Awhile ago, I had a DNA test. The results contained a couple of surprises, though the fact that there were surprises wasn’t, in itself, surprising.
Let me back up.
Years ago, when I was recently diagnosed with IIH, drugged to the gills, recovering from a spinal tap, and bored out of my mind, I decided genealogy would be more fun than staring at the ceiling and trying not to throw up. There was only one problem.
We’ll call him Albert.
Albert was my great-grandfather. He was my maternal grandmother’s father and, by all accounts, an absolute chemical toilet fire of a man. My grandmother wasn’t really raised by her parents — her mother died in a sanitarium at age 22, and her father, well…
Let’s just say I didn’t have much to go on other than that side of my family was French-Canadian, and their name was spelled wrong. It was extremely difficult to get more information about them, because every search result for my great-grandfather only turned up his many, many, many appeals from Attica. (Also, he was the one who changed the spelling of his last name, and was the only one in his entire family who spelled it that way. It’s like he went out of his way to make this impossible.)
I probably would not have liked great-grandpa Albert if I had known him in life. I have two toxic relatives who are both much closer to me and still living, and I don’t even talk to them. Neither of them have even been in and out of maximum security prison (as far as I know. It’s been awhile).
Nonetheless, great-grandpa Albert is family. He is a part of my ancestry — just as much as my Acadian and Métis ancestors, my great-great-grandmother who lived through losing three children to marasmus, and the great-great-to-the-nth-degree-grandfather who was being sent to Africa to build a railroad, noped out, went AWOL, and became a pirate instead. Just as much as Fíngen mac Áedo Duib, Niall of the Nine Hostages, and all of the other kings, criminals, heroes, and monsters tangled in the roots of my family tree.
Venerating ancestors is not, in itself, an aspect of my practice that I struggle with. I can see the importance and beauty in it, but I also think most people have a less jacked up family tree than I do.
What do you do when a lot of your ancestors were legitimately terrible people?
I’m reminded of a video clip a friend of mine showed me some time ago. It was of a black celebrity, discussing how he reconciled his feelings on having European ancestry, despite the fact that it came from people who enslaved the rest of his forebears. She thought he was a fool for it — why would you honor people who oppressed the rest of your ancestors? I couldn’t really offer much of an opinion either way, other than to feel that, sometimes, things like that are what you have to do.
They’re what you have to do for yourself. To stay sane. To not feel like you, yourself, are somehow tainted by them.
During and after a divorce, parents are cautioned not to badmouth each other to their children. Not only does doing so alienate the other parent from their child, it hurts the child. Parents can divorce, but children have to carry the genetic legacy of both of their parents forever. Hearing one parent badmouth the other isn’t just upsetting, it’s damaging. That child is a blend of their parents, and being told that one half of them is basically garbage doesn’t exactly foster strong self-esteem or good mental health.
You can’t really escape the ancestry you carry. Even if it’s full of a**holes.
(Probably especially if it’s full of a**holes.)
So what do you do?
The part of ancestor veneration that does trip me up is my estrangement from parts of my living family. The estrangement is by no means something I regret — on the contrary, the only thing I regret is that it took so long to happen. How do I reconcile honoring terrible people who have passed on, while removing those who still live from my life?
Is time a dark enough window to hide the sins of the dead?
I remember reading Women Who Run With the Wolves many years ago. In it, the author talks about taking a predator’s weapons for your own, dismantling them, revealing their elements of truth, and using this to strengthen yourself:
“We dismantle the predator by countering its diatribes with our own nurturant truths. Predator: You never finish anything you start. Yourself: I finish many things. We dismantle the assaults of the natural predator by taking to heart and working with what is truthful in what the predator says and then discarding the rest.”
This is the approach I take, for my own strength, for my own sanity, and because the dead won’t be brought to task. I can’t make great-grandpa Albert be there for his family, make him less of an abusive alcoholic, or keep him out of prison. I can’t reach into the past and redeem anyone, but I can see them through the lens of hindsight. I can see the truth in their stories and put it to use. I can see where lives went wrong, where generations of abject poverty, oppression, abuse, alcoholism, and plain bad decisions shifted and twisted the branches of my family tree.
I can see this, and I can thank them for the lessons. I don’t have to appreciate great-grandpa Albert the way I do my still-living grandfather. I don’t have to pretend his actions were not, at times, completely reprehensible. I don’t have to pretend to like anyone in order to learn from them.
If I can’t honor the people some of my ancestors were, I can honor the lessons they’ve taught me.