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.

Being Interrupted

One morning, I couldn’t find two handout pages from my Wabanaki Languages class. The day before, those two pages had been on the kitchen table, ready for me to work on them over breakfast. But at breakfast, not there. I looked everywhere. I am usually very organized, so when something gets lost, I go a little bonkers.  I looked in the basement, I looked in the junk drawer, I looked on my writing desk, I looked in the basement again. Nothing. We’d had our house cleaned the day before, so I emailed our housecleaner to see if perhaps she had put them somewhere.  I secretly wondered if Margy had moved them. (Sorry Margy!)

Finally, after more than an hour of this, I gave up.  There was no where else to look.  I stopped.  I sat in my room in the chair next to the window and wrote in my journal.  Writing in my journal is a form of praying for me.  Praying is a form of surrender.  I wrote, “How do I handle this? I give up. I can’t do my day as I planned it–the next Wabanaki lesson over breakfast and then, etc. I give in. Is there a better response than going bonkers? Is this some sort of cosmic interruption? What should I be paying attention to?”  Then I sat silently and breathed. I accepted the interruption. I got more quiet and breathed some more.

Then I quietly remembered that I had moved some health notes from the table the day before. And that is where I found my lesson pages, intermingled among them.

But I continued to sit, and I reflected on how much energy I used up being anxious and frantic about losing the papers. It was only when I gave in, and prayed, that the answer emerged, from quiet.  So I decided to fully embrace this cosmic interruption of my plans for the day. I let go of the projects I had thought about doing, and went into Margy’s room and we cuddled.  We decided to go see the ice disk in the Presumpscot River in Westbrook–that temporary, famous, huge, slowly spinning circle of ice that was mysteriously floating on the surface of the river.

We walked along the river and took photos.  We mingled with dozens of other people who were out to see this curiosity of nature. We felt full of joy.  I learned that this is what can come from embracing cosmic interruptions.  Joy. Maybe there is a cosmic interruption waiting to happen for you today?

Ice disk in Westbrook

Disappearing Moon

Lunar Eclipse half way – Version 2After a stormy snow all day long, the sky cleared long enough for me to watch the beauty and mystery of the lunar eclipse, in the crisp cold wind blowing through our back yard. I am not usually awake this late, but something called me out when I saw the sky had cleared.  I kept warm by shoveling the walkway, and I prayed for our troubled world. Actually, it felt like the moon itself warmed my body and soul.

What does eclipse mean?  It spoke to me of disappearing, the power of the hidden, the gift of letting go of any need to shine.  It spoke to me of the beauty of what is hidden.  As the moon became fully eclipsed, the foggy clouds also drifted in, and it was gone from sight. Hidden being, bless our aching world, heal our wounded hearts.Lunar Eclipse almost full – Version 2

Roots

I have been in a circle of people deepening our relationship with the forest. One of our practices was to become the trees and listen and share what is revealed. I feel the language of trees as compounding, simultaneous, neurotransmission from all over at the same time. Many words in any order creating multiple meanings. The trees speak through the mycelial networks in the soil. The center of intelligence in the trees is in the roots. All the trees are speaking and listening at the same time.

We notice the part of the trees that is above ground but they are more attuned to the below ground where they are linked to each other. If we want to hear we must listen through our feet. And they say we can never fully understand their mysteries… but we must try.

We are related to the trees. We are like their children. They teach us community and reciprocity, giving and receiving as life.

After, we created pictures of our experiences and this was mine.

Bird Mystery

Northern Flicker

The other day I heard an unfamiliar racket out the window and discovered a small flock of northern flickers had come to visit the garden.  They were eating bugs in the ground, and also poking their long beaks between the pavers on our patio, so I am going to guess they were eating ants.  They settled in for a feast, and made themselves at home.

They are so distinctive and beautiful, a spotted breast with a black bib (and cheek patches on the males), red heart shape patch on the back of their head, and white rump feathers visible when they fly.  Oh, and a bit of yellow on the tail.  I also saw a plain looking smaller bird that I believed was a juvenile flicker, but then noticed it had white spots on black instead of black on white. It was clearly hanging out with the male and female flickers, but it looks more like a starling juvenile.  Does anyone know if starlings ever drop eggs with the flickers to get them to raise the young starlings?

Stranger than it first appeared.

Northern Flickers

A wing and a prayer

A poem & photo reflection from eight years ago that I found again today.  (Photos by Margy Dowzer.)Bird WingI think of the wing of a bird

the wing I found by the side of the road 

          of a bird now dead

the wing so intricate and beautiful

           now in decay

I imagine this–the millions of birds–

           beautiful

           coming into being, fading away

the artist painting a billion paintings

the stories wondrous, tragic

the story of that bird—alive, 

           growing feathers, flying, eating

            alive and then dead,

            and then the materials un-forming

so brief a story, so brief a life

 

I imagine The Life

creating itself into a billion forms

and then re-creating another billion forms 

          with almost infinite variation

a kaleidoscope of beauty and diversity

and different ways of being conscious of the work

and different ways of participating in creating

              making choices

Can you feel the inner creative energy in each one?

 

So now I am creating and seeing as Myke

          (and how beautiful I am

            eyes looking out at this world

            heart capable of love

             making changes, healing, choosing)

and I will dissolve and disintegrate too

and I will reform into a new being

 

The larger I Am –it sounds so static, in a way–

yet it is not static

it is creating, evolving, engaging, weaving, curious

dare I say hopeful?

(Is there a goal to which it strives?)

(Or is it playing to see what happens next?) 

(Am I?)

The stories, billions of stories

Can the stories appreciate the magic

            be full of wonder and gratitude

            enjoy the show?

 

I am that

I am the bird who grew feathers and died

          and was seen by the Myke

          and was photographed by the Margy

I want to wake up

 

Holy One,

open my body and emotions and intellect

to be united in awareness with my Larger Self

with the Creator

with the Limitless One

Help me to remember who I Am

          as the I

          as the Myke

Each being is beautiful

We are all one Being

Each story is beautiful

We are all one Story

Bird Wing closeup

Surrender

They say that life endings and transitions are in some ways a preparation for that greatest of transitions, dying.  So I am noticing some things about the ending of my ministry.  I have not been able to do everything I would have wished to do, or imagined I would do.  For example, I wanted to have more final visits with people, more moments of personal gratitude and farewell.  I wanted to give gifts, I wanted to express more appreciation.  I wanted to pass along more details of how things work at my church–why do I know so many details? Who will they ask when I am no longer there?

Is that how it might be with dying, as well?  That we finally come to realize we can’t finish anything?  That we can’t express enough appreciation?  That we can’t pass along enough of the knowledge we so carefully gathered?

Meanwhile, I am trudging along with the sheer volume of work to do to clean out my office.  I am asking, What should be saved to pass along, and what should be recycled or shredded?  I am remembering meaningful activities, caught in old file folders, that I had forgotten we had done together.  I am asking, What do I want to keep for this unknown future life called retirement?  Right now, I don’t feel connected to the magic, to the flow of the River.  I feel as if I am in the dark about what the future might hold and where I am going.

Is that how it is with dying, as well?  That we feel overwhelmed with the minutiae of our daily existence?  That we are too weary to feel the magic?  That we are fully in the dark about the mystery beyond death?

Meanwhile, our country is descending deeper and deeper into fascism.  Social support systems are being gutted, even as I am wading through the bureaucracy of signing up for Medicare, Parts A, and B, and D, and supplemental.  Migrant children are being detained in cages, while their parents suffer, also caged, not knowing where they are.  Discriminatory exclusions are ruled legal.  Courageous people are protesting in the streets, making a loud noise, saying don’t go gentle into that dark night.  And I am at home in this liminal space, unable to participate in resistance, exhausted and weary, and all I can do is pray, and that, not very well.

So I come to this morning, this morning of my birthday of all things, and I finally write in my journal after several days neglect.  I set it all down, by setting it in words on paper. And that is my prayer, setting it all down, while I sit outside in the backyard.  I feel as if I am in labor, but to what purpose?  Someday, too, I will enter the labor of dying, and what will be the purpose of that?

Finally, I realize, we cannot finish everything that needs doing. All we can do is surrender into the Mystery.  And so I do.  I surrender to you, dear Creator, dear Goddess, dear Mystery. I surrender to you, dear River, dear Ocean, dear Love.  You have been my source and strength since before I was born, you have led me through dark valleys into transformation.  So I trust you, and I surrender once again, into the Unknown, into the Mystery.  Have mercy on us all.

White Pine in summer

Almost Heaven

Rich & Mitzy 2016

[My dad & mom in 2016]

On Saturday May 26, at about 7:45 a.m., my father Rich Johnson breathed his last breath. I was sitting beside him with my mother, and it happened very gently and quietly. My sister Julie and brother Tim had just left the room, after playing a song for my mom. Tears sprang to my chest in a sob, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather they were a spilling over of love, the primal love I feel for my dad, and the overflowing love of my family that filled his room during the preceding days as we gathered.

I can barely describe what that week was like. I had arrived in West Virginia on Monday evening, and met my sister Julie and my mom at the nursing home. Others continued to arrive through the next days. We gathered in Dad’s room–they had moved him to a private room. Dad was mostly sleeping, but would wake sometimes, not talking, but aware of us. We gave each of us time alone with Dad as we needed it, but mostly we were together, sometimes all of us, sometimes various combinations of us, and one or two people would stay the night each night. We kept in touch with our siblings who were not able to travel to be with us through texts and phone calls.

Mostly, I remember the music–so much music. At first we played CD’s he had in his room, but then folks started playing songs on their phones–country songs, God songs, sad songs, songs of love. Then my brother brought in a guitar and we started singing songs. We have such a musical family! In between, we’d remember jokes my dad would tell, and how sometimes he’d start laughing so hard that he couldn’t get to the punchline. And we’d be laughing too. For example, my dad once talked about starting a nursing home in West Virginia. He would name it “Almost Heaven.” (And we sang that John Denver song too.) We filled his room with music and laughter and tears and grace.

Raccoon – CloserOutside his window was a bird feeder (that was true of all the windows at his nursing home) and sometimes the birds would sing too. Then in the evening, a little raccoon would come to the window, totally fearless, to get his dinner at the bird feeder, and bring us more laughs. My nephew named him (or her) Bandit.

I came home on Sunday the 27th, still overflowing with tears of love. I feel grateful that my dad had a long life–87 years–a good life, and a good death, surrounded by love. I feel grateful for my family. We live far apart from each other, from Maine to Montana, from Michigan to Texas, and we have very diverse viewpoints and perspectives on the world. But we make music and laugh and love so beautifully. These days were like being in ceremony, in the presence of the holy, we were touching mystery. Maybe our time together was a last blessing from our dad, who gave us so many blessings during our lives. Or maybe the blessings just continue.

Johnson family 2013

[Johnson parents and siblings in 2013]

Hoya Plant

Hoya Plant pre-blossoms

It has been many years since our hoya plant has blossomed.  It is a great and easy plant to care for.  I have had it since I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan around 1979.  My partner at the time, Gary, and I inherited the plant from the collective who had lived in the house before passing the house along to us.  We became a Catholic Worker house, and offered hospitality to homeless families.  In 1983 we moved to Chicago and took the plant with us, and when Gary and I separated in 1985, I eventually ended up with the plant, and have moved it with me ever since.

One of the names I learned for the plant was “Widow’s Tears.”  When it blooms, the flowers have a sweet nectar that falls from their center.  That name had an emotional resonance for me when Gary died in a car accident in 1988.  Just after I learned about his death, the plant began to bloom.  That blooming became one of several signs that touched me with Gary’s presence following his death.  It is hard to explain, but it comforted me, it felt like a gift he had sent to me from beyond.

So this week, the hoya started to flower again, with two little umbrellas of florets beginning to form waxy pre-blooms.  And this week, I learned that my dad, who has been in a nursing home for almost a year and a half, has taken a turn for the worse, and has slept through the last two days.  A priest who is a friend of the family came today to pray and anoint him.  My sister Julie has been the primary support person for my mom and dad since they moved to West Virginia in 2005.  Most of us live at a distance.  A few of my siblings have visited in the last couple weeks, and I will fly out on Monday.

Life is mysterious.  They don’t really know what will happen next.  It is possible he will rally, but it is starting to seem more likely that he is preparing for the transition into death, which for him signifies going home to eternal life.  I asked my mom to hold the phone to his ear so I could speak to him, to tell him I love him, and I was coming on Monday, but I am with him in spirit, so whatever he needs to do will be okay.  Which is true.  And there is something about the hoya plant blooming that comforts me today, alerts me to the mysteries beyond life and death, and the bonds that unite us across many divides.  May all of us be held in love.Hoya Plant bloom

To Be of Use

Biddeford Pool Ocean view

One evening, during my first year in college, my best friend Lori and I were sitting in the quiet candlelit chapel of our campus. A few other people were also there, scattered about the pews. I remember feeling we each seemed so isolated in our private meditations. I was moved to reach out and take the hand of my friend. Little did I realize, at that very moment, she had been wrestling with her own inner spiritual struggles.

Feeling a certain despair, she had just prayed, “God if you are real, I need a sign. It doesn’t have to be a miracle; I just need you to touch me in some way.” Then, I innocently took her hand, and it was the touch of God she experienced.

I shared this story with my colleagues last week.  From Wednesday through Friday, I was on retreat with other Unitarian Universalist ministers at Biddeford Pool, by the sea.  They had invited me, because of my upcoming retirement, to share my “Odyssey,” my story of ministry.  So on Thursday evening, I talked about the long path and the many transformations that have been a part of that ministry journey, starting with this story of my being used unknowingly by the Spirit.

Years ago, even as a child, I had opened my life to that Spirit, that Mystery, that flowing River of Life.  Ministry has meant, for me, at root, that opening to be of use.  At different times in my life, that has included many different types of work.  Most lately, as a minister in a congregation, I have been preaching, offering pastoral care, teaching, writing, going to many meetings.  But ministry is not always about our intentions or our plans or our activities.

I shared another story that happened only a few years ago.  At that time, I was planning to join my congregation at our annual retreat at Ferry Beach.  We were happy to be including a visiting UU minister from Burundi, and I was going to drive him to the retreat.  But then I got sick with a bad cold or flu–can’t remember which.  I called a member of the congregation to see if she could give him a ride instead.  She did, and later she told me that it had changed her life.  She was transformed by hearing his story, and she eventually went to visit Burundi with other UUs.

I was struck by how even our limitations–even getting sick–even being missing–can be an occasion of unknowingly triggering a blessing for someone’s life.  If we are in the flow of Spirit, the flow of the River, even our flaws can be of use.  This gives me great comfort as I deal with health issues that drain my energy and interrupt my intentions and activities, and are the impetus for my decision to retire this year.  I remind myself to trust in that same Spirit who has been undergirding my life and my ministry for all these many years.  Trust in the flow of the River.