So last week my son’s family were away in Calgary because my daughter-in-law’s Granny had died. This Sunday (after they returned on Friday) they came to Pagan Brunch. My granddaughter Bean (my nickname for her) darted up to greet the family friend sitting facing out and then saw me in her peripheral vision (sitting facing in) and flung herself onto my lap. As it turned out, she had gone to the funeral (she’s 3 1/2) and was having a little trouble with the concept of ‘dead’, which she had internalized as ‘unhuggable’.
“I will die one day,” I said, “and I don’t know about the hugs, but I’m sure I will often come and visit you. Do you know why I am so sure?”
“Interested in knowing” (three-year-olds often speak in words that aren’t easy to write down)
“MY Grannie comes and visits you already because you are like her. You know her as ‘Sadie’; she is my Grannie just as the person who died was your momma’s Grannie.”
Then we segued off into a discussion of me being her Daddy’s momma as well as her Nana and why her brother and my father have the same name.
Bean is very like my grandmother; my sister and myself both recognize the likeness. Sadie was a friendly, outgoing person very interested in everyone around her and quite charming as long as she got her own way. At just 16, she emigrated from a tiny Western Island to Boston all alone, and Bean is following in those footsteps; I met her pre-school teacher socially and described her as ‘pushy’, which her teacher voiced as ‘a natural leader’.
My sister (the family digitizer) sent me an old photo of myself. When I showed it to her, Bean was unsure that the little girl was me but said that the other person was familiar; she came into her room at night but when she visited she didn’t look so old and had red hair.
This supports my own ideas about afterlife; my personal gnosis is that we die and go someplace (I use the title ‘Tir n’Og’ because of my heritage– the place where it’s always Spring) where we are our chosen remembered self. Sadie would pick middle age, because although pretty little strawberry blondes wield some power, red-headed Matriarchs have command power. While we’re in the Timeless Land (if it’s always Spring, it’s timeless, neh?) I sincerely hope that we have the skills we once had (I will be able to dance again) and those we lacked (I would love to be able to sing as well) and events unfold as they should. When I worked in animal medicine I described it as ‘the cats go to the place with endless mice; the mice go to the place where there are no cats’.
And we can come, with an invitation or a great effort, to see what living people are doing. Sadie would come anyway; she was endlessly interested in people— the family of the waitress, the spouse of the teacher, the parents of the friend. But, invited by blood and name, she surely visits Bean. As I was told and told my children as children, I tell my grandchildren stories of the ancestors.
We invoke them by name and memory, and at Hallowe’e’n we invite them to come. Thus remembered and welcomed, they remain in the Timeless Land ready to bring us comfort and advice. Made into archetypes by the primordial consciousness, they wait for an opportunity to haunt us. There are personal ghosts and cultural ones. Named and Invoked, they have a larger-than-life shadow—- why is it that no one ever accuses internet trolls of acting like Mussolini? He will be forgotten to all but historians while Godwin’s Law will go on forever.
So, on the one hand, we should be a lot more careful about Naming. Insofar as I can understand, the Navaho do not name dead people but instead use descriptors ‘your uncle’ ‘the second wife of your grandfather’ because they do not wish to attract the attention of the chindi, the personal bad traits left behind by death. This makes sense to me because my own cultural folklore never names the species of which Disney’s Tinkerbelle is one because to use the name beginning with ‘F’ is to attract their attention. Folklore also states that the F***ies (the Good People, the Gentry, the Old Ones, the People Under the Hills) have trickey use-names for that very purpose— you must be careful to say ‘my brown dog’ rather than ‘brown dog’ so as to let only your companion animal into your house. There is a beginning trend in journalism that echoes this— write about the event naming the victims rather than the perpetrators.
As well, no one is ‘the reincarnation of Genghis Khan/ Cleopatra/ Shakespeare…..’. They are still in that in-between place, being remembered. That is the bargain that Cú Chulainn made (same as Hercules and Lugh, likely; the Rabbi Jesus, possibly)—- to be remembered forever as a Hero, but to give away the possibility of becoming someone else, someone different, someone with other attributes. That’s how I can invite my ancestors to Dumb Supper with the expectation of them coming and also believe that I might be reincarnated as a crow when I am no longer remembered.
On the gripping hand, who is the remembered being? I’m not quite sure… I remember Sadie (the adult in the photo) quite well but perhaps a little one-dimensionally. Bean will invoke ‘Great-Great Grandmother Sadie’ with the friendly interest and caring that the red-headed ghost has already shown but perhaps without the agonizingly embarrassing personal questions my memories include. Does Hitler become an Internet paper doll, capable only of derailing arguments?
Certainly the ghosts of memory have only the power we give them; if we only ever reference ‘the Robber Barons’ as shallow and painfully unaware of the wonder they despoiled can we disarm them? Not that pernicious Evil and rampant destructive Capitalism don’t exist and need to be fought, but that we should avoid creating soldiers for the wrong army.
Instead we should give power back to the dispossessed. Although I identify as a Druid, I qualify that with the disclaimer that all of my ancestors were peasants. I’m not a Professor Druid or a Judge Druid, I am a Skilly Cunning-Worker and I invoke Biddy Early and not Cathbad the Druid. Our Grove includes the Spirit of our despoiled watershed that flows through our ritual site.
So, when I inevitably die I will be an Ancestor. I expect Bean will leave out a tiny cup of black coffee and ask Nana to visit just as I set out milky tea in doll-house cups, premium Scotch in a shot-glass sized mug, and oatcakes on plates. My son (her father) and I recently had a charming conversation; my voice in his head often says “Use both hands!” which, when it was voiced, meant “Don’t drop that!” but he now hears as an injunction to be fully present in the moment. Perhaps Bean will hear my diatribes against the dreadful classed society of My Little Ponies as the wisdom of treating all people equally. We must find all the allies we can, from every world.
Judith is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).