We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.
When my east coast cousin visited she asked for updates on our extended family. I told her about surgery an uncle had on a drooping eyelid. She was intrigued because her doctor recommended she have surgery for the same thing. He told her the problem came from stretching tender skin around her eyes as she put in contacts. How could she have known the tendency ran in the family? Later, as we looked through old photographs we saw the same prematurely sagging eyelids in a few of our ancestors. Orphaned children, stoic immigrants who left loved ones behind, farmers who’d lost their land shared this feature—-they looked as if they’d stopped fully opening their eyes. She and I considered the emotional resonance. When she left she was still mulling over what it might mean in her own life.
There are many traits passed down in families. We’re familiar with inheritance of physical features but it seems that other tendencies run through the generations as well. In my family we’re prone to heart palpitations, stomach problems, anxiety. We error on the side of caution. We tend to make a living as teachers, clergy, academics, scientists. This is true of the living and those long gone. Such facts can be easily traced.
Some things are less easily traced but just as pronounced. When I was a new parent, the legacy from my ancestors rarely occurred to me. I saw my newborns as wondrously made beings with talents and personalities that would unfold in time. But as I held, nursed and rocked my babies I found in myself certain ingrained beliefs that surely had passed to me through bloodlines or through ways of thinking that were tight as hidden stitching.
My parents were warm and loving with their children, but they also fought against a palpable sense of worthlessness that pervaded their daily lives. As a child I sensed this in my mother’s suppressed anger and in my father’s hidden sorrow. My father whistled as he worked on chores and hugged us each night before bed, but his posture often showed sorrow. My mother read to us, played games with us and wore bright red lipstick but she was on guard against a hard world. When my children were babies my own feelings of worthlessness came out in me full force. By what means had these feelings become mine?
Then I remembered how fully I identified with my parents. My father’s frugality was learned during a difficult childhood and was passed on to help his own children learn economy. But his despair had an exaggerated effect on me, in fact I felt unworthy when given praise or gifts. I’d absorbed my father’s childhood pain.
My mother emphasized her sacrifices on behalf of others, hoping for enough appreciation to fill hungry gaps in her life. I learned to sacrifice as quietly as possible so that I would gather no perfunctory gratitude, absorbing her childhood misery without the redemption she sought.
These were not healthy adaptations, yet I’ve come to believe children take on the angst of those who are close to them as if by osmosis. My parents overcame the painful realities of their early years through hard work, faith and loving attention to people around them. But they also took on the stories of their own parents and grandparents. Of course we are strengthened by adversity, but when we repress the hidden impact of generational suffering it’s more difficult to heal and grow. That I was raised in a happy home yet felt this pain makes this obvious.
It is one of the tasks of humanity to steer one’s tribe toward the light of greater understanding. The legacy of sorrow and suffering we take on can be overcome, and in some way the overcoming is not only a victory for ourselves but also a triumph for our ancestors. Each generation can heal not only itself but ancestral pain as well. Changing the energy around who we are affects who our loved ones have been. The more I learn about quantum physics the more I understand this to be possible.
It’s not all about overcoming difficulty. It’s also about living out the gifts passed on by those who have gone before us. Those abilities and interests we call our own, so often are legacies from those long gone. As my children get older I find something ‘clicks’ when I notice attributes in them that were present in their relatives. I see these traits all the time. My research-minded, highly technical grandfather would recognize these traits manifested abundantly in my sons. A grandmother and great-great uncle who taught Latin and the classics would find kinship with my daughter. I see myself in relatives who wrote, searched for spiritual meaning and had highly idealistic views of the future. Even in day-to-day preferences I see commonality. My own mother loved mysteries, scorned shoes in favor of sandals and adored rich desserts much like my daughter. My husband’s grandfather was always tinkering with equipment much like my sons.
When I come across things these relatives left behind I give them to my children. A ring, a book, a pair of binoculars once owned by long-gone relatives carry meaning, especially because I tell my children what they have in common with the people who used them. I also try to keep alive the stories of their relatives’ lives as best I can. In this way we retain the living memory of those who have gone before us. We learn from the pain, celebrate the gifts and hold their light aloft for future generations.
To be aware of this is to consciously carry forward what we choose from our rebellious, curious, compassionate, inventive, wild, spirited, loving, angry and freedom-seeking ancestors. That we exist at all is a testament to their endurance. Who we are is a choice, made in the context of many who lived so very fully before us.
In memory of my gentle father, who left us 7-26-2010. Too soon.