I love the beginning of the school year. There’s an excitement and energy to it that is unique. It is a time filled with hope, anticipation, renewal. This lotus fits right into this time of the year for me. It s big and juicy as it covers all the teachings and teachers I turn to for insight.
I have had lots of teachers throughout my life. School teachers. Religious teachers. Flute teachers. Swimming teachers. College professors. Yoga teachers. Some formal teachers, some informal teachers. The ones that most deeply resonate with me right now are some I have never met – my ancestors.
I have an altar of sorts where I start each day. It contains items that represent the five directions (East, South, West, North, Center), the five elements (Earth, Water, Ether, Air, Fire) and the five devotions (ancestry, humanity, Mother Earth, divinity, teachings). There are also three ancestral photos: my Great Grandmother Holly Louise Parker (Mama Parker), my Great Grandmother Bertha Gramlich, and my Great Grandmother Mary Elizabeth Hinson. These three women connect me to different aspects of myself and different ancestral traditions from which I gain insight and guidance. They tether me to my ancestral past, to my roots, so that I may integrate ancestral knowing in to my life and in service to others.
I remember the first time I learned anything about my great grandmother, Mama Parker. It was 1977, I was 11 years old, and my parents, sister, and I drove from Baltimore to Lithonia, Georgia to visit my dad’s aunt and cousin. It took two days for us to get there because I got car sick along the way. That I would vomit in the car was pretty much guaranteed whenever we went on extended family trips. Needless to say, I was quite happy when we arrived in Lithonia and pulled into the driveway at my great aunt’s house. The house was right on a lake so I was enthralled as soon as I saw it. All I wanted to do was be outside and explore. My desire to explore was quickly thwarted, however, when they saw me.
It began right away. Moving the part in my hair to the other side, they proudly proclaimed, “You look just like Mama Parker.” I had no idea what this meant because I knew nothing about Mama Parker, not even her relationship to any of us. We went inside and the analysis continued as a portrait of Mama Parker was brought down from where it was installed on the wall. My great aunt passed on to me a broach that had been Mama Parker’s and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was sparkly and had its own little satchel to rest in. I knew it was special and contained its own kind of magic because it had been hers. All of the excitement around my physical appearance eventually settled down as we adjusted into our time together. By the end of the day we had gone fishing on the lake and I had caught my first fish.
It would be 10 years before I caught another fish and even longer before I learned more about Mama Parker. As I think back, I’m surprised I didn’t try to learn more at the time but it planted a seed that patiently waited I until the time was right.
After my dad passed away, we went to Georgia again to visit my dad’s cousin. This time I asked about stories and memories, and she excitedly shared stories about Christmas, birthing babies at home, building a tiny incubator for my aunt who was born premature, mementos, handkerchiefs, knitting, pictures were all shared.
I learned so much about Mama Parker that day. I have seen pictures of her feeding strangers on the front lawn of their home during the depression. Strangers who often promised to come back and pay but never did, and that was okay by her. I have touched things she made by hand – shawls, embroidery, autograph books. After my grandfather died, she was the one who supported my grandmother in raising her two teenage children. Mama Parker teaches me about care for community, compassion, family, marriage/partnership, the importance of making things for self and others, and she encourages me to remember.
Great Grandma Hinson was described to me as full of spirit – “when she said frog they all hopped; no question about it. That little tiny thing, she ruled the roost.” It is said that she bore her struggles with a smile. She gave birth to 14 children, two of whom did not survive to be teenagers, and had a husband who ran off for extended periods of time. I am certain her struggles were many. Great Grandma Hinson is my gateway to my Celtic ancestry. Her father was born in Ireland and her mother was the child of Irish immigrants from Drumbeg in County Down. I could share facts from her life that are gleaned only from historical documents – birth, marriage, death, census but I am partial to the story that makes the person. In this instance, I have just shared everything I know about her as a woman. And yet, when I look at her picture there is a familiarity that is pronounced. She is the one into whose eyes I look and wonder what she can teach me. Something in me recognizes something in her. It is something that runs deep and connects to family and to land. Great Grandma Hinson teaches me about strength, courage, perseverance, the importance of family and land.
Great Grandmom Gramlich was born in 1884 in Mramorak, a Danube-Swabian village community in the Banat. In 1901 at the age of 17 she set sail from Bremen to the United States with her 23 year old brother, Frederich. No other family members were with them on this arduous journey. With in one year Frederich had moved to Ohio and Bertha had married my great grandfather. I do not have anecdotes to share from those who remember her. Great Grandmom Gramlich died in 1917 in childbirth, as did the child, so there are no family members that I know who also knew her. I have come to learn that rosemary’s calling to me came from a deep ancestral place. Rosemary was my entry herb into herbalism, I carried it in my wedding bouquet, I had some with me at both of our daughter’s baptisms and both of my parent’s memorial services, and I grow it in my gardens. Years after my love of rosemary was fully realized, I learned that in my Great Grandmom Gramlich’s tradition, “The little sprig of rosemary, as a symbolic mark, epitomizes fertility, health and life-creating power on special occasions such as christening, wedding and burial, Kirchweih, Swabian ball, and rendering of the pigs, throughout the events that make up a human life.” (Hans Gehl as translated by Nick Tullius, 2006). The red geraniums that I just knew had to be placed in our window boxes when we moved into our home 15 years ago were also important in Mramorak and it was customary to overwinter them for the next season. Great Grandmom Gramlich teaches me about bravery, perseverance, herbalism, farming/planting, ceremony, connection to land, and hope.
Even though I have never met any of these great grandmothers they are my greatest teachers. Their essence runs through my blood and being. Their ancestral wisdom is there in the shadows, just waiting to be rediscovered by me, so that I may bring it back into the light of day for my family and in service to others.
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