried from Larvik. Then, I added the sweets I’d bought for Mum, Dad and Nana. In a burst of inspiration, Jim added the magnetic “In Search of George Tanner” sign that I’d made for our Irish adventure and, finally, a photo of Loughcrew.
I’d somehow assumed that when ancestors are honoured at a feast, they should be set a place at the same table as the living, but during my conversation with Sal, I came to realise that some degree of separation between worlds was – at the very least – prudent. He’d been quite clear - unusually adament, in fact - that when Flo prepared feasts for the ancestors, she'd set a separate table for the ancestors – somewhat removed, even, from the one set for the living. I didn't entirely know why (and still don't), but intuitively, this felt right - so we set out our ancestors' feast on a low table next to ours.

Jim carved the chicken and placed the first serving of each food – chicken, squash, potato & cranberry – on a small plate. Beside that he put a cup of tea and the glass of whiskey. Also on the table, Jim placed a photo from the Strokestown Famine Museum (Ireland) and a copy of the Griffiths Valuations 1848 (Irish census).
Then we served ourselves and sat at the table. Before we ate, we spoke to our ancestors. For me, it was the first time I had ever formally addressed them and I felt that I needed to introduce myself and apologise for having neglected them for so long. I spoke directly to each of the photos, addressing that ancestor by name and said that I’d never learned how to pay proper respect, nor how to take proper care of our relationship, but that I was learning (and would continue to learn) and promised to do better. I couldn’t help myself: several times as I spoke, I felt a flood of emotion and tears of gratitude, relief, sorrow, joy, hope, regret and love flowed freely.
Jim asked for the ancestors to help us and to help our descendants (mentioning Julia, Ella and Max, by name) He spoke about this being a pivotal in time in the history of the earth and said that we need the ancestors help to set the planet right again.

We ate our delicious dinner, then talked about our memories of particular people – Nana and Grampa Tolstrup, Nana Adams, My Mum and Dad and Jim’s Mum. Jim sang his Ballad of George Tanner and then went on to sing other traditional Irish songs.

When we were finished, we took the ancestors’ foods outside and placed them in front of the petroglyph, where we also burned some sage and lit a candle. Then we went to bed.

But I couldn’t sleep. I felt moved to say more, so I sat up in my bed and addressed my ancestors one by one – starting with my mother and father and working backwards to my great-great grandfathers George Tanner, Thomas Edward Ruggles and Mathias Tolstrup. To those, I'd known in this life, I spoke about our living relationship, about letting go whatever unresolved issues there might be, telling each that I was now ready to let them be spirit. To each of my ancestors, I said what I thought they'd given me, said “your blood is in my blood” and told them that I loved them.
I told my Mother that she gave me my capacity for joy; My Dad that he’d given me my sense of integrity and honour and that he’d taught me how to love with quiet constancy.
I told Nana Tolstrup that she’d given me a sense of being loved absolutely for who I am; and thanked Grampa Tolstrup for championing any of my childhood displays of bravery or courage. I spoke at length to Grampa, telling him that I was sorry to have misjudged him in my misinterpretation of the past. But I also said that by letting me hold him to blame for my hurt, his spirit had allowed me to give reason and shape to a deep depression and had helped me through a very hard time.I spoke also to Nana Adams and told her that I’d always admired her quiet strength. I said I wished I had known her better and had had the opportunity to show her the depth of my love, gratitude. I thanked her for raising such a loving son – so that he could be such a perfect father for me. I spoke to Grampa Adams and told him that he is the first of my ancestors that I did not know, but that I now felt driven to find out more about him. I said that his blood runs in my veins and he is a part of me.

I then spoke to Magnus and Louise (Moller) Tolstrup– I told Magnus that I felt deeply connected to him – that I’d walked where he'd walked, sat where he’d sat – had walked down the street where he’d lived and seen the mailbox that bore his name. I said that I felt I knew something about his spirit and how his spirit had formed me: the sense of adventure – being drawn so strongly by the unknown and by the potential of something ‘other’ that you almost don’t have time to be scared. There’s something of the starry-eyed in him, I think that is also in me. I spoke to Louise saying that I was only coming to know her and want to know her better.

Next, I spoke to great-grandfather (Thomas M) Ruggles and told him that I got the sense he was a bit misunderstood. He was, perhaps, an adventurer in the midst of homebodies and had been judged somewhat harshly for it. I told him he was a handsome devil and that I thought that had caused him some trouble, but that I thought I could understand his need for adventure and for exploring the unknown.
Then I spoke to great-grandmother Harriet (Tanner) Ruggles: I told her that I could see that not only do I have her blood, but that I might look a bit like her, too I thanked her, in fact thanked both Harriet and Thomas, for raising such an extraordinary daughter – my grandmother whose love was central to my sense of worth.

Next I spoke with Mathias Tolstrup – telling him that I’d stood on the ground of his family farm, walked on the ground where he’d grown up. I told him that his sea-faring blood coursing in my veins had helped form my sense of adventure.

My heart lightened as I spoke to my great-great grandfather Thomas (Edward) Ruggles . I never knew him, but from the stories Uncle David told, I know that I would have liked him (and he, me) I told him that I feel that his blood in my veins is what gives me my inclination towards optimism and well-being: I told him I appreciated his vision of his experience of life as ‘salubrious’, that I loved his humour and playfulness.

I spoke last to George Tanner and said that I felt a great empathy, not only for the hardships his family had endured, but as well their experience of a new land: I said that his story resembles Max's story. Both were 11 years old when they were brought by their parents to a new life and a new home in a brand new country. I told him that I wanted to know more about his life in Ireland and wouldn't give up the search until I could stand on the same Irish ground where they'd stood.

I cried again. I’m not sure why – but I think that it’s, in part at least, that I wish I could really know these people; that we could speak together and that they could tell me who they were, what they dreamed, what mattered to them. Perhaps they will somehow. Flo told me to listen for them in my dreams – that they’d tell me what to say/sing to them, what I need to know, what they have to tell me. I hope she’s right.