Death and All the Stuff

Prompted by sheltering at home during the COVID 19 plague, the question came up: maybe it’s time for Margy and I to update our wills and other legal documents which we last visited in 2012. The basic purpose for us in these documents is to protect each other and make sure that we have the power to make decisions for each other, and inherit from each other. As a lesbian couple who are not married, this is what protects our “next of kin” status.

But each of these documents also has a secondary feature.  What if one of us is not available or able, or dies first–what then, who is next? That has always been a more challenging part of the process. In this age of plague, it is not outside the realm of possibility that both of us could succumb.  Who could we ask to take on the role of health care agent, or financial agent, if we were both incapacitated?

We don’t have children, and our family members are far away, and not always supportive of our identities. We have several good friends, but not a “best” friend, and many live far away. Can we ask any of our local friends to take on these roles? Are they close enough, or not too busy, or would they be overwhelmed by such a request? Who would bury us if we both died? Who are our people?

Similar dilemmas confront us with our wills, and who would inherit if we both were to die. I find that I have new concerns now that didn’t show up in the last will. What would happen to our land and garden that we’ve been so carefully tending? How could we ensure that the land would find new caretakers who would love it as we have? And who would have to sort through all the stuff that fills our little house? My natural temperament is to live simply, to possess little, and treasure those few possessions.  But somehow over all these years, I’ve accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff. (How did that happen?)

In the past few months, my mother has been preparing to leave her own house, and move into the home of my sister.  She officially moved yesterday.  All of her nine children and multiple grandchildren were invited to consider things we might like to take from her lifetime’s worth of stuff. But, aside from a few mementos, most of it has nowhere to go.  So even more likely, my own stuff will have nowhere to go.  It occurs to me that if I want to share mementos with people, maybe I should just send them as gifts now.

When I first did a will, I noticed that I most cared about my writing–I wanted there to be a way for thoughts and words to survive, for journals, sermons, essays, to live on in some way, to be a legacy.  That is still true, though now that I have actually published a book, I feel less anxious about it.  It feels like something of me will endure, this book child. But I also have five archive boxes full of journals that I have saved, countless sermons, another unpublished book, and even these blog posts. Sometimes I imagine them in an archive somewhere, discovered by some future historian who will be intrigued by my story. Might I be a spiritual ancestor to someone?

What fuels my need to save the writings? What compels me to write in the first place?

I wonder, does anyone see the whole story, does anyone see each of our stories, whether written or unwritten? Are our lives inscribed in a Book of Life somewhere?  When I was a child, we learned that God could see everything we did. It was somewhat scary then.  But now I find the idea a comfort–I want my life to have a witness. I hope my life will be inscribed in a Book of Life.

From a distance

Margy at Kettle Cove

We’ve begun the time of social distancing in the age of COVID 19.  Someone else called it physical distancing, since we need to keep reaching out to each other in other social ways. Margy and I are both over sixty and have various health issues. So we are among those with elevated risk. But going outside is very much permitted and helpful during this time.  We went to Kettle Cove on Saturday–beautiful ocean, sunshine, stones on the beach. It was very windy and the brisk cool air felt bracing to our souls.

I often like to look for sea glass when I walk on the beach, but this time I only took photos–photos of water, photos of Margy, photos of stones. So I was surprised, when I was looking at the photos later, to notice what looked like two pieces of sea glass–and they were the rare red and orange ones! (I have never found them on the beach before.) Can you see them in this photo? I just want to reach in and pick them up. It is both exciting and a bit frustrating to see them right there.Sea glass?

But perhaps they are an apt metaphor for times like this–we can see (and hear), but not touch, all those we love and like, all those with whom we are bound together in community.  We still have the virtual connections of phone and internet. In the past few days, I’ve reached out to distant and local friends by phone and text and Facebook and email, and others have reached out to me: checking in on each other, reaffirming our bonds, our love. That is something else we can do in this age of COVID 19.

We are so interconnected, all of us, in such a myriad of interdependency. The last time I was out and about was to grocery shop on Thursday at the Portland Food Coop and Hannaford, trying to use hand sanitizer as much as possible of course. Thursday was the day Maine reported its first tested case of COVID 19.  (And of course, without testing available, there were likely many other cases unknown.)  But then we had an emergency–our hot water tank was suddenly spewing water out into the basement. So thankfully, a plumber came out Thursday night to help shut everything down, then came on Saturday to install a new hot water heater. He and a helper. It reminds me that plumbing emergencies don’t take a break during pandemics.

So there will continue to be interactions that are vital for life. As we seek to limit such interactions, we notice them all the more.  I feel such gratitude for plumbers and electricians, for people working in grocery stores, for those delivering packages and mail, those keeping gas stations open so we can drive to the beach, those keeping phone and internet systems functioning.  And my prayers each day go to all the workers who have to keep on working, to put food on the table and pay the rent.  And my prayers go to those caring for elders in nursing homes, those working in hospitals, those bringing food and shelter to people without homes, and all the other front-line soldiers of compassion. My prayers to all the front-line soldiers of compassion.

 

The Ongoing Struggle

I learned another new word in Passamaquoddy:  Mocahantuwok, which means wicked devils. I am not sure if the word is used in a friendly teasing way, or in a serious condemning way. But in a serious way, I have been thinking about using it for certain people in Washington DC who are bent on undermining the processes and hopes of democracy in this country.  You can guess who I mean.

It is not the worst time in our country’s history.  That might have to be the initial conquest of these lands, and the direct genocide of millions of Indigenous people.  (That oppression still continues of course, but perhaps in more indirect ways.)  Another contender for the worst time would be the 250 years of enslavement of captured African peoples. (That oppression also continues, also in more indirect ways.)  I don’t believe there was a golden age of American democracy, that we are now on the verge of losing.

But I do believe there was a dream of America that had something to do with democracy, cooperation, and reciprocity. I think about the poem of Black American, Langston Hughes, written in 1938.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

…Let America Be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed! This dream was not only dreamed in America either. In learning more about my ancestors in Europe, I was struck by the ongoing struggles between the forces of domination, empire, and greed and the forces of reciprocity, cooperation, and shared power.  For example, my East Frisian ancestors valued their freedom and resisted domination, resisted being forced into feudalism. Friesland actually means Free Land.

But those relational values were even more striking among my early Innu ancestors on this continent. I remember reading parts of the record that the Jesuits wrote about the Innu during early conquest times. How horrified the Jesuits were that the Innu people would only follow the lead of their leaders if they agreed with them. (Democracy!) How horrified they were that a man might agree to a contract, but if he went home and his wife disagreed, he thought he should be able to get out of that contract. (Power was meant to be shared!)

Those are the same values we are now struggling over, in Washington, and all over this country, once again and still. Will we create a society in which all people are included, in which power is reciprocal and we cooperate for the good of all? Or will some mocahantuwok create a society in which they dominate over others, accumulate as much as they can, and destroy the rest of the people and the world?

It is no easy struggle.  I don’t know how we achieve our goal.  But I know I choose to live by the values of reciprocity, cooperation, and democracy in every way possible, and I choose to align myself with others who share those values. Perhaps each time we do that, in all areas of our lives, we contribute some spark of energy that makes the dream more possible.

Sunrise

Winter dawn

Orphan Mystery

Margareta Graue

Margaretha Graue Henneke Englemann, 1890s

One of the first stories I heard about an ancestor was that of my great-great grandmother, Margareta, on my dad’s side of the family. My grandfather Heie Johnson wrote about her in a little notebook, and I have a copy of that story in his handwriting. He said:

Margareta Graue Henneke Engelman was born in Westphalia Germany, no dates. Parents died when grandma was 12 (she told of having to carry water for cows with a yoke until neighbors & friends interceded.) Seems she was given over to someone as bond servant. When she grew up, the brother of her husband, grandfather Henneke, came to US went to Calif. found gold. Sent for his bride & grandma Graue Henneke & her husband. Grandma’s husband died leaving her several small children. (Don’t know what happened to brother Henneke & wife). Later grandma married Menke Engelman. He was killed by a runaway team of horses & plow when our mom was very young. Grandma Henneke Engelman is buried somewhere in Kansas. Mom and I went to see Grandpa’s (Engelman) grave one time but I can’t remember the name of cemetery. I do remember that the tombstone needed attention. Wonder if it is still there. I often wondered what Grandpa looked like. That seems to be about all I can remember. Doesn’t sound like much does it? However I do feel thankful that they all came over when they did.

I feel thankful that my grandfather preserved this story! I’ve always thought of her as someone who overcame much adversity.  Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about her life, but her parents and the exact place of her birth have remained a mystery, even after 30 years research by my cousin Jim.

However, I am beginning to wonder if she too might be from East Friesland, like all the others of my grandfather’s ancestors. Here is why: according to a census in 1880, she described her birthplace, and the birthplace of her parents, as “Hanover.” The Kingdom of Hanover lasted from 1814 to 1866, at which time it became a province of Prussia. Margareta was born about 1827-9, and emigrated about 1861, so even though this area is now part of Germany, she would have known it as Hanover.  And, Hanover included East Friesland during that time, where notes seem to indicate that she was married to her first husband, Johann Heinrich Henneke, about 1852, [though I haven’t seen a source for this] and perhaps birthed her first children.

I excerpted this brief history of Hanover from another genealogy site:

Until 1708, Hanover had been a minor principality within the Holy Roman Empire. In 1708, its lands were combined with most of the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg and became an electorate (essentially, a voting member state) of the Holy Roman Empire. Its rulers belonged to the dynastic lineage of the House of Hanover. …The status quo persisted until 1803 when Hanover was conquered by both Napoleon and the Kingdom of Prussia. In 1806, …16 states from the Holy Roman Empire, including Hanover, were joined together to form the rather weak Confederation of the Rhine. In 1807, the Treaty of Tilsit declared that Hanover would be joined with part of Prussia to create the Kingdom of Westphalia, ruled by Napoleon’s brother Jérôme Bonaparte. Westphalia joined the Confederation of the Rhine soon after… When Napoleon was finally defeated in 1813, it spelled the end for both the Confederation of the Rhine and the Kingdom of Westphalia. Rulership over Hanover reverted back to the House of Hanover.

The Congress of Vienna of 1815 …created the German Confederation, a loosely-knit group of 39 Germanic nation-states of which Hanover was a member. …The March Revolution in 1848 caused Hanover to temporarily leave the German Confederation, but after they failed, it rejoined in 1850. Hanover remained within the German Confederation until the Austro-Prussian War (or “Seven Weeks War”) in 1866.

Map_GermanConfederation

1815-1866 Kingdom of Hanover/Konigreich Hannover, in yellow, near the top.

But my grandfather said she was born in Westphalia, so I looked more closely at the Kingdom of Westphalia, which included Hannover (striped and purple on map) but didn’t include East Friesland, which came under the rule of Holland during those years. So another possibility is that she was born in an area of Hanover that was also included in the Kingdom of Westphalia during that time.

Westphalia

1808 confederation of the Rhine

Finally, down below, there is a map of the Province of Westphalia, after the kingdom was dissolved and it was part of Prussia. It is adjacent to Hannover, and just south of East Friesland. So it wouldn’t be impossible for her to be from there, later traveling north into Hannover, or East Friesland.  A further argument for this place is that both parents of her husband Johann Heinrich Henneke were born there. So perhaps they met up in Westphalia, and then moved to Hanover. However, another argument for East Friesland is that when her first husband died, in Illinois, she later married Meenke Engelmann, who was from East Friesland. People tended to cluster with others from their own regions and who spoke their own dialects.

I have been so interested in this question, since one of the reasons I am exploring my ancestors is to find out their connections to the lands that they lived in before they came to America. I also want to tell more about the family she created, but that will be another post. For now, her original home sadly remains a mystery, but I am so thankful to have her photo and part of her story.

East Frisian Ancient Grandmother

Holle_Sand_-_07

Holle Sand in East Frisia: a nature preserve on the duneland forest, near where my ancestors lived.

Are there any European ancestors who might help us to find a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth in our time? Today I was remembering that this was my original motivation for reaching back to these ancestors. Oh, it has also been helpful to gain a better understanding of how my ancestors fit into the larger story of the colonization of this continent in which I live.

But on a spiritual level, why would I reach for a true connection, if not to ask for help in the struggles we are facing in our time? Much of Australia is burning right now, fascism is running rampant over our country, hurting the plants and animals, and the people of our land, leaders plot for power and violence, and so much is being destroyed.

And I remembered what sparked my heart last spring about my patrilineal East Frisian ancestors. It was a line in a letter, a mocking recounting of a piece of old wives’ advice: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”   I wanted to reach out to those “old wives” to see if they might help me, help us.  During our Ancestor Wounds and Healing workshop in October, I introduced the group to the East Frisian tea ceremony, as part of our ritual of gratitude for the gifts of the ancestors.  We were short on time, and I considered leaving out the tea ceremony, but felt an unmistakable tug from spirit–“No! You must do the tea.”  And so I did.

Two days later I led our group on a trance journey with the intention for each of us to find an ancient ancestor–maybe from centuries ago–for each of us to meet someone who was at one with their land, in harmony with their land and people. So we traveled through time and out of time to make a connection. In that journey, I met my East Frisian ancient many-greats-grandmother, the same one who called for the tea.

When she arrives, I burst into tears and suddenly feel how wounded I am, we are. She is whole, she can traverse deep time and be called upon in any time. I burst into tears and she is loving me, with healing hands, and she knows how all of us have been broken. I felt the holding power of her love to contain the pain of centuries.  She is a healing presence, a witness to it all. She touches my heart, she says, “I can teach you how to laugh, even though the later Germans in your family lost how to feel.” She has a joy deeper than I know. She wants to continue our connection. She says, “Drink the tea ceremony to call me.”  

I was profoundly moved. I didn’t have a name for her that day, but later, a name came to me.  The German/Frisian affectionate name for grandma is Oma or Ooma. But a great-grandmother would be, in German, Ur-grossmutter and I am moved to call this ancient great-grandmother Ur-ma, or Oor-ma. The word also reminds me of the rune Uruz, which represents the aurochs, an ancient wild cattle species, now extinct, that was the symbol of wild strength, persistence, healing, and courage.

At the end of December, Margy and I shared in a rune reading. I used the runes to reach out to Ur-ma, and the first rune I pulled was Uruz.  Sweet.  Then came Nauthiz–which means Need, or difficulty, or struggle. How we are.  Finally I pulled Gebo, which means Gift, and the power of reciprocity which is love.

And so when I reach out to Ur-ma, I drink the tea and I pray: “You have wholeness, we are so broken. Bring your healing energies to our time. We have lost the connection to all beings and the land. We have forgotten our kinship. Help us heal. Help us to love the land, to love the spirit.” And I keep remembering those words, which somehow came down the centuries even so: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”

 

Mothers and Grandmothers

In the early days of my feminist awakening, I began to trace the ancestry of my mother line, to learn who my grandmothers might be, and what land we originally came from. I learned this: my matrilineal great-great-great-grandmother was an Innu woman, identified in the records as Marie Madeleine, Montagnaise. She married a Scottish trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Quebec. His name was Peter Macleod, and he called her Marie de Terres Rompues, after the place where they came to live on the Saguenay River. Her name might be translated, Marie of Broken Lands, which resonates with what came later.

When I have been able to travel to Quebec, to the place the Innu call Nitasinnan [our land], I have felt the presence of the ghosts of my ancestors in the land. The very first time I drove into Chicoutimi on the Saguenay River, I came upon a book on the shelves of the Welcome Center in the rest area—it was about my ancestor Peter Macleod and his family. There have been other encounters over the years, a feeling of my ancestors reaching out to me as I reach out to them.

Learning about their stories has been an important part of my journey. I discovered many dislocations and relocations that occurred for my grandmothers, ways they were separated daughter from mother, separated from the land and the people from which they came. Marie de Terres Rompues bore several children with Peter MacLeod. Her daughter, Angele, was only twelve when her mother died, and Peter married another wife; Angele’s stepmother was a white woman. I wonder if Angele kept a connection to her Innu relatives? She was married at the age of twenty to a French Quebecois farmer, Joseph Tremblay, and they lived in the area of Peribonka near Lac St. Jean. I only know one story about them, from a census report. One year, all their grain burned in May, and they replanted with fresh grain but all of it was frozen and “not fit to be threshed.”

Her daughter Claudia was only eighteen when Angele died. At twenty-two, Claudia married Ferdinand, and during an economic downturn in their region, they moved over four hundred miles away to the town of Hull in the suburbs of Ottawa. Later, they traveled over seventeen hundred miles to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Ferdinand worked in the mica mines for five years, during the boom years when Westinghouse Electric was producing over $100,000 per year in mica. Then the mines closed.

Their daughter, my grandmother Yvonne, was born in Hull in 1897; she was nine when they moved to the Black Hills, and fourteen when they returned to Quebec. She became a chamber maid in a hotel in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, where she met Johann, an Austrian immigrant working as a waiter. At seventeen, she followed him five hundred miles to the United States, marrying at the border in Detroit Michigan.

My mother tells me Yvonne and her sisters worried that someone might think they looked Indian. Did she fear prejudice learned in Quebec, or in South Dakota? In Detroit, she became fully assimilated into the white and English-speaking world. Most of the stories were lost, but she did tell my mother they were part-Indian, and my mom grew up feeling proud of that heritage. There were occasional visits to family in Canada. When my mother was a four years old, the news came of Claudia’s death at the age of seventy-three.

Claudia Tremblay

My great-grandmother, Claudia Tremblay, age/date unknown

My mother was not quite twenty-one when her mother, Yvonne, died. I was a baby then. I have a picture [below] of my grandmother holding me in her arms. When I ponder this story of my mothers and grandmothers, I am struck by how most of these women lost their mothers before, or just as they were entering, adulthood. None of them had a chance to be with their grandmothers. They each turned to the life and the culture of their husbands. And I am struck by the many miles each generation traveled away from the place in which they might have felt a sense of belonging to the land. My mother, too, followed her husband on his travels across the United States. I grew up during those travels and none of those places ever truly felt like home. I didn’t know any other way.

Grandmother Yvonne with Myke

My grandmother Yvonne holding me as a baby.

It has been a long and important process for me to reclaim these stories and reweave a connection to my grandmothers.

[This story first appeared in my book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community.]

Little Land Spirits

Sunrise after Solstice

Sunrise, the morning after Winter Solstice.

In Scandinavia, there is a Solstice Eve tradition to leave a bowl of porridge outside for the Nisse, the little land spirit person who helps out with the work on the farm and serves as a guardian to the family and the animals. According to what I learned, it was very important to put a pat of butter on top.  The Nisse can be troublesome if not properly respected.

There are little guardian spirit people traditions in many other places, too.  Scots and English call them Brownies, there is the German Kobold, and I have learned about Wabanaki little people called Wonakomehsisok who were said to be spirit helpers who lived among rocks. The Wolastoqiyik spoke of Kiwolatomuhsisok, who were said to help people secretly at night, and have a breath that smells like mold.

All that said, on Solstice Eve, I put out a bowl of porridge in the back yard, with a big pat of butter on top, (which by the way is how I like my own porridge) as an offering for any little land spirits on our land that might appreciate it.  Perhaps it might be one more way to deepen our relationship with this land, to make friends with the spirits who protect and cherish the land.

Sadly, the next morning, it was still there, and frozen–but I moved it from the middle of the yard to the way back, where more wild creatures tend to go by. (We’ve put other food offerings out there in a similar way, and they disappear.) When I returned from my walk, I was happy to see a crow back there at the bowl, pecking at it with their beak.  They are also guardians of this land.

Crow eating butter – Version 2

Later, I discovered that the crow flew off with the pat of butter but left the porridge.  So I guess that our land spirits might not like porridge–which is after all a very European food tradition.  We’ll have to keep experimenting with other foods, to see what they prefer.  Still, I was happy to give a gift to the crow.