Ancestor worship: we are what we were

I will admit that I am one of those weird people who LOVES to look through old photographs. When I was a child, I actually really enjoyed it when my mom would bust out the old photo albums and sit down, telling me about all the people who had been important to her in childhood and who have now passed on. She would laugh and tell me funny stories about things she and her cousins did to torment her little brother, or how she loved going to her Grandma Elda’s house and learning how to cook.

Listening to her, and seeing the sparkle in her eyes, the stories were as real to me as those of my own childhood, as many of them had taken place in little towns just like the ones in which I’d grown up. I could imagine the dust rising from the road as she and her cousin Mark sped off in a pick-up truck with my uncle Tony chasing after them, trying to catch up, or that wonderful vibrant smell of freshly-picked garden tomatoes as she helped Grandma Elda get ready to make her famous tomato sauce.

I always especially loved seeing pictures of my mom, uncle, and grandfather when they were younger. I have to admit that my grandfather was a handsome man! My grandfather died when I was 16, but I was very close to him as a child and spent most of my summers running wild across rural Illinois at Grandma and Grandpa’s, chasing turtles and petting cows, getting into all sorts of trouble and having such a blast.

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This was before everyone and their pig had cell phones, so no one could tell on me.

I miss him so dearly and wish he’d had a chance to see me grow up a little more, so I’d have gotten out of my bratty teenage mindset and been able to ask him more questions about himself. I found out after he passed that he, too, had written poetry, and I would have loved to read his as I absolutely know they must be beautiful odes to the wildlife of Central Illinois that he loved all his life.

Looking through pictures, though, I always noticed how you could see traits passed down through generations, whether it was a particular chin, a set of eyes, or even just early-onset baldness in men. When I was younger I would just laugh about how everyone looked like everyone else and how generations were “cursed” to get fat or bald, etc. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve become more thoughtful about it and recognized more than just physical traits that have been passed on. Of course, it’s certainly true that as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to look more like my mom, weak chin and all, but it’s other, little things, that seem more than just incidental. Annoying things, like tendencies to call to one another across the house, or the certain way that someone blows their nose, or particular little sounds that people make, just seem to run in families. Even the particular “smell” of houses run in families, hundreds of miles apart as an abode may be!

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Well, sometimes … only my house smells like these bastards.

It makes me wonder how much a loved one really leaves you when they’re gone. All the generations that have gone before us truly never go – they live on in so many little things that we carry with us every day. My love of poetry goes back to my grandfather, even though I never knew this before he passed away. My mom’s tendency to call across the house is something she shares with her mother, and her love of cooking she gained from her Grandma Elda, who isn’t even related by blood. We come from generations upon generations of farmers: in fact, my brother and I are the first generation of our family with no connection to the land. But our home is filled with animals and always has been, and it’s entirely possible that later on in my life, I’ll start a hobby farm and make my great-grandfather (a dairy farmer) proud.

Part of the silent prayers in the liturgy is to pray for our beloved dead, the members of the nikko who have passed and our own family members who have gone before. Some may see this as simply a bow to Nichiren Buddhism’s Shinto-infused roots, but it’s actually a very special opportunity to connect us to all those who have made us who we are. When we pray for the dead, we honor and thank them for their contributions to the human revolution, and recognize the important impact they have had on our own journey, whether we have met them or not. All of life is connected, and their karma moves through us and impacts our own lessons and practice. Thus, twice each day we are able to deeply contemplate our own beginnings and all the people who came together to make us – this one unique being whose story is still unfolding.

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Recently, my mom and I went to St. Charles, IL, where she grew up and where her childhood home still stands. We were able to find the gravestone of her Grandma Elda, but we hadn’t thought to bring any flowers. By pure chance, a tomato from our garden happened to be in the trunk of our car. It was the perfect offering for this woman whose love and wisdom so deeply impacted my mother’s life, and standing there, in front of her gravestone, I was truly in awe of all the threads that wind together in the fabric of a single human life, and how blessed we all are to experience even a tiny bit of another person’s story. It was so moving to watch my mother give tribute to her beloved dead and to recognize the love moving down the ages, breath by breath.

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