What Would The Ancestors Say?

So, Halloween tomorrow, that day of the year when the veil between this world and the ‘Other’ world is tissue thin. It is also Celtic New Year over the three days culminating with All Souls Day, aka The Day of the Dead, on 2nd November. The next day is, of course, USA Election Day. And I have been wondering what the ancestors would be saying to my fellow Americans at this historic juncture.

It’s not that all our ancestors were great and good or wise and kind. We know that US history is stained with the karma of slavery and indigenous genocide as political policy. Robber barons exploited immigrant labour shamelessly.

Come to think of it, some of my own ancestors were probably making some of the cigars those FIfth Avenue Robber Barons were smoking. Today, I was musing whether my Great-great Grandfather Rothermel, who surrendered his Hesse-Darmstadt citizenship in 1859, thought it was worth the journey. According to the 1900 census he was 75 years old and employed as a street sweeper. His wife was rolling cigars in their tenement and their daughter, my Great-Grandmother Lizzie Rothermel, was working as a stripper in a cigar factory just as the union movement was forming. They lived a few blocks from Central Park, but a world away from Fifth Avenue. They lived down near the East River where all the city’s sewage and waste emptied into the water. It must have smelled hellacious in the hot, muggy summers in those days without an EPA.

It has taken five generations for Great-great Grandfather Rothermel’s descendents to achieve a college education, including an M.D. and a Ph.D. His grandson, my father, became the treasurer of a major pencil manufacturer because he had been able to take night classes courtesy of the G.I. Bill. As bright Great Depression kids from families of modest means (which was pretty much everyone in the cash strapped 1930s) college was a unachievable dream for my parents.

Joseph Smith with his fiancee Barbara Muller in 1910. They married New Year’s Eve that year.

Opa Rothermel’s grandson, my Grandpa Joe Smith, had been a labourer, a NYC public school janitor and an elevator operator. He died before the Great Depression and the New Deal. His widow moved back with her parents with her three young sons. She washed dishes in a restaurant according to the 1930 census. Her eldest son, my Uncle Howard, left school at 14 and started working for the US Postal Service to help support the family.

ancestor fortitude
Smith Brothers and friend at 1939 NYC World’s Fair

I would not be here but for their grit and resilience. But my siblings and I might not have had our meteoric ascent without opportunities funded by federal and state government. For that branch of the family to thrive there needed to be some help.

My father died when I was five years old. My mother was widowed at age 45 with children aged 14, 12, 10 and 5. An insurance policy paid off the mortgage, but for daily cashflow we relied upon Social Security and Veteran’s Benefits and my mother’s part-time employment during hours where I would not become a latchkey child. Her frugality was bordering on genius. We were all bright kids and she got all of us through undergraduate college degrees. A combination of savings, work, our own scholarship and grant funding from state and federal agencies got us all through bachelor’s degrees.

We had help where previous generations wanted for a little of it.

During the 1960s Lyndon B. Johnson launched a ‘War on Poverty’ that saw many imaginative programmes become open to the Smith kids. The National Foundation for Science enabled my sister and eldest brother to attend college summer courses at the Haydon Planetarium and St. John’s University while still in high school. Our Uncle Howard was still in the family apartment in Queens and provided the necessary bed and board and adult supervision to make it possible for them to attend.

When I was eleven the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania offered a Creative Drama course for my age group at the local college twelve miles away. It was every afternoon, five days a week for six weeks. My mother drove me there everyday and waited, doing errands or reading on a bench, until the session was over.

The summer after my dad died

There was a motley group of kids from both Columbia and Montour counties. We were guided by a skeletally thin, eloquently chain smoking Austrian Jewish refugee, Professor Frohman. What he made of us I cannot imagine, but he worked wonders for me. Before this course I was withdrawn behind a fourth wall of bereavement over my father’s death. I was painfully shy and probably depressed, too. I was a mouse. Over the course of that six weeks, my lion was born. Bit by bit over my teen years, my brio returned.

Because of that publicly funded course I was less scared of the world. Professor Frohman somehow facilitated a space where I became more brave, even as we imbibed his passive smoke.

In the fifth generation we received help, the kindness of strangers funded by federal and state tax dollars. We benefited from LBJ’s administration’s vision of The Great Society. All of the Smith kids worked blue collar jobs during our undergraduate years. My sister waitressed. My brother’s cleaned out the friers each night at the Wise Potato Chip company. My first job was quality control inspector checking emboidered days of the week on bikini panties.

But those were means to an end jobs before we found a life in medicine, education, administration or communication. The world opened to us. Three of us have passports and have travelled abroad.

We were all bright, but so were my mother and father. And probably those ancestors hand rolling cigars and sweeping streets were bright, too. We just had some help. We took what opportunities were offered and ran with them.

That tax funded help began to dwindle during the Nixon years and then dried up during the Reagan administration. The 1980s famously saw the Margaret Thatcher quotation that there was no such thing as society (which may actually be a symptom of psychopathy.)

There are still immigrants striving. But where do today’s Dreamers get the help to thrive?

It should not have to take five generations for an immigrant family to not just survive, but thrive.

Unless your ancestors were indigenous Americans, the story of your family on the American continent began with a migrant. How many generations has it taken for your family to strive before they could thrive? If they still aren’t thriving maybe it is because you never had the opportunity to benefit from the kindness of strangers in the form of a tax funded helping hand given ungrudgingly.

If you did have help, pay it forward. And, as Mr. Rogers told us on PBS back in the day “there are always helpers.”

My life probably would have been very different without LBJ and the Commonwealth of PA. Think about that this Election Day.

More Motherlines

matroska, mattryoshka

A friend alerted me to the old Yuletide traditions of Mother’s Night. Initially, celebrated on Solstice Eve, the night before the Great Goddess gives birth to the sun once again. In the Christian tradition, especially in Germanic countries, it would be celebrated on Christmas Eve. Last night was Solstice Eve since in my time zone winter solstice arrives at 22:23 tonight. So it was natural for my thoughts to turn to my grandmothers. And while my paternal grandmothers are directly linked to a Germany that would have known Mother’s Night, my thoughts were drawn to my motherlines. I kept thinking of those Matryoshka dolls. They are like educational aids for explaining the biology of lineage, how the great-great grandmother’s egg is connected through the daughter she nurtured in her womb having the egg for the next generation.

Today’s Poetry Daily celebrates my own personal motherline. While I do not have a photo of my great-great grandmother, I do have an object that has come into my possession. It is a hand-made, wooden portable writing case she gave to my great-grandmother in 1875.

ancestor echoes
Ancestral artefact
Mother/Lines

Does it take five or five times five
generations
for the egg to hatch, an idea
to come out true?

Consider my great-grandmother's
old writing case,
a Christmas present made by hand
given by my
great-great grandmother in 1875.

Mary Ella five times ago
mother to me
the egg in her body became -
eventually-
hatching  out Mary Ella, then
Mary , and then
Elma, whose egg hatched out me.

So many Marys.  Women given
a name which means
sea of sorrow, but yolked with
another one
full of fey light to keep afloat.
Even my own
middle name marks me as  being
in the very
same lifeboat. We are five Mary's.

And then this writing case was placed
in my keeping.
Wherein paper, ink, letters lived
along with the
thoughts, dreams, perhaps unfulfilled schemes.
Or maybe not.

I  have no daughter to offer.
One long ago
Christmas in a far away place
some ancestor
hurried to finish this present
which, in its turn
was given to me . My empty womb,
its salt sorrow.

Tonight I feel all the Marys, 
my mother, too
huddling around me and sharing
their grace.  Take this.
Take pen, paper, ink, letters.
Go on! Create.
Love, when it is true, will always
come out through you.


Copyright © 2018 Bee Smith

Featured image Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

Ancestor Echoes

ancestor echoes

I woke up well pre-dawn today. So poetry practice in early darkness is back on track. And I had an inkling that I wanted to write about ancestral objects. I seem to collect objects that have family story attached. My walls are adorned with paintings by my father-in-law, brother-in-law, great uncle and niece. I have family tree photo montages. Yet there are plenty of blanks in the family history, as well as some secrets and probably a few lies, too.

After I wrote today’s poem – which is a curtal sonnet, a form invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins – I realised that today is my name day. In German tradition, you celebrate your patron saint’s feast day. Today is St. Barbara’s Day. I am Barbara the Third on the paternal line. So Happy Name Day Oma and Grandma!

The featured photo is of a portable writing desk that a cousin passed to me. When a friend refurbished it we realised that it had been an 1879 Christmas present from my maternal Great-great Grandmother Mary Ella to my Great-Grandmother Mary Ella (there are a lot of mother/daughter name repetitions on both sides of the family!). There was writing on the underside of the writing case in faded ink that said as much and recorded the date of the gifting. Helga reckoned it was handmade. There were a few signs of a shortcuts taken in its manufacture, probably as the deadline of the Great Day loomed.

In the days before laptop computers, these personal writing cases or lap desks were important personal objects. It felt fitting that a writer in the family became custodian.


Ancestor Echoes

We like to keep tokens to memory
Be it book or china jug or medal.
These solid things are both secrets and clues.
Ancestral objects of passed family,
Proof of links we cannot deny or annul.
They cannot speak. May not have wanted to.
The object remains of stories they leave –
A wedding ring, Will’s ruining fiddle -
What stories we tell are family’s glue.
Do they speak of love? Are we done with grief?
How true?
 
Copyright © 2018 Bee Smith

Gratitude for Fortitude

The illuminated screen said 5:55am. In the land of my birth, it was only just Thanksgiving. Even though I won’t have turkey (although I imagined a ghostly whiff of some roasting while I made my first tea of the day), candied yam or pumpkin pie, I still preserve the ritual of giving thanks on Thanksgiving. And my mind turns to my own migrant ancestors. Some went off in leaky ships on a long transatlantic journey back in the early decades of the seventeenth century.. More recently my namesake German grandma passed through Ellis Island with her parents and toddler sister. Americans are migrants and nomads. Even Native Americans had to travel across the frozen Bering Strait to migrate into the North American continent. We all had to hoof it to get there one way or the other.- on foot, by dog sled, corracle, long ship, clipper, or airplane.

My poetry practice for this dawn’s early light takes its cue from the gratitude theme. Ideally, that should be more than one day a year because those who practice gratitude tend to be happier and kinder. Thanksgiving is probably the major family gathering feast day on the calendar. So it seemed right to conjure family, no matter how remote, on this day.

Fortitude

I thank you ancestors for
your spine and pluck,
for your knowing of when to leave,
the courage to try your luck.
 
I thank you ancestors for
your endurance of marathon runners,
for keeping some faith when
hope hoisted up its anchor.
 
I thank you ancestors for
my very blood and bone.
I thank you thousands who loved,
and those that felt all alone.
 
I thank you ancestors for
bringing me here, for the going
through and getting passed over,
for my own bodily strands helixing.
 
I thank you ancestors for
feeling your fears, for your shadows,
for this task of mining the golden vein
in even the most chaotic fandangos.
 
I thank you ancestors for
now you may rest in peace,
bestowing on descendants the tasks
like rescuing Jason’s golden fleece.
 
I thank you ancestors for
your quests and heroic journeys,
for the tiny triumphs and huge betrayals,
for your centuries’ continual re-sorcery.
 
I thank you ancestors for
the heart that can allow us to forgive,
the memory that will never forget,
and – most of all – you own will to live.
 
Copyright © Bee Smith 2018


Land of My Heart

I live in an area of outstanding natural beauty and geological significance. Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark was a region stripped of much of its population through the vagaries of a century and more of famine, civil unrest and general economic penury. The Irish language clung on in the uplands, but eventually it, too, was virtually extinguished. But upland country breeds resilience. Those who stayed held firm. They were the keepers in more ways than one.

The Back Road

Each day they rise, living they may think

        small, isolated lives, dwarfed by this horizon.

        Each day they rise before this wide sky,

         watching the light rearrange the picture ,

         mountain recedes and lough is obscured.

         Each day they rise to read the sky, every shadow,

  each cloud a new line in a saga.

        

         You see it reflected in guileless eyes,

         in women who have ancient faces,

         features utterly unmodern, undisguised.

         Fingers, flesh, cheek bones hewn by

         thousands of years of family tracing their living

         in relentless, miraculous weather.

         The memory is in the peat they walk and burn,

         in the hedgerows, rowan trees, heather and fern.

 

         Each day they rise, living they may think

         small, isolated lives, dwarfed by this

         huge picture drawn across a canvas sky.

         They can read it still, alive to the shifting signs.

         The Burren stone is bred in their own bones.

         When they pass into the mist we will be left

         with wind, weather, a different cast of light.

         The skyline will be read in a language foundering

  in clefts of limestone, silent as the  fog bound bog.

© Bee Smith 2016

The Celtic Tiger attracted new people like us – ‘blow-ins’. Not indigenous to the land. Some might be the children or grandchildren returning to a homeplace from years of emigration in Britain, Canada or the USA. But Germans and Dutch fell in love with the pristine environment, the lakes that promised limitless fishing. Eastern Europeans arrived to build the houses the rode the Tiger’s back. This border country offered cheap land and rents, so artists from every kind of discipline found their way here.

Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark straddles Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland, and Cavan in the Republic. In the ancient kingdom of Ireland system, both counties were part of Ulster.  And it was from somewhere in Ulster that the paternal Smiths are alleged to have travelled to a new life in New York City sometime in the 19th century.

What my current dwelling place has in common with my migrant ancestors is that it has always hosted incomers. This place has always been a draw for those with itchy feet. In Irish myth from the Leitrim side of my village you can see Slieve Anieran (Iron Mountain) rise. It was here that the mythical race, the Tuatha dé Danaan, first landed in Erin.  After their defeat by the new incomers, the Milesians, they retreated to this homeplace before they went into the sídh, that placeless space beyond our finite three-dimensional world.

I am descended from migrants, just like the Tuatha dé Danaan and the Milesians were migrants to Ireland. The 17th century colonial Quakers and Dutch sailed in leaky wooden ships instead of boats the Tuatha burnt when they found themselves in Erin. My German ancestors sailed into Ellis Island from Franconia to set up a shoe shop in Queens. My Irish ancestors watched skyscrapers rise above the dusty grid of city streets and the Statue of Liberty would welcome Joe Smith’s future bride as she arrived as a little girl in the New World.

In a reverse journey, two centuries on, their descendent would find a sense of home in the land where the River Shannon finds its source. I live in the first village on the River Shannon. As you drive towards the village the promontory of Slievenakilla, known as The Playbank, hulks on the horizon. It is very like the sphinx and indeed, I do sometimes feel as if I live in nature’s own version of the Valley of the Kings.

Playbank poem

I feel full of gratitude that through a combination of serendipity, synchronicity, the poems of W.B. Yeats and Brighid of Ireland we were led to this place. It wasn’t our plan. But sometimes Spirit, and possibly, too, the Ancestors and the Land itself have other plans for us.

All of us who have ‘itchy feet’ – we migrants who get up and go, those walking the world from way back,  even to the eon-aged mists cloaking the ships of the Tuatha dé Danaan – the Land teaches us the same lesson. One day it will take our ashes or bones and then the Land will allow us to enter its narrative and we will become one body.

© Bee Smith 2017