Ancestors: there is something strong and powerful about the word. That might sound like a ridiculous statement, but to me, even the sound of the word ‘ancestors’ engenders a sense of durability and connectedness. “These are my relatives”, we say when showing photos of people from the present, living people we may have lost contact with. When we dig out the old sepia pictures, the statement changes to, “these are my ancestors”. There is a greater sense of gravitas, something more solemn, serious and meaningful when we conjure up the ancestors. Not having ever seen or spoken to ancestors, knowing them only through old photographs or stories passed down through generations, we can somehow reach out across the silence to these ghostly presences and they can take on mythical and significant importance. Sometimes we can feel greater attachment to the ancestors than to the living.
Such a hunger for information about our antecedents fuels the popularity of programmes like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ with new series’ made every year. I have watched tough, old cynics reduced to tears learning that their great-great grandmother died in a poorhouse. I can understand this reaction. Don’t we all want to know how we came to be here? We want to understand who passed down life’s relay baton. If we find out what they overcame along the way, we can draw both parallels and inspiration from it. Some of us feel bonded to ancestors that we never knew. We can be told a story that resonates, stays with us and gives us encouragement that can be drawn on over a lifetime. Recently a number of these stories have come my way. Almost throw-away lines, but laden with significance, as I’m told by one friend: “I think I am like my great-grand-mother. She had a spirit of adventure, a creative passion, she needed to be free. When I hit hard times, feel hemmed in, and believe I can’t cope, I think of her and I get my power back.”
Sometimes we are linked to the ancestors by characteristics that have come down through the ages: adventurers; non-conformists; peace-makers; hell-raisers; drinkers, womanisers. Haven’t you heard it said, “Ah, he’ll never marry. There’s a long line of bachelors in that family,” almost as if the imprint of one’s life is set from before birth. Of course, each of us has a sense of agency, but at times it seems that these prophecies do come to pass, and the long line of bachelors persists. Looks and physical characteristics are most definitely passed on: Great-Aunt Ellie’s curls; a great-grandfather’s bandy legs; protruding ears that have lain dormant for two generations make an appearance 90 years on; that smile that is ‘Great-Grandfather Tom looking at you’. Then there are the talents; propensities to be musical, artistic, mathematical, sporty. One of the weightiest things to be passed down is the family name – a heavy sense of having to ‘live up to something’ through the generations by upholding one’s ‘good name’. In Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, it is held to be the most important thing, as the hero of the play, John Procter says: “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
One of the lines in John O’Donohue’s prayer-poem, ‘Beannacht’ (which translates from the Irish as ‘Blessing’), reads: “may the protection of the ancestors be yours.” What does O’Donohue mean when he says this? To me, it seems to be an incantation acknowledging that we are connected through the ages and that we honour this connectedness through the course of our lives by remembering those lives before us and passing on important stories. Would that we could grow wiser and stronger with each generation, but it doesn’t always work that way. We have to learn anew, but some of the lessons might be fast-tracked if we could look to the ancestors. No doubt our experiences will run the same gamut of feelings emotions, and struggles as they did, but if we stay connected we might bring to bear their strength, courage, wisdom and carry “the protection of the ancestors”.