[An excerpt from Strands: An Apprenticeship with Grief and Loss, to be published by Barclay Press, 2022.]
In January of 2020, the same day Beijing reported its first coronavirus death, out-of-the-blue I decided to rescue family photos in moldy photo albums or crammed into shoeboxes under my bed. After buying a nifty storage box, I began to sort and organize. That same week, Ancestry.com informed me that my ancestors had been English, Scottish, Norwegian, and German. (I’d hoped to learn something startling!) A local historian contacted me, again out of the blue, to learn more about my great-grandmother, Amy, who had been a Faulkner before marrying Benjamin Franklin Wild. (He’d preferred “Frank.”)
That synchronistic week continued: StoryCorps notified me that a family-history story set in Somerville, which I’d recorded a few years earlier, was now accessible at the Library of Congress. I reconnected with my beloved second cousin, Peter Wild. And that Saturday, I’d been invited to visit a recently-opened and beautifully organized food pantry in the roomy basement of the Mission Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Highland Avenue—just a few blocks from my house. From 1894 until 1975, Mission Church had been “First Unitarian Somerville,” and located next door to Amy and Frank’s mansion, now razed, where three generations of Wilds, including my father and my Aunt Amy, once worshipped.
That Sunday, still able to worship in person in the Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s meetinghouse, I reflected on that week.What does all this family stuff in one week mean? I wondered. Seated with a hundred or so fellow worshippers, we’d sat in deep quiet for over a half hour before someone stood to break the silence. And in that long and delicious time to deepen and reflect, something came to me: You call these random, all-the-same-week incidents family. Yet most of these happenstances have been about Wilds. Most of the photos in your nifty storage box are Wilds. You know next to nothing of your mother’s history.
This accurate observation had been followed by A Nudge: And isn’t about time for you to find out? Or, as I would come to view this Spirit-sourced prompt: Here is the first exercise of your apprenticeship. Go!
The next day when I googled for clues, I discovered that I hadn’t known how to spell my maternal grandmother’s maiden name—it’s Cogill—and that I’d been spelling my maternal grandfather’s first and last names wrong, too! My ignorance humbled me; to immediately realize how little I knew seemed a gift, an opening,* an invitation to apply what Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind ” to this apprenticeship; to be curious, openhearted, eager. A Bonus: Stumbling upon the actual spelling of my grandfather’s name had been “serendipitous,” to use a word my mother often employed (sometimes wrong), and a reminder that, indeed, way opens.*
My maternal grandparents divorced when my mother had been a toddler; her father was never a part of her life. In 1966, when she and my father vacationed in Palm Beach, Florida, her father reentered her life: “You know, Al,” she’d mused one night at dinner. “I think my father lives here.” Low lights, flowers, a delicious, expensive, seafood dinner and a bourbon or two probably contributed to Mom’s pensive mood. Encouraged by Dad— “There’s two sides to every story, Pat,” he reminded her—she called her father. Who, I want to believe, immediately jumped in a cab to meet his daughter.
Did my grandfather stand for a few moments at the entrance to the dining room scanning the tables for Mom? Did his face light up when spotted her—the stunning, middle-aged, well-dressed woman craning her elegant neck to scrutinize every man entering the room? When he’d approached my parents’ table, had all three shook hands? Hugged? What were the first things my mother and her father said to each other? Had their initial conversation been stiff? Awkward? Warm? I don’t know. As already noted, my mother wasn’t much of a storyteller. I do know that sometime during this reunion, Mom announced that I would be getting married that July.
“I’m coming,” her father declared. (In that declarative moment, did my mother remember all the times in her childhood when she’d longed for a proverbial Dad?) The dapper, elderly stranger who’d showed up—in spats—to my first wedding had been Munro not Monroe. And his last name was Horre. Not, as my mother, her sister Kay and her mother spelled it, Horrie.
I’d known—but forgotten—that Horre to Horrie spelling-change story, too; its broad outline, at least. When I’d been maybe ten or eleven Mom explained, “My mother went to court. She added the I. You’d think that with a name like Horre, she might have added a few more letters!” Too young and too cosseted to understand her quip, I didn’t get it. Twice-divorced, I can now also appreciate how my grandmother, who wanted to be called Lil and not “Grandma,” had inserted an i into her ex-husband’s last name. I love how Lil inserted her personhood, her selfhood. I.
I remember that inserted-i story. But do I also remember a veiled look, how my lovely mother might have looked away, twirled a lock of her wavy brown hair or stared at her wedding ring when she’d finished telling it? Had she “cleaned her molars” with her tongue, as my sister and brothers called this Mom-tell which signaled, “I’m done! And angry. No more. Stop!”
The serendipitous story (And it really is): Seven months and two days before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Munro Horre and Muriel Kershaw applied for a marriage license and earned a tiny notice in The Palm Beach Post. I only discovered my grandfather’s name misspelling because someone researching Kemp family history had apparently clipped a two-paragraph, alphabetized snippet—which had also included Munro and Muriel’s announcement. And because of “a little thing I like to call ‘The Internet,’ ” as my daughter, Hope, says, there that snippet was, waiting for me to find.
Although newspapers misspell names all the time, seeing my grandfather’s name in print felt solid. Felt real. Important. I liked looking at this little scrap of information. So I took a screen shot of this small memento of the grandfather I met once but never knew and sent it to my four daughters and my sister.
Horre. Munro Horre. Who, during my mid-sixties-hippie-style-wedding-in-a-park reception, having just met his other daughter, my Aunt Kay, sidled up to my mother and whispered, “I like you more than her!” Munro Horre.
(Spell-check keeps asking if I actually mean Horror. And maybe I do.)
Thanks to the Internet I located a Cogill family lineage tracing back to the mid-eighteen hundreds, too. I printed it out. I hole-punched it and reverently placed those family names and dates, as dry and as dusty as the begats of the Bible, in a three-ring binder. Thanks to the Internet, I learned that Lillian Cogill Horrie died in 1961 at the horrifyingly young age of fifty-nine. (No wonder she hadn’t wanted to be called “Grandma”!)
Possessing a Cogill family lineage or doing simple arithmetic to learn that Lil had been forty-two when I’d been born didn’t speak to my condition, however. * This “exercise” had not been about right-brain, three-ring binders or pouring over census records. I was not supposed to research my mother’s family’s history.
What had I been gently nudged to do? To spend some time wandering through that metaphorical hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors; that’s what this exercise had been about. To inhabit that mournful word, forgotten, but supply my own adjectives as well. Like lost. Unacknowledged. Denied. Stricken from the records. Missing. Never named. Gone. To walk past artists’ renderings of my English, Scottish, Norwegian, and German ancestors in that hallway of shadows and forgotten ancestors, to study the more recent portraits and photographs of the New Englanders listed in my three-ring binder and, at last, to discover that where Munro Horre’s portrait ought to be is an empty frame. To stand in front of that empty frame, its brass nameplate correctly spelled, to feel the sadness of his not-there-ness. To connect with my mother’s sadness. And to begin to connect with my mother differently.
This too: to connect my own and my mother’s sense of loss with humanity’s collective loss; our shared grief. All our lost, missing, gone ancestors! All their lost wisdom. All the revelatory stories we will never hear. When an old person dies a library burns down, an African proverb reminds us. What enormous loss we all carry!
My sense of loss was to become enlarged, more painful, more focused, soon after that weirdly synchronistic week. Thanks to Ancestry.com, I learned that an eighth cousin—nine generations back she and I share a common ancestor—is a young Woman of Color. More than likely our common ancestor had been male and White. More than likely our shared DNA means rape, coercion, a violent sexual assault.
Horrified, devastated, I sought guidance from family and friends—and my apprenticeship handbook.
And found this: The cumulative grief of the world is overwhelming, Weller notes. 1 And he counsels us to literally hold this enormity in our hands, to cup our hands as if holding water in order to offer ourselves a bottom, a limit; to perform this ritual in order to contain all these powerful feelings.
Unaccustomed to ritual yet appreciative of how Weller’s suggestion both acknowledged and honored what I was feeling while offering those feelings a safety net, I held that galactic grief. I embodied it. I honored it by lovingly cupping it in my hands. I grieved my own forgotten ancestors—and humanity’s. I held in the Light my eighth cousin’s forgotten ancestors, brought to this country in chains, whose real names and those of their descendants have been lost, forgotten, erased. I grieved those unnamed men and women and children who’d once walked on this tiny patch of Somerville real estate I call “mine.” I grieved for my fatherless mother.
I held that. For a few terrifying moments, I allowed myself to experience momentous grief. But then my right brain kicked in: You can never adequately cup water in your hands. You can never hold it all. And I spread my fingers wide.