Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Honoring Death When You Can’t Be There

We recently cleared the 30 day mark of lockdown in New York. This week ten of my friends lost family members to covid-19. Any funerals or memorial or wakes or celebrations of life will have to wait until it is safe to gather. And that’s okay. It has to be. This is how the world is right now and we want to keep the losses to a minimum.

That said, grieving alone is hard. And it sucks when you can’t gather with everyone else who will miss them, too.

In January of 2004 two of my best family friends passed within two weeks, both extremely unexpected and sorrowful. I remember my dad’s tearful phone call when he begged me not to try to come home for the funerals. I know it upset him to have to say those words to me but we were in the midst of some really horrid ice storms and I lived across the state. He said he couldn’t bear the thought of having to go to three funerals.

So I stayed home. It needed to be done.

I didn’t get to be there with my loved ones. No one else in my town knew the men I was grieving. I didn’t realize how much that mattered to me.

Part of the funeral or celebration of life is for the deceased, for seeing the sacred temple that housed their spirit to rest in whatever manner they wished. The other part of the event is to serve as another temple in its own right, for those who loved the dead and are sad to gather to share in that so that for an hour or two, no one has to be alone with it. It’s acceptable to be publicly sad.

Grief is given safe space. We become an island together in an ocean of sorrow. No one feels adrift in it.

And the funerals that cannot be held right now will come. That doesn’t mean that we can’t honor the dead on our own, from the sacred space of our homes, our hearths. We can honor who they were to us and wish their spirits peace.

We grieve because we loved them. So it is right that the answer to grief is also love.

This is the ritual I do. Use it as a template. Use it as a starting point. This is about creating ritual for yourself and for your heart. You are the only one who knows what you need.

[When you’re ready...]

Call your ancestors in. You don’t need to know their names. Ask them to stand with you. Invite all-who-mean-no-harm to join you. It is just as easy as imagining my front door opening and welcoming them in with a full heart. But I do like to open my actual front door for a moment and say, “Welcome Ancestors.”

[I like to work with candles so have one ready. It can be a simple tea light or something like a seven-day candle. Small children and animals can make candles dangerous but if you like the ambiance, use a battery-operated candle.]

Speak the name of the one who passed to your ancestors. Say who they were to you. Speak out loud. Clear a spot somewhere. Light the candle. (Or turn it on.)

[Candles are good magic. They also have an ending. It might be 4 hours. It might be 7 days. But when it ends it is not symbolic of anything other than its own life cycle is over. You can always start over with a new candle.]

Burn the candle in their honor. Leave out a glass of water, or a preferred libation of the deceased. 

Say what you need to say to them. And when you are done, wish them peace. Ask the ancestors to welcome them home.

You can add favorite music, favorite prayers; make it personal. It can even be as simple as a moment of focus and then release as the candle flickers. Let the candle burn as long as you are up and about in the space.

[If you use a long-burning candle you can dedicate it as a sacred object for you to burn whenever you are missing your loved one.]

If you are suffering the loss of a loved one during this time of physical isolation—whether they died because of the virus or not—my heart is with you. May you feel held in your grief. May you have means of connecting to living loved ones. May you find peace in each other. May you find outlets for your sorrow. 

May you remember love.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Call to Prayer in a Time of Change

It is time now, for those of us who commune with our ancestors, who petition them, who pray to them, or who simply pass their names over their lips… it is time for us all to reach out to them and pray for their strength and guidance. It is time to ask Spirit for aid.

Our world is in imbalance. We are being asked and required to hold down our home fronts and isolate ourselves from each other.

          May those without shelter be watched over and passed over from harm.

It is Spring Equinox here and today the world smells warm and dark and earthy. It smells like promise and hope. My lilies were poking out of the ground three days ago. Today their shoots are four inches tall! Change is happening rapidly and it is not all pleasant.

We will not see the end result until we are on the other side. Hold the Tower card up high. Change does not have to be bad. Ride it. Do not let it ride you. Get creative about problem solving.

Your ancestors have done it before you. They know the way out. They found a way out. You will, too.

          May those without resource know kindness from those who have more than needed. 
          May everyone eat. 
          May everyone have access to a clean and safe environment.

I am thinking of my friends who are losing work indefinitely and sometimes permanently because of our current global need to stay home, whose jobs do not allow a work from home option, whose jobs require crowds to come to them.

I am thinking of my friends in the essential industries that do not get to stay at home, but also, and I mean this, barely get to go home and in some instances are not getting paid for all of their time in because the money is not there. And they are all working with a lack of supplies to safeguard themselves.

And they are still working.

          May the hands of the elders guide them. 
          May the skill of the healers work through them. 
          May they be safe and as free from harm as possible.

And I was thinking about how hard my time in the hospital would have been if we had been in such times and my loved ones could not have come to see me. And I am thinking of those who now have to hold off on surgeries, who are preparing to need hospital care, and who are ending their lives in care.

Tonight I will light candles to my ancestors with specific intention.

          May those who are born during this time be safely seen into the world in good health. 
          May they be brought into life with love and joy and ease.

          May those who die during this time be surrounded by their chosen ancestors .
          May they be shepherded into death with compassion and care. 

          May it be so.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Robert Moulton and the Salem Witches

illustration by Freeland A. Carter

The first day of March of this year marks the 328th anniversary of the start of the Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Over the span of seven months in 1692 over 150 people, children included, were arrested on the charges of witchcraft. One man was killed during torture and 19 more people were tried, convicted, and hung as witches.

Witches who did not exist.

Two months of paranoia preceded the trials. Two generations of my maternal ancestors lived in Salem at the time, one of whom was involved. My 9x great-grandfather Robert Moulton was 48 years old during the witch hysteria. He and his wife Mary Cook had eight children. Their son Robert, my other ancestor, was 17.

I circled Moulton’s land plot, number 138, on the map in green. That his neighbor at plot 128 was Giles Corey, one of the victims of the trials, becomes relevant. Now, I am not a Salem scholar and I am not going to run through the whole of the history of the witch trials. While I am certain the trials affected every life in that village and town, I’m focusing on the moments the trial intersected Robert’s life.

By the time of the trials Corey was not a respected man. Sixteen years earlier he was charged with beating his farmhand, described as a “natural fool”, to death. In a letter from Thomas Putnam to Judge Samuel Sewall, he states that Corey paid for his freedom. Salem’s court records show that Corey was often charged with setting his cattle to graze on others’ lands. In my ancestor Robert’s own words Giles Corey was “a very quarrelsome and contentious bad neighbor.”

Two years after the murder, in 1678, my 33 year-old 9x great-grandfather Robert had a feud with Giles Corey that brought them to court. He testified that Giles had threatened his planting. Later twelve bushels of apples were stolen from Moulton following a clash with Corey. Moulton’s saw-mill was damaged after another clash and he suspected Giles of sabotage which led to Corey suing my ancestor in court for defamation. In November Giles Corey withdrew his suit against Robert Moulton.

Fourteen years later, Martha Corey (who did not believe in the proceedings) was accused of witchcraft on March 19, 1692 by Ann Putnam, age 12. The frenzy was so great that Giles Corey testified against his own wife. On April 19th Giles Corey was accused by Ann Putnam, Jr, Mercy Lewis, Abigail Williams, Mary Walcott, and Elizabeth Hubbard. He had no trial because he refused to state whether he was not guilty or guilty so the court could not proceed. He expressed regret over his testimony against Martha but to no avail. He was held for months.

The Putnams accused Rebecca Nurse on May 2nd. She was the mother of eight children, who all pleaded for her life. Another prominent Salem member who gave written testimony in her trial was my ancestor Robert Moulton.

In his own words, on Jun 29th, he wrote, “the testimony of Robart Moulton sener who testifith and saith that I waching with Susannah sheldon sence she was afflicted I heard her say that the witches halled her Upone her bely through the yeard like a snacke and halled her over the stone walle & presontly I heard her Controdict her former: disCource and said that she Came over the stone wall her selfe and I heard her say that she Rid Upone apoole to boston and she said the divel Caryed the poole.”

Basically he testified that he heard Susannah Sheldon say that witches dragged her across the yard on her belly and hauled her over the rock wall. She said that she had flown to Boston and that the Devil had carried the pole. He wrote his statement after hearing her testify that she climbed over the wall of her own accord and then ridden a pole to Boston. Her stories contradicted.

His testimony did not help Rebecca. She and five others were hanged June 19th. But at least with his testimony we have evidence that not every townsperson allowed themselves to be swept up in the frenzy.

In September Giles Corey was led to a field beside the jail to force a confession. He was pressed to death beneath a board with rocks piled upon it. His final words were "More weight, more weight." Giles died at the age of 77 two days before his wife. They were cleared of charges posthumously in 1711.

Robert Moulton died in Salem in 1975.

I am grateful for the discovery of my Moulton ancestors. I am more grateful to have been able to parcel bits of who they were from what history was documented. What I found was a man who, whether he believed in the tales of witchcraft or not, spoke his truth in a time of great fear and hysteria. He held to his light. Some of that strength lives in me. I hold that in my thoughts as I navigate our current world.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

How to Salt Pork in a Barrel According to Great-Great Grandma Emma

Years ago my father gave me some handwritten recipes we found among his Wicker-Whitcher memorabilia. I spent a while deciphering and transcribing them. I was able to separate the handwriting between my great-grandma Minnie Estelle Wicker Ruston and her mother, my great-great grandmother Emma Angeline Whitcher Wicker.

The recipes were written on various slips of paper. Some were written on the back of grocery lists. A few were even written in Emma’s hand over scraps of young Minnie’s homework. I found one fraction assignment dated January 25, 1906.

My favorite slip of paper was the one where she explains how to brine pork in a barrel. My great-great grandma Emma was born in 1845. She was sixteen when the Civil War started, nineteen when she married, and forty-five when my great-grandma Minnie was born in 1890.

This recipe gave me a glimpse into the past, before processed packaging of groceries. And a 2x great-grandma is not so far removed from me. All of these bits were on the same slip of paper.

Curing Pork
It takes 3 weeks. For 1 lb of meat thoroughly mix: 5 lb salt, 3 lb granulated sugar, 2 oz salt-peter. Every 3 days the meat is rubbed with 1/3 mixture. After last rubbing, leave meat in the barrel for 2 weeks, then smoke.

Plain Salt Pork
Every piece is rubbed with salt and packed closely in barrel and stand overnight. For 100 lbs of pork make a brine of: 10 lbs salt, 2 lbs salt peter, both dissolved in 5 gal of water. Boil the water. Cool brine and pour over meat. Weigh down and cover.

Sugar Cure
For 100 lbs of meat: 8 lbs salt, 2 lbs brown sugar, 2 oz salt peter, 4 gallons of water. In the summer boil the brine. It is not necessary to boil in the winter. Bacon should be left in the solution for 4 weeks and hams 6 or 8 weeks.

I won’t be brining pork in a barrel anytime soon but I am delighted to have his glimpse into the past. Even more precious to me is the paper with her handwriting on it. I know that she touched that paper. She held it steady with one hand while scrawling the recipe out with the other. I have her handwriting from when she was younger, where she took greater care with her penmanship in a correspondence to a beau.

But she touched that paper and when I touch it the time distance between us slips away for a millisecond. She is always with me. All of the ancestors are.

What is remembered, lives.
Emma writes a cake recipe in pencil over Minnie's fraction homework from 1906.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Ask Your Family Their Stories

Grandma Ruth in red & Great-Grandma Hattie in blue.
Many of us are getting ready to spend time with our families for whatever holidays we celebrate. This is a perfect opportunity to ask your elders questions about their childhoods, their parents, their grandparents, or any family stories they remember hearing. 

Where were they born? What was their first job? What was their favorite childhood book? Where is their favorite place in nature? Did they have a signature food dish? Known hobbies?

Who were their heroes? Did they travel? How much school did they do? What did they dream of being when they were kids? 

What do you want to know?

Even better, make a list of the questions you have, slap a fancy holiday image at the top and hand them out to your family. Take videos of them answering some of the questions. Make it communal.

Doing my genealogy as an adult and getting more context for names I heard bandied about as a kid, I realize all the moments I didn't pay attention to. I mean, we all do that. Kids aren't supposed to pay attention to that stuff. And they're not going to pay attention to boring grown-up talk unless we lend sacred weight to; there are ways to ritualize storytelling.

I'm trying to learn that.

I never met my paternal grandma Ruth Emma Ruston. She died at 42 of cervical cancer. (That's a year younger than I am now.) She’s the woman in the photo, in the red dress, at a family function shortly before she went back to the hospital for more treatment. When my dad showed me this picture, he got choked up. I’d never seen it before.

He doesn't remember that day. He was only five. But he'd been told a story that he shared with me.

When Ruth was 42 she had four children. The oldest was 19 and my dad was the youngest. He said that Grandma Ruth went to an afternoon function in that dress because it was her favorite. She knew she wasn't coming back from the hospital and that red dress was her favorite. And I fucking love that.

My dad asked his older brother, an adult when she died, if he had any special recollections about her. We didn't expect him to sit down and write down as much as he could recall. I cried reading through it. If my father had never asked, I wouldn’t know.

I feel like I know her better now. She was clever and inventive and creative about finding ways to run her household that positively affected her community. She loved her family fiercely for as long as she could.

Think about what you want to know and ask your questions this holiday. You won’t always get answers but you might just learn more than you expected. You might learn a small detail that helps you unlock another level of your genealogy work, but you’ll definitely make more family memories in the sharing.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Working for the Kenan Family

433 Locust Street. Photos from Art family archives.
There is a place in my home town called the Kenan Center. In my childhood it was where craft shows and indoor hockey and graduations were held. The land it sits on was offered to the First Prebyterian Church by William Rand Kenan, Jr, a wealthy philanthropist in town. The original house still sits on the grounds, which Kenan owned from 1912-1965. I took pictures before my senior prom inside it and in it's gardens. 

The house was originally known as "The Hill."

In doing my genealogy I discovered that my 2x great-grandparents George Art & Katherine Pils Art worked for Mr. and Mrs. Kenan. My grandmother was a housekeeper and then cook and my grandfather was a chauffeur and then gardener. For a look at the interior and exterior of the house, which has been beautifully maintained, follow this link. 

Kenan wrote extensive memoirs in which he says, "I converted two closets between the two front bedrooms into a grand bath and put in a bath for the servants, also running water in two servant's rooms and modernized all the bathrooms." I liked discovering he thought about the servants' comforts. 

On the website for the House, Natalie Pitzer writes about Kenan, "Educated at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, he participated in the discovery of calcium carbide which is the basis for the manufacture of acetylene. Upon graduation from the university, he came to Niagara Falls to build and help operate a calcium carbide plant for the Carbide M manufacturing Company, later known as Union Carbide." His brother-in-law Henry Flagler was the partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil Company. Flagler and Kenan developed railroad enterprises in Florida.

Pitzer also writes, "At the time of his death, [Kenan] was chairman of the Flagler system, which still operates hotels, resorts, land companies and the P & O Steamship lines. Locally, he was the owner and board chairman of the Western Block Company. At the age of 85, he was described as the only millionaire to go to work at 7:00 a.m. (Reputedly, this was a little hard on the help because they were expected to be there as well.)"

He was very generous to my hometown and left a legacy of philanthropy in large and small ways. I like to imagine he was a good man to work for. But enough about him. Let's see what he said about my ancestors! Because he wrote about them in his memoirs. And thanks to the interwebs I was able to read through them on-line. What a treasure!

From the memoir Incidents along the Way: More recollections Vol 3 by William Rand Kenan, Jr. (1872-1965).

In the section titled Chauffeurs Who Have Been Employed By Me, Kenan writes,“After my marriage in April 1904 I found it necessary on some occasions that I have a chauffeur to take Mrs. Kenan and at that time I secured the services of George Art. He was coachman for Mr. & Mrs. Eugene Ashley, who had fine horses, and he wished to get some experience in operating a motor car. The Ashleys were our next-door neighbors and friends of both of us. At that time I had a Peerless touring car of 1904 model.”

This explained to me why there was a photo of the house of the lawyer E. M. Ashley in the Art photo album. According to my notes George was a chauffeur with the family until 1908 when he became a gardener. At some point before his death he became and remained Head Groundskeeper.

In the section My Experience with Gardeners, Kenan writes, “George Art followed Thomas Garret. While not a trained gardener, his work was most satisfactory. His wife was our cook and both lived in the house. Art died on the place during 1937 and his wife continued with us as cook until she had to give up on account of her health and died during the Spring of 1941.”

There is a story about how attached George was to the Kenan dogs he cared for that they keened loudly in the yard outside the Arts' lodgings while he died. True or not it tells me there was a close relationship between my great-great-grandparents and their employers. 

The Arts took a lot of photos. Someone captioned half of them cheekily and the humor of the family is evident in what pictures remain- though I saved those photos for another time. It is an absolute joy to have a sense of them as a family unit. These are photos they took around the Kenan House. It is an honor to share their lives with all of you.

A horse and buggy in the back of the Kenan estate.

A carriage in front of the house. When I was little there was an old hitching post on the street along my walk to school.

Working as a chauffeur for the Kenans. Notice the man holding the cat?

George and one of the Kenan dogs.

Writing on the photo said Ginny Kenan (unknown) & Katherine (Pils) Art.

Labelled Connie Kenan. (Which may have been the dog's name.) 

Staff names are Alvina and Corine or Connie.


These resemble candy striper uniforms to me. Possible staff nurses?

George Art. This photo was captioned Boss Man.

The kitchen staff (?). Katherine is second in from the right.

Katherine on the right.

Kenan grounds in winter.

George and Katherine Art in the 1930s.

My 1x great-grandfather Robert Art,my grandmother Patricia Art, and Katherine Art, my 2x great-grandmother.

The only photo not from the Art Archives. This is one of Polster's photos of old Lockport, showing the house by an entrance to the Kenan Center grounds.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Adoption & Ancestors

The question I get asked about the most, especially during the holiday season when everyone is looking for ancestral names, is about how to connect with your ancestors when you are adopted. Or if you even can.

The simple answer is, of course you can.

The Ancestral energy stream we connect to is not made of names. There just happen to be names attached to those threads of energy that create the stream.

You are the product of a thousand loves. Their blood lives within you. Your ancestors walk with you now whether you know their names or cultures or not. Now, you can take a DNA test and get some cultural info on your background. And, if you agree to be connected with other possible family members-- it's an option when you register-- then you could potentially open a door to finding biological family.

If you want to.

It is not a requirement for ancestor work. All you have to do is create a small ancestor altar. All you need is a cup of water and a candle. Tend both regularly. Open yourself to the ancestors in your blood and the ancestors in your family while you do it.

Stay open to thoughts and impression that come to you while you do this. 

The reality is, if you were adopted, not only do you have a gallery of ancestors unknown to you, but you also have a gallery of ancestors you have been chosen into available to you. I know not everyone's adoptions work out well. I know there can be jealousy and hurt feelings if there are secrets and mistrusts or abuse. I've seen that reality among my friends. But I am a realistic idealist.

I see the world for what it is but I find hope in painting it as I believe it could be. And, if you go back far enough we all have the same ancestors. So please, let my ancestors me your ancestors until you find your guides.

Here is my truth.

I don't have kids of my own. I never planned to. But if someday I am lucky enough to adopt a wayward teen and they want to become my child, I will create a ritual and I will call my ancestors in and I will stand with them as we welcome that child into our bloodline. And then I will bore them with the names and stories of their new ancestors, their new energy source, their new guardians. And even if something happened and we never spoke again, I would never sever that bond. I would not have the right. I would not take that gift away from them.

I know too well what a source of strength and comfort they are for me.

Not everyone will agree with me or feel the same. I'm sure as someone who is not adopted or has not adopted I am missing some emotional component. I'm not trying to speak with authority. But I aim to empower you to find what works for you and own it.

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