Monday, August 16, 2010

Hatin' on the Ancestors

One of the first things I did when the call came a few years ago to change up my practice was to set up a permanent altar to my ancestors. This has been an important, deeply changing practice for me, but it most certainly hasn't been without glitches.

As children, some of us are keenly sensitive to the dark, taboo subjects that exist within our families. Some are kept carefully and blissfully ignorant at least until such a time as our elders deem us old enough to be able to handle the shit that stains their pasts. I fall somewhere in the middle, aware that there were certain horrible facets of my family history but somewhat sheltered from hearing the knitty-gritty details of it all. I was kept far away from certain members of my family (though even that didn't protect me) and told just enough about why we had no contact with these people to make me wary if ever they should try to enter my life.

Now one of those people is preparing to die. In fact, he may be dead already. I'm not likely to know exactly when the event occurs because, you see, he is my maternal grandfather and, in this witch's ever so humble opinion, a complete fucking bastard. He is the man who held a gun to my grandmother's head while my very young mother watched. He is the reason that my mom grew up thinking it was normal to have a ladder outside your bedroom window to escape if Daddy ever came home. I had heard these stories as a child and have learned even harder truths about my mother's childhood since her death in 2001.

In a way, I can't wait to add his mug to my altar because it means he's dead and will never hurt anyone again.

On the other hand, I'll admit to some reluctance in "revering" his ass. He never hurt me. In fact, I only ever remember meeting him once. After my grandmother divorced him (in an era when divorce was unheard of and quite frowned upon), he remarried and almost completely severed all ties with his children. As far as I know, he only ever called when he needed money. My mother, despite being quite young when my grandma kicked his ass to the curb, was traumatized enough by her interactions with him that she had absolutely no desire to introduce him into my life. (Thanks, Mom!) Still, my love for my mom, my grandma, and other deceased members of my family make me feel the sting of disloyalty at honoring him in any way.

So I had to decide whether it was really appropriate to exclude good ole Grandad from the ancestor worship that I take so very seriously. In some cultures, only those relatives who were considered morally just and upright citizens are venerated after their death while in others the dead are all equal in their ability to create mischief or luck regardless of who or what they were in life so all are equally represented after death. Which way was I to go?

I decided to sit down and have a talk with Grandma and Mom to see what they had to say. In the end, it was decided that the old man's blood runs through my veins, and it is better to remember those whose lives we would wish not to emulate in order to learn from them than to whitewash a family's history and reject any lessons that have or could be learned from it. Besides, as Grandma pointed out, Hungarians believe that the dead can haunt this world for the first year after their death and so must be placated. We wouldn't want Grandad causin' trouble 'round here, now would we? Forgiveness may be something I will have to work at, but work I will. I will set a space for my douchebag of a grandfather and remind myself that my blue eyes, so beloved by my grandmother, come from him. I will remind myself that the man went through a war and was probably afflicted by PTSD in a time before it was recognized and that this probably affected his behavior. I refuse to make everything love and light, peace and joy with this man, but I won't dwell on the hate or feel guilty for placing the only picture I have of him, my grandparents' wedding picture, on my ancestors altar. It must be done.

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