Throughout my years of spiritual work, regardless of the path I’ve walked, I’ve been surrounded by people who do ancestor work as part of their practice. One friend had a gorgeous altar full of candles and sepia photographs, and she had a story for each one. Another friend displayed a piece of her great-grandmother’s china (from a cherished handful of tea parties together) and her grandfather’s pocket watch (with which he taught her to tell time). I’ve always envied them: they had relationships with their ancestors meaningful enough that they continue to maintain them after death. I haven’t had that kind of experience with my ancestors, so I never felt the call to work with them in that way.
It’s not that I didn’t try. My first attempts to access my ancestors failed because I didn’t have any dead relatives that I wanted to talk to. I don’t know the stories of my great-grandparents, and my grandparents died young. I don’t have photos or anything. Since my dad is adopted I have no significant information from that side, either.
For my next attempt I tried to contact some of the grandparents I had known, however briefly, but they didn’t seem interested. My grandmother, for example, does hang around a little when I do the handicrafts she taught me (knitting/sewing/quilting), but she was a preacher’s wife and doesn’t pick up the phone on Dia de los Muertos. It’s a bit pagan for her taste.
It’s perfectly fine to work with ancestors of the heart or spirit — people that you didn’t know but admire, or people who influenced you but were not part of your direct lineage — so I based my practice on making heartfelt offerings to a few absent heroes and mentors. To them, and my actual friends who have died, I gave clear, clean water every month. I made more elaborate offerings on the high holy days and I left it at that.
However, now that I have a child of my own I feel the lack of ancestor energy in my life. I regret how few stories I will be able to tell her about her family. Nor do I have heirlooms to pass on. I don’t have strong ties of blood and bone to share with her. (It’ll be different when my parents have crossed, of course, but I’d prefer to keep them on this side of the veil for as long as possible, thank you.)
On the other hand, I feel deeply connected with mothers everywhere. A million stand behind me, having birthed and raised their babies before I had my own. That current of Motherhood feels palpable. It’s a kind of ancestor work that makes sense: I want to honor them and ask for their wisdom. I want their energy to be a part of my life, not something that I access only when the veils are thin.
I ran across the book Weaving Memory by Laura Patsouris, and everything she had to say about ancestor work made sense. Everything my friends said about ancestor work suddenly made sense, too. It now seems like the most natural thing in the world to connect with the mothers that came before me, and from there, to make an opening where connections with my recent ancestors might be possible. I get the feeling that even if my grandmother doesn’t want to party with the pagans at Samhain, she does care about her great-granddaughter; I sense her presence more since my daughter’s birth than ever before. All of my matriarchs seem interested. It doesn’t matter if I know their stories, or even their names. We have something in common now: we’re mothers.
This weekend I hope to set up an altar for this project. I intend to put it in my bathroom to encourage me to spend time with it daily. Instead of feeling inhibited by my feelings of disconnection from my ancestry — the gaps in the genealogical chart, the silence from my father’s family — I will reach out to my foremothers, because they care passionately about children and the continuation of humanity. I will honor them and bring their energy into my daughter’s life.