It is late autumn in France now. Most of the leaves have fallen from the plane trees and horse chestnut trees that line the streets of Paris. The few that remain seem so languidly resigned to their fate that when the time comes they seem not so much to fall to the ground as simply to sigh and let go. In nature, autumn is not death but a beginning of hibernation and dormancy.
How appropriate then, to put the time of paying attention to ancestors in the autumn. By placing blooming flowers, a sign of spring, on a grave in autumn, we show our adherence to the cycles of the year and our teachings from nature: that after winter comes spring. We express our profound need to see ourselves as a part of that cycle.
The First of November in the Catholic calendar in France is All Saints Day -- Toussaint -- an important high holy day and always a national holiday. The Second of November is All Souls Day. The two days are when by long-standing tradition all French return home to place flowers on the graves of their parents and loved ones. There are almost two weeks off of school to allow everyone to travel to the villages of the family's roots, and most still do. The holiday has the family-oriented warmth of our American Thanksgiving.
When I first became interested in genealogy, I thought the passion so many have for it came from New World rootlessness. My ancestors go back to the Great Migration and to Jamestown in America so really, rootlessness should not be much of an issue, at least as far as nationally. They go back five generations in California, which seems to make me pretty rooted on a state level, and three generations in the Bay Area, which should be enough roots on the local level. Yet I certainly do not have the sense of many Europeans who were born and reared in a village which had a cemetery (like the one in the photo above) containing ten generations of their family. That is rooted!
I have been reading Alice Munro's The View From Castle Rock in which she has many beautiful meditations on the meaning of our search for our ancestors, of her search for her own. When my mother was dying and I was thousands of miles away and unable to be with her, my obsession with genealogy reached a feverish level, as if with every new ancestor name I found I could hold on to the generation that was slipping away and even bring back those all ready lost and still missed so. I notice that many, many people come to genealogy by way of grief.
I imagine that another possible source of the passion for genealogy may be that, as everything becomes global, people actually lose their place and become a bit lost. By finding our ancestors we can place ourselves a bit better in the global as well as in our own history. By learning their stories, we give ourselves a fuller identity in a time when we all begin to look pretty much the same.
In ancient China, ancestors were revered as a sort of link between the living and the gods, as "representatives of humanity in the higher regions."* They were not worshiped but remembered and called upon to intercede, rather like a guardian angel. Somehow, as much as in China five thousand years ago, as much as in France for the past fifteen hundred years, we still need our ancestors. By remembering those who are gone, we create -- perhaps self-centeredly, perhaps not -- a tradition whereby we in turn may be remembered. We may not entreat them as our ancestors did but in much the same way that a good book can become a good friend, so can an ancestor's story be not only a friend, but family.
©2009 Anne Morddel
*The quote above comes from the Willhelm/Baynes double translation of the I Ching. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965, p.69