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.]

Swabian Roots

I have been delving into the stories of my ancestors again, and the last few days I was researching my great-great-great grandparents, Johann Nepomuk Heisler (b. 1781 in Westerstetten) and Barbara (Zeller) Heisler (b. 1788 in Tomerdingen). They lived in the small town of Westerstetten, in the Swabian Alb, now a part of Germany. 

Johann was a shoemaker and farmer. They were married in 1805, when he was 24 and she was 17, and moved into their house at Haupstrasse 19 in 1806. [The house was built in 1757 and was still there at the turn of this century.] The first of their children was born in 1806, when Barbara was 18. They had 14 children, but several died in childhood, and Barbara herself died at the age of 37 in October of 1825, one week after the birth of her last child. I would say it is likely that she died of childbirth related issues. At that time, only eight children were still living.

Four years later, in 1829, when Johann married his second wife, Magdalena Rimmele, who was 45, only six of the children remained: Jacob was 20, Martha was 13 (and died 5 years later), Nikolas was 11, Johann was 9, Augustin was 8 and Anton was 4. The youngest four boys would eventually emigrate to the United States—but I will talk more about that in separate stories. [One of which can be found here.]

It is uncertain how long the family ancestors had lived in Westerstetten. Their parents are just identified as “German,” in the records I have. But we might conclude that they were from the area of the Swabian Alb, because Johann Nepomuk Heisler’s grandfather Johann Leonhard Heisler is listed as born in Essingen in the north part of the Swabian Alb. His great-great-grandfather is also listed as born in Essingen, and that one’s wife was born in Westerstetten. So the family were most likely of Swabian heritage.

That whole region was part of the Swabian Alb, centered in the city of Ulm, but including both Westerstetten, and Tomerdingen which were each perhaps 15-17 kilometers north of Ulm. Their small town at that time however was on the edge of rival political entities, and they would have experienced many transitions in the early 1800s.

From 1414 to 1803, Westerstetten, and Tomerdingen as well, were part of the territory of Elchingen Abbey, a Benedictine monastery. For much of its history, Elchingen was one of the 40-odd self-ruling imperial abbeys of the Holy Roman Empire and, as such, was a virtually independent state that contained several villages aside from the monastery itself. This meant it was independent of the jurisdiction of any lord, and answered directly to the Holy Roman Emperor. Perhaps the devout Catholicism of the Heislers is related to their connection to the Abbey. 

Like all the imperial abbeys, Elchingen lost its independence in the course of the German Mediatisation in 1803 (a secularisation and land redistribution process put in place by the French conquests of Napolean) and the monastery was dissolved. When this happened, the village of Westerstetten was given to the “Elector (and then Kingdom) of Bavaria” along with Elchingen, and the city of Ulm. Seven years later, in 1810, the border between Bavaria and Württemberg was re-negotiated and Westerstetten and Ulm both became part of the “Kingdom of Württemberg.”

The Heislers were most likely struggling villagers during all of this. According to one Wikipedia entry, life was extremely hard in the Swabian Alb. There was a lack of water and the soil was poor in quality. For many villages fetching water required a long journey by horse. Since water often needed to be stored over a long time, it became stagnant. Thus disinfection via alcohol was very popular: “Most” (cider) was mixed with water and even given to babies.

I wonder how much the decision to send four sons to the United States was influenced by these difficult conditions, and by the tumultuous political landscape. As it turned out, only one son remained behind, of all of the 14 children. In 1978, my grandmother Lucille Heisler Johnson wrote to her sister, “I remember Papa (Thomas Heisler) telling us about his father and two brothers coming over from Germany. They all had to be under twenty-one because they left Germany to avoid military service.” The last brother came later on his own. I am beginning to imagine these ancestors.

Abbey of Elchingen

Map of Württemberg before the French Revolutionary Wars, showing the Free Imperial City of Ulm, separating the two parts of the Imperial Abbey of Elchingen, with the Danube shown running through the centre of the image. Cropped from German States Before and since the French Revolution: II. Wurtemberg, from The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923, from the Perry-Castañeda map collection. Public Domain