Dancing With My Ancestors
I grew up with an unshakable sense that there was someone missing in my family. I had loving parents and three siblings who provided continual, if not always welcome, company. We were definitely not short of family members. In our small neighbourhood, we even actually had the largest family; if you didn’t count my best friend Margie Shea and her nine siblings. But yet this hole that someone was missing gnawed away at me incessantly like hunger and left me always feeling incomplete.
The thing is, everyone around me, including Margie with her eight sisters and one brother, had grandparents. Those lovely benevolent beings — older, kinder and more gentle versions of their parents — who doted on my friends, spoilt them with presents, took them on outings or simply just made them feel special. Most had at least one, some had two, three; and the lucky ones had all four. I didn’t have any; or at least any that I could bring to school on grandparents day.
My father’s parents died when I was young. Shadowy, remote and separated from me by a distance borne out of differences in language and culture. They both passed away before I was mature enough to take on the responsibility of forging any sort of meaningful relationship with them. And my mother’s parents had both died long before I was born; circumstantial victims of world events, far far away, over which they had no control.
The past was painful for my parents so they looked toward the future, focusing all their energies on starting afresh and raising us, their hopes and dreams in a new country; this land of opportunity. They worked hard, sacrificed a lot and made a good life for us. We wanted for nothing; our futures were secure.
And as I approach my sixth decade with children old enough to bestow me with grandparent status, I am still searching the past for the grandparents I never knew; my tenuous links to a family history of which I long to know more. Presents and special outings are no longer important and there is more than enough love in my life to make me feel special. But now, I only want stories; their stories. I want to know who they were beyond the young, cheerful and expectant faces that stare out at me from the few remaining black and white photographs we have. What were their hopes and dreams? Their predictions for the future? Their disappointments? And more importantly, knowing the tragic endings that eventually befell them, what were their fears? What made them who they were and in turn what makes me who I am?
Dancing With My Ancestors is a quest for my history; reaching back and pulling threads through to the next generation; giving my children a future with a connection to the past; one I didn’t have. I have few known facts to establish a base and I stare with apprehension into the overwhelming ambition of my nebulous project. Nothing seems grounded. Some threads, I can already see, will be stronger than others; refusing to be severed, hanging on tenaciously and waiting for someone to pick up and weave back into the family narrative. And yet what will I do when I can’t pick up a thread? When it’s completely broken or I can’t match its weight or colour? How do I pull those stories of broken threads into the future? Like Boro Cloth — the ancient Japanese folk method of mending and repairing clothes with scraps of fabric and hand stitching — I will patch my family’s history together with what I have to hand; snippets of family memories gathered through photographs, stories that have been handed down and my own surmising.
If Boro Cloth is about mending a fabric to make it stronger, I am curious to see which threads will continue and which will lead nowhere, leaving holes to be repaired? Which threads of our family history will remain strong in the background and how might the holes be transformed into something more substantial with careful layering and creative stitching? New narratives will connect to old ones and not always seamlessly; nor will anything be lost or wasted, merely reinforced by the new attention bestowed upon it.
As I stitch, I will untangle, carrying the threads of my ancestors through to uncover the truth about who I am by discovering more about them. Embarking on this project, I find comfort in the words of Israeli novelist and journalist Amos OZ when he says, “facts have a tendency to obscure the truth.” We are all connected to the past and even if the threads seem slight, I trust that I will find them to create something new. And if facts obscure the truth, then maybe in my tapestry of words, I won’t need them as much as I think.