Making Peace with my Ancestors

Wiccans engaging in overt ancestor worship and honoring is something of a new thing. In the 90s, when I came in, most focus went to God/Goddess and working out our confusion about how gay people and trans people fit in ((They do. Perhaps I should make another chart.)). Yes, the ugly fights about it are now but the conversation? That started back when.
October Cemetery Walk

Perhaps it comes with existing as a religion long enough to have many of the first beloved leaders pass on. Perhaps it’s because we’re finally seeing generations of Pagan families come up.

Still, it creates issues for people like me. I’ve seen a few posts from fellow Pagans about how much they love their parents “no matter what!” and at least in one case it was an admonishment towards me.

Neither of the people I’m thinking of have suffered years of physical and emotional abuse and manipulation at the hands of a parent; trying to get them to fathom the depths of their own asshattery – especially such pious asshattery – is just more effort than I’m willing to give. Social change may start within an individual, but not generally in one that you’re attempting to choke. It’s part of the “it’s not real if it didn’t happen to me,” mentality. It takes practice and sometimes real horror to get out of that loop.

Honoring ancestors is great when you know for sure you’re from good people that do good things. I said good; illegal isn’t always immoral. But when it’s been nothing but an attempt to assume power and achieve a power high from one generation to the next with slaps and screaming, holes in paddles? It doesn’t exactly make me want to put anybody’s picture over my fireplace.

Yet some of these people also did amazing things – especially on my father’s side. Yes, my great grandfather and grandfather were part of the Polish cavalry that went down rather horribly.  They also escaped from a Siberian prison camp. There was the great uncle that led an escape out of Krakau. I’m pretty sure my father’s mother gave a home to a gay man who we called “uncle.” I got the impression we were not actually related to him. He had a son who died in a war (no, gay and parenthood were never mutually exclusive) and my dad used to take him to seances in attempts to speak to his boy.

Even my maternal grandmother, in all of her slut-shaming horror, did amazing work as a nurse. As an early settler in Canada, she watched her brother die and her mother have a nervous breakdown as a little girl. After both parents died, she and her sister were orphans on an uncle’s farm. Nasty stuff happened to her there, stuff that she passed on.

So this is my struggle: what I have to face in my ancestry is so much more extreme than the normal range most people have of evil and good. In all of them on either side it’s nothing but extremes. Horrific extremes along with badly managed PTSD.

I’ve also had a question haunting me for years now: why am I different?

When an abused person becomes an abuser, there’s usually a personality disorder assumed. Part of that is to designate a scapegoat. I was the designated scapegoat – and not just in my own house. For my mother’s entire family.  Along with the general being crapped on that comes with the role, there’s an entire program where the people around you try to take away any and all of your agency. If the plan had taken, I’d be a submissive house wife with one or two years of college, attending church and DAR meetings with my mother, married to someone she and my sister had in mind and I’d have produced children by the time I was age 22 that I would now be abusing or conditioning into a full blown narcissistic personality disorder.  It was expected, and it came back to me down the extended lines: family members who have never had a real conversation suddenly had all sorts of comments about my ideas and opinions, never even considering that the information never came from me and never inquiring as to my actual thoughts and intentions. They also had expectations of me; not one of which was actually discussed. To say them out loud would involve holding up a mirror to some ugly truth.
Cemetery in Northeast Minneapolis

 

The people that this happens to usually have two things happen: their abuser succeeds in molding them, or they tolerate and rationalize the mistreatment for decades then around age 40 realize that something is wrong and begin the 20+ year process of breaking out of it.

I’m very unusual. I started the process ate age 16, when I was still only guessing that something was rotten in Denmark. I mean, sure, my parents kept telling me how they treated me was normal, but if it was actually normal why did they need to keep telling me that? It didn’t track.  I actually sought therapy – more than once. I dug in and found a way to extract myself from them, especially when it became clear that my mother was going to start randomly showing up at my college and demanding I return home for church services she’d never given a damn about when my sister was feinting college attendance. It was all about power and control – I realized that my family had no intention of allowing me true adulthood. It took scrambling, scores of crap jobs, a long deferred career and some bad relationships along the way – but I got out. None of it was all that pleasant and much bruised my pride but I did it.

I am not the only designated scapegoat in my family line (that I know about) that got out before a parent died.  My maternal grandfather had been selected by his mother to be the child that stayed home and tended to her. So he eloped with my grandmother. Even so, it was evident that despite his example, as a female child I was not expected to have that same self-preserving spirit. I suppose they would describe it as “defiant,” but what’s defiant about insisting on my own basic right to life, liberty and happiness?

The question that has hovered on my consciousness is still, why? What makes me different?

More importantly – is this difference in me permanent? Am I safe person, in and of myself?

The question of my difference has haunted me since my mid-twenties when I went from deep suspicion to full recognition how bad my family situation actually was. Would I turn into them? Was I just going to go from whatever I was at that time and, either through some hormonal release after having children or just from time itself, become the same kind of monster?

This raised the more metaphysical concern: with all the monstrosity dotting my past and generations before me, is ancestor energy really something I bring in to my home, my hearth, my altar? I have seen a great deal of mercy and benevolence from the gods and spirits that I have known. But they, like my fellow human beings, are whole package deals. You can’t get the good stuff if you don’t accept and acknowledge the warts.

My ancestors have some pretty virulent warts.

Also, because of the weird way I was raised, I felt like I was manipulated into being more Anglo than Polish. Yet everything that is natural to me comes from my Polish side. The side with the Pagans, and the animism, the ancestor worship and the spiritualism.

The side that produced my 300 pound football player father – whose build and muscle structure I share. Oh yes, I’m aware of my size… and it feels natural.

If I can make peace, of course I will. I had already decided upon a sort of scavenging exercise: to acknowledge the gifts I was given, even by people that did not want to give me those gifts.

Those gifts are considerable. Because of my upbringing and lineage:

  • I am fiercely independent.
  • I am strong. My strength is really my key quality.
  • I am resourceful to a powerful degree. No matter how often a family member tried to back me into a corner, I found a way out.
  • I have faith. My faith is independent from my belief in God. This is also a gift.
  • I have developed empathy and appreciation for those wholly different from myself.
  • I can handle a difference of opinion, sometimes by holding my tongue.
  • I understand how completely arbitrary concepts like beauty are. I make a business of subverting it because I can live free of it.
  • Because of their madness, I am quick to recognize emotional manipulation.
  • I am patient.
  • I understand that anger is about control. I also understand that there are things for me to control and things that are not for me to control.
  • I have been given the power to stop the cycle on my branch of the tree – and I have taken it.
  • I genuinely like myself as a human being – not because of or in spite of them but just because.
  • I understand the importance of having friends, of offering support and accepting it, and why this willing interdependence does not in any way lessen my worth.
  • That in healthy relationships, dependence and sharing is not used as a means of control.

I only re-opened conversation with my ancestors in recent weeks. Part of this is because it will become nearly impossible for me to avoid as we slide into Mabon-Samhain season. Part of this is because I told them to leave me alone but now I have more questions. I bonded to the earth and declared the dust, the rain, the magma, the winds all my ancestors and my declaration was welcomed with “At last!”

I’m not sure who it was that found me today. Someone – someone that pointed out that they weren’t all like that, not always. That war poisons the best of people and since I was looking at the gifts hidden amongst the shards, I should recognize this quality shared by some but not all ancestors:

I have been able, repeatedly, to deal with situations meant to defeat me with their impossibility and emerge the victor. Or, roughly translated from this morning’s talk, “Like us, you’re able to deal with some really improbable shit.”

That was their answer to why am I different?

It is a peace offering that I can accept.
Cemetery in Northeast Minneapolis