roots and bones

I got to look at my mom’s family tree this weekend. Jacob Grass got on a ship sailing from Hanover in 1752 called The Nancy (my mom’s name). He came to what would become the United States to begin with but of course it was 1752 and the United States did not exist yet.

I am also descended from a Cameron and a MacGregor. No wonder I’ve always been a Jacobite! But! Also, a Hanoverian! No wonder I’m so mixed up.

And so there are roots and bones stretching back through time, to people I don’t know and am only beginning to learn about. I am Jacob Grass, I have his genetics. Perhaps I look like him or at least recall an expression he had in some forgotten way and it’s all jumbled together with everyone else to create something uniquely mine, uniquely me.

Jacob Grass took a risk. He got on a ship to an unknown land and he tried something. Why did he do this? Was he leaving something? Or going towards something else?

I wonder if he liked tea. And cats.

Why history? If it is a bewildering clutter of dates and names, no wonder people lose interest. Stories have power and influence, so this is better. But still, why? Why should anyone care about what happened in the past, and what influence does it have on our daily lives?

October is the right time to explore themes like this, to ask questions of the ghosts that haunt us, and reflect on how we can perhaps be connected to and guided by them instead.

Sometimes, the impact of history is big and broad … like a war that killed two percent of the British population or twenty million missing bison.

And sometimes, it can be small and relevant to how we can live life today, just now.

I’ll tell you about a little practice that I have. I say good morning to my grandmas every day. When I make my tea, I use tea cups that were given by my great granny to her daughter-in-law, my grandma. My other great-grandmother gave my grandma (her daughter) a tea caddy as a birthday present. I don’t have anything that belongs to my mom’s mother, but I say good morning to that stylish, courageous French girl with the beautiful structured jawline every morning too. I do have something of hers! That determined, rather elegant jaw. Merci, madame.

I imagine getting a hug from each grandma. It makes me feel rooted and connected as I start my day. And sometimes to be honest the rest of the day isn’t very good. But I can start off feeling loved and supported. I think this is a small example of how history can help us to live more thoughtful, meaningful and loving lives.

If I’m descended from healers (nurses) and teachers, I’m also descended from warriors. The Gordon Highlanders Museum sent us my great-grandfather’s war record from World War One a few weeks ago. Henry Grey was awarded three medals.

  • 1. The Military Cross
  • 2. The British War Medal
  • 3. The Victory Medal.

Henry witnessed and suffered terror that I cannot imagine, was wounded several times, and he also experienced the drudgery and discomfort and boredom and loneliness of that forgotten and overlooked time between battles that soldiers also experience.

I think, how hard that must have been … awful food, the dreaded endless rounds of Mulligatawny soup, wet feet, uncomfortable beds, or no beds. Loneliness.

I’ve seen my great-grandfather’s battle box. He would collect it at the end of the day and it contained his things … extra socks, letters, a book or two perhaps. Maybe someone had sent your favourite cookies or some other treat from home. Some soldiers didn’t get anything from anyone. And of course there were the leftover battle boxes at the end of the day that no one came to collect.

I had an awful dream this summer that my nephew went off to war with a battle box that his dad had lovingly made for him. At the end of the day, a wagon came round and that battle box was still in there. I started screaming, “No! No! No!”

Honestly, my brain sometimes.

My great-grandfather did meet a warrior who confounded and defied him and that was his own daughter, my great-auntie Mary, who of course wasn’t anyone’s great auntie at the time but a little girl with auburn curls and a determined chin that recalled her father growing up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in the 1930s. She refused to eat porridge for breakfast and went toe to toe with this warrior who had been wounded and decorated and survived the deadliest conflict in human history.

And she stood him right down. He told her she’d have porridge for breakfast or go hungry and this is just what the young lady did. Every day … for years. Even the most implacable soldier will inevitably meet his … or her … match.

I do eat porridge because it’s cheap and I rather like it this time of year. I made it today and giggled when I was thinking about this story.

Those are some roots and bones for today, and I hope you find it nourishing. History, said Thomas Moore, is food for the soul. And sometimes the local and homegrown history is best of all.

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