October 17, 2013

How do you honor an ancestor you hate?

It's October, which, for many neopagans, means it's a time to honor our ancestors. (Not just neopagans, of course. Los Dias De Los Muertos is a Latino tradition of great antiquity, dating back to pre-Columbian times and later Christianized, and of course the Catholic Church snagged All Souls Night from various pagan traditions, especially the Celtic Samhain, which Wiccans then picked up again much more recently.) Most years I've already had an altar up to my beloved dead by this time. (And I keep meaning to assemble a permanent ancestor shrine.) But this year and last, I just haven't been feeling it much.

Last year I did do a Dumb Supper, the silent meal to which I invite my beloved dead, but it was sort of thrown together at the last minute. This year I'm worried I won't have the money or resources to even manage that. Usually, I do classic Southern food, since the past several generations of the family have been Southerners. Cornbread, kale or collards, ham, maybe some blackeyed peas, key lime pie or blackberry cobbler, things like that. Or I chose recipes specifically associated with various family members. Great Nan's angel biscuits, hot black coffee for Graddad, whatever. But I just don't have a lot of resources right now to put into it. I don't have a lot of pictures for the shrine, either.

I think I've figured out what the problem is. In December, it will be two years since my paternal grandmother, who we called Nan Nan, died. I generally refer to her as "my evil grandmother," because frankly, she rather was. She was seriously abusive, and taught my father to be abusive as well. She was, I strongly expect, a clinical narcissist, and certainly she had an anxiety disorder, and tended to take out her anxiety on all of us. From the time I was very young, she treated me badly. Anything I did wrong, she would say we weren't going to talk about any more, and then she'd bring it up again and again for years, to punish me for not paying enough attention to her, or whatever else. She blackmailed my mother with some of it, too. Like the time I supposedly hit her in the face when I was six. (As near as we can figure, she leaned in fast and startled me, and I threw my hands up and caught her accidentally. I was not given to hitting anyone at that age, and certainly not adults.) She blackmailed my mother for five or six years with this, reminding her of it any time my mother did anything she didn't like, and then adding, "But we don't have to tell John about that, now do we?" Then, when I was 10 or 11, mom finally did something that really upset her, and she did tell my father, and I was punished for something I didn't even remember.

She insulted me constantly, said all kinds of incredibly awful things about my friends and my life, and yet, again from the time I was quite young, I was expected to be "her special buddy" by my whole family. That part got worse after my Graddad died in 1991, and we started taking her along on family vacations. She'd insist on sharing a bed in the hotel room with me, and then spend hours the next morning complaining about how much I'd kicked her, she was black and blue. I was supposed to stick right by her side, wherever we went, which meant I rarely got to see or do the things I wanted to, unless I could convince my mother to stay with her while I went on a ride or to see an exhibit at a museum or whatever.

I can't even explain just how grinding it was. Just a slow rubbing with a coarse stone, but until I moved away, it was constant. When I visited my family (quite a lot while I was in college and could drive back, even though it was five hours each way), I was expected to spend time with her, take her to run errands, whatever. Because she "wanted to see me." No, she didn't. She wanted to abuse me. And my father wanted me to see her so she'd be taking it out on someone other than him.

It wasn't just me, of course. She was, if anything, even worse to my mother, which my father was entirely complicit in. In the last five or ten years of her life, she was sick or hurt a lot (I think she broke her hip twice), and every time, when she got out of the hospital, she'd insist on staying with my parents. My father worked constantly, and would start putting in even longer hours as soon as she came to stay, and my mother, meanwhile was supposed to cater to my grandmother's every whim. My father's mother, let me remind you. Nan Nan not only treated her like a servant, she actually called her a servant on more than one occasion. It was like something out of a Southern Gothic novel. The crazy old mother-in-law hiding in the remote back bedroom, insisting that her daughter-in-law wait on her hand and foot, the daughter-in-law having no life outside caring for the old women, the absent husband. It was really quite creepy, whenever I went back.

When she was dying, my mother heaped guilt and emotional blackmail on me, because she was sure it was the only way to get me to call to say goodbye.

I just spent five paragraphs on that, just to give you context.

This is the second Samhain since she died, and I simply do not want to honor her. I do not want to invite her into my home. I do not want her here. She is not one of my Beloved Dead.

Maybe I don't have to honor her, or invite her in, at least not by name. Maybe that can be ok. Maybe.

I mean, I imagine that eventually, when I figure out exactly how I want to build my ancestor shrine, I'll add the mourning necklace I made when she died, which incorporates her wedding ring, the only thing of hers she ever gave me, which would never in a million years fit me. Certainly I'll include the ashes of my paternal grandfather (who died just as I was beginning to realize what a complete asshole he was, so I have much better memories of him). I'll include Anita, too, my "bonus grandmother," who lived with my maternal grandmother since before I was born, and was the grandmother to me that Nan Nan never was. When Granny dies, she'll be there, too, of course. But I do not want to invite Nan Nan to the dumb supper. I do not want to feel her presence, criticizing me. She never came into this house while she was alive, and I don't want her to now. She never met my wife, never even knew I was queer, and I was quite frankly glad that she died before I got married, so I never had to make the choice of coming out and introducing my wife to her, only to have her be unutterably cruel to Kate, or to feel as if I were ashamed and hiding Kate. I do not want her in the house where Kate lives, to be cruel to her now, even if we cannot hear her. I do not want her here.

What do we do, as polytheists, as people who include ancestor worship in our practices, about ancestors who were horrible people, who abused us? How should we handle that? How should I handle that?

I don't believe that victims have any responsibility to forgive the people who harmed them. Some people I have chosen to forgive, and some I have not. I cannot forgive Nan Nan, not now and maybe not ever.

I just don't know.