9 Relationships: The Ancestors

I don’t know my ancestors.

On my father’s side, everything ends with my grandfather, who died when my father was still in school. Dad spoke seldom of his childhood in Manhattan, New York. He remembered horse-drawn ice carts, for the old “ice box” refrigerators. He was seven when the first radio station, located in Pittsburg, obtained its license and went on the air. He and his brothers camped in Central Park.

His father was an immigrant shoemaker from Hungary, an older man who had already been married, raised a family, and been widowed before he met my grandmother shortly after she arrived from Budapest. I don’t know anything about that relationship: perhaps it began as a marriage of convenience, the “old hand” in the Americas who took the sweet young girl under his wing, and then one thing led to another. Perhaps it was True Love at first sight. I don’t know. Dad never talked about it. It wasn’t clear he really remembered.

Grandma would have been a trove of stories, despite her thick accent, but we lived a thousand miles from her. Stroke took her mind when I was fourteen.

Before my grandfather and grandmother, all is blank. I’ve sometimes thought, half-heartedly, of trying to learn more. But both grandparents were Ellis Island immigrants, and both clearly left the Old Country with little love for it, and a strong desire to become Americans and forget the past. They deliberately cut themselves off from their ancestors. All I have left is the common Hungarian surname, Nemeth, potentially linking me to the sacred groves of the Black Forest in Germany. Or perhaps not.

On my mother’s side, the lineage is clearer but tangled. Grandpa was an Okie farmer who had his roots in the late 1800’s. My grandmother died not too many years after I was born, and I don’t remember her at all. The family, like many farm families of that era, was large. One of Mom’s cousins had eleven children. The last time I spoke with her, decades ago, she had sixty-three grandchildren and had given up trying to remember their names.

Theirs was the horrid little country fundamentalist Christian sect that would have viewed me, a Pagan Druid, as a Satan-worshipper; they would doubtless have tried to cast out the demons in me. They were all farmers, true people of the earth — not the play acting “people of the earth” that we city-dwelling Pagans pretend to be. Farming had already become an inviable way of life by the time I have clear memories. My understanding, growing up, was that the farm subsidies Grandpa received from the government were intended to keep him from growing too much wheat — not the usual economists’ description of it, but reasonably accurate. He was paid to not-farm his land. Grandpa’s brother, who lived down the road a few miles, found oil on his land and switched to “oil farming.” Grandpa eventually found oil on his land, too, and that, combined with the government subsidies, provided his principal income. The farm itself languished as he got older. The pigs, the cows, the chickens all went away. They raised a little alfalfa on the land, an unspeakably boring crop. Family dynamics were complex and often spiteful, built on an unstable foundation of decades-old grudges and slights.

The ancestry is there, but on that side I have my paternal grandfather’s outlook: it is an ancestry I’ve walked away from.

In the deeper sense of ancestral ideas, my entire life has been one of deconstruction: the attempt to understand how my intellectual ancestry has hobbled my mind and spirit. It’s an old habit, now, deconstruction, and I haven’t yet found any rest from it. It was necessary for the survival of my mind in my escape from Christian fundamentalism. It was necessary for the survival of my soul in my escape from scientific reductionism. It is still necessary for the survival of my happiness in my ongoing escape from American consumerism.

It appears to be necessary, at a much deeper level, for the survival of the human race. The ways of our immediate ancestors — the myths, stories, attitudes, and systems passed down by our parents and grandparents — simply don’t work any more. Theirs was a very short-term way of life, unsustainable on any inter-generational time scale.

I will relate one specific story of my mother’s father, which I think is relevant.

Their fundamentalist sect forbade all interactions with doctors: they were “faith healers.” The term “doctors” had a broad scope that included optometrists. I’ve been profoundly nearsighted since I was a young child, probably as a result of that whiff of pure oxygen they gave me as a newborn infant to raise my APGAR score, but I didn’t get glasses until I was around sixteen. (I note that my mother “backslid” into the modern world about the time I was born, which is why I was born in a hospital. When I was three, she saw the error of her ways and returned to her milk religion, and shunned all doctors.)

I became very good at compensating for my blurry sight. In particular, I could shoot a gun, and often hit the target. I couldn’t actually SEE the target. But if I squinted, I could locate it, and then I could estimate pretty accurately from the blur I did see.

It confused my folks, and my grandfather. I couldn’t see things right in front of me if they were more than about twenty feet away. But if I could find patterns — a distinct color, block letters on a sign, distinctive logos — I could sometimes figure out what they were before they could, especially if I could guess what they were. And it was important for me to do so, lest I be viewed as a “cripple.”

So one day, my grandfather decided to take me hunting. He loaned me a .22 caliber rifle, and we went out for quail, or rabbits. We came to a bridge, and grandpa spotted a rabbit down in the culvert. He pointed it out, and though I could not see it, I could see a blur that I thought was the rabbit, and did my best. I hit it.

He sent me down to collect the rabbit, and when I got there, I found that I’d only wounded it. It was in shock, and didn’t run when I approached. I had no idea what to do, so I picked it up the way any child would pick up a pet. I stumbled back to the road with the bleeding rabbit cradled in my arms.

When I got back to grandpa, he seemed a bit disgruntled. He took the rabbit from me, hung it by its back legs, put his heavy boot on its head, and pulled its head off. Then he let the blood drain, and when we got back to the house, he showed me how to dress the rabbit, and I had it for dinner. One rabbit makes a rather small meal.

I’ve never hunted again since that day. Though I wasn’t young enough to be completely traumatized — I’d understood from the start that I was going out to kill something — the images have remained with me as a contrast of two totally different worlds.

My world — the diverse, antiseptic, New Age Sensitive Guy world of the cities, where our meat comes wrapped in clean plastic as unidentifiable, bloodless, unliving food product — clearly lacks any but the most tenuous connection to the real world. Our prayerless consumption of food and every other resource is without soul.

Grandpa’s world — the rural, septic, Tough Guy world of the farms carved out of earth soaked with the blood of those it had been wrested from, where farm accidents routinely remove fingers and entire limbs, and rabbit is a crop-devouring pest that happens to be good eating — clearly lacks a sense, or at least any expression, of the sacredness of the circle of life. The long prayers offered over meals to an uninvolved God who gives us sinners our undeserved ration of daily bread doesn’t — in my experience — bring us any closer to the sacred circle of life than our profane secular gobbling.

Could Grandpa have accompanied me into that culvert, instead of sending me down by myself to “be a man?” Could he have handed me a sharp knife, and taught me a prayer to say over the still-living creature as I mercifully cut its throat and drained its blood back into the earth? Does such reverence exist anywhere except in the pages of novels that romanticize the Noble Savage?

Is there anything in my ancestry that speaks to this?

I don’t know.

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