When I sat down to think about the themes I’ve touched on over the past 10 years of writing The Feminist Kitchen, so many of my favorite stories have been about my ancestral family. I can now see that as the beginning of my journey toward ancestral healing.
I define ancestral healing as tending to the wounds that have caused the deepest pains in a family. Some of these wounds go back hundreds of years. Others come from our own childhoods. Paper cuts and amputations. It’s all baggage. The least we can do is unpack what’s inside and look at the healthy stuff worth keeping and what we can meaning and medicine we can make out of the more difficult stuff.
My connection to my way-back ancestors started with my connection to my grandmothers, Gaga and Mimi, as they were affectionately know. Gaga was the keeper of the Swedish family tale, a relatively recent immigrant story that started, in her memory, in the late 1880s, when her great-grandfather moved from Sweden to Springfield, MO. He famously left his pregnant wife and young child behind and sent for them 10 years later.
Conversations with Gaga revealed the name of a town, Visby, which — thanks to some Googling — we figured out was on an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Within two years of that discovery, my sister and I would be standing on those shores, watching a sunset and thinking about the heartbreak of leaving home for good.
That ancestor, my great-great grandmother, who boarded a ship with two children in tow all by herself, never saw the open water again. I still feel that ache for her, and visiting our ancestral homeland made me realize that ache of leaving and never really coming home needed tending long after the trip was over.
Mimi was the keeper of her family’s story and its secrets. Her son, my dad, was raised by his grandmother, and the entire family told him that his real mom (Mimi) was his sister when he was a child, teen and young adult. He didn’t know his true maternal heritage until he was 30 years old.
How he handled receiving that news — in another legendary story that involved a clandestine note passed on New Year’s Eve asking him to meet one of his aunts at the family dinner table after everyone went to bed — became so enmeshed in my memory that I couldn’t see the codependency that he picked up during those years and also passed down to me.
All of this awakening came just as I was also starting to understand the white privilege that benefited each generation before me. My anti-racism work began just a few years before I started also addressing the codependency issues, and when I think about my ancestral history now, I use both of those tools as a primary source of this ancestral healing.
I can put aside the magical thinking, the resentments and the need to be “right” so I can look more clearly at the harm we caused each other and might have caused others in our community. I also have the tools to feel compassion for those family members who were doing the best they could at the time and to have the courage to change the things I can. I have chosen to do this work because I don’t want to keep passing those wounds down the family tree.
Right now, that means answering definitely whether my ancestors on my dad’s side, who settled in Kentucky, Virginia and Texas at various times during the 1700 and 1800s, owned slaves.
That means holding radical love for Mimi, who was part of a long line of unrecovered adult children of alcoholics, and her mom, who eventually got sober but didn’t have a recovery program, without replicating the codependent ways that they showed their care, love and loyalty.
That means appreciating the fact that my mom still has a bread knife, a rolling pin, tea cups and a coffee grinder that my great-great grandmother carried in her trunk on that journey across the Atlantic, while also acknowledging that my immigrant ancestors made that passage by choice and had access to a level of personal safety that allowed her to protect such fragile housewares.
Sitting with these discomforts is an important part of this journey for me, but it’s also important that I look at the ancestral medicine I also received. The doggedness that helped great-grandma Joyce find sobriety. The creativity that helped Mimi solve so many problems, including how to stay alive in an abusive marriage. (She also ran a craft company in the 1980s with my dad — just wait until you hear about Pretty Punch.)
I’ll leave you tonight with a video of my sweet Gaga giving snuggles to her beloved dachshund, Cleo. She wasn’t great at resisting the urge to people-please, but she sure knew how to nurture pets and children with an open heart.
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