It is a strange thing, the idea of healing the wounds of our ancestors. It requires going deep into the Earth that holds the great and intricately entwined roots that were their relationships, experiences, cultural identities, and the historical events through which they lived. I couldn’t really begin the long process of tending to my Grandma Winnie’s wounded roots (she, a crone when I was born into her life in 1959), until I became a crone myself over fifty years later. I wonder if that is part of the work of crones. If somehow when we are the oldest living generation, with memories that stretch back into the lives of the dead, yet engaged with several generations of the living, that we are more prepared to help heal those roots. I wonder if croning makes us more open to the hard magic of tending those wounded roots so that the generations from which they sprout, can fly freer, with mended wings.
Growing up I only knew my Grandma Winnie was a complicated and mercurial being who could go from cackling delight to flashing anger in short order. But I didn’t know why. Growing up, I only knew her in the second half of her life, an old, but still wild woman, living in a shack with my grandfather in a small mountain town in Northern California. I only knew her surrounded by the history and stories of his family, but not hers. When I was a child, if I asked her about her own family roots she would simply say, “There are some things better left forgotten.” Yet, by the time I was an adult I had became aware of some of her wounded roots.
As a toddler she had lived through the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, and ended up in an orphanage. I learned that she had a younger brother with whom she hadn’t spoken since they fought over something she “couldn’t remember,” back in their twenties. When I was in my thirties and she was in in eighties, I finally convinced her to call her estranged brother. His widow answered the phone, he had died six month before. I was old enough at that time to feel that she carried a sense of shame and deep wounds, but could not find a way to get her to even talk about it, and so I could not try to follow those wounded and exposed roots down into the ground of her younger life.
After her death in 1992, my father and I cleaned out her shack, and he stored away photos and papers. Twenty later, when he died, I inherited them. As a witch, the dead and I have always been friends, and somehow, having my father as an ally on the other side of the veil seemed to make me bolder about wanting to follow my Grandma Winnie’s tender roots down. With my father now on her side of the veil, there even seemed to be a shift in her presence. She seemed to move aside and no longer block my curiosity and wondering. So I began that long and dark descent down those wounded roots.
However, even though Grandma Winnie had now given me her tacit assent, she was not an active presence as I learned about her family of origin. I learned that Grandma Winnie’s mother, Josie, died of cancer a year and a half after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. The family was still living in a refugee encampment made up of the displaced poor from their South of Market immigrant neighborhood when my great-grandma Josie died. My grandma Winnie was not an active presence as I learned about her father’s violence, and why the children were taken from him and placed in an orphanage. All that information began to shed light for me on why my Grandma Winnie thought she should be ashamed of her family.
My great-grandma Josie on the other hand was delighted to be remembered after generations, and I strongly felt her presence. She and I fell deeply in love as she guided my research and chatted away about every scrap of information I discovered while pouring through census records, old city directories, and stacks of newspaper editions (both of us excited at each mention of their names or any news of their neighborhood). My great-grandma Josie added a running commentary as I poured over books about San Francisco in the 1880s, 1890s, and through the turn of the century. She guided my historical research and she introduced me to her first husband and their nine children. As I uncovered the facts of their lives, her strong presence helped me feel her heartbreak at the deaths of four of their children, and then the death of her first husband. Yet, she also helped me feel the joy and pleasure she’d had in her 43 years of life growing up Josephine “Josie” Juarez Romero in Santa Barbara, then moving to wild San Francisco and living as Josie Lindsey with her first husband and their brood, and finally as Josie Smith when she married her second husband, my great-grandpa David and gave birth to my grandma Winnie and her little brother. I realized that I now knew much more about my grandma Winnie’s family that she had ever known in her own life.
This wonderful relationship and knowledge of my great-grandma Josie, gave me the strength to travel down the wounded roots of my great-grandpa David. In my grandma Winnie’s papers and photos was a document from The California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in which David was portrayed as a violent alcoholic. That was the only scrap of information Grandma Winnie had of him. I found myself holding his presence at bay as well, although twice he’d come to me in dreams. I continued to do historical research about him. I found out he’d been a carpenter. I found that he’d lived across the street from my Grandma Josie and her first husband, and that they’d married three years after she’d become a widow. I found out that not long after Josie died and the children had been placed in orphanages, that he came back to the court to make sure they knew his step-children we eligible for the Civil War pension of Josie’s first husband. I found out that my great-grandpa David never remarried, and that he’d died in the 1930s. Still, I didn’t feel comfortable embracing his presence for a long time. I realize now that I was feeling the echo of my grandma Winnie’s sense of shame, based on the very little she’d know about him in her life.
Deep into the process I finally asked a dear friend who is a powerful worker of magic, if he would help me build a magical container/space so I could finally meet my great-grandpa David. We went far into the Redwoods to a place strong with its own magic, and cast a circle. My friend called Lady Love and Father Time. I stood swaying following my own DNA down those tangled wounded roots. I was expecting pain and suffering, violence and anger. Instead I found a gentle presence who had lived through great grief. My great-grandpa David and I spent time just being with each other.
I finally had a sense of my great-grandpa that, while not excusing that period of violence in his life, explained it. I understood with compassion his deep love for my great-grandma. I understood the deep friendship he’d had with her first husband and the sense of responsibility he’d had for not only his two children, but all his step-children. I understood his PTSD and self-medicating with alcohol. As I followed those wounded roots down, encountering the rocks they had grown around, my own heart flooded with compassion and love for my great-grandpa David and our whole extended family.
My understanding and compassion for all of them flowed down through my own roots, through my DNA, though my father’s roots, through his DNA, through my grandma Winnie’s roots, through her DNA. My understanding and compassion for all of us flowed through each wounded and tender root, down to the people who were the parents and family my grandma Winnie never knew in life.
Then something amazing happened. I felt the wounded roots of my ancestors begin to heal. With that healing process has come joy. Grandma Winnie’s presence is vastly different. There is less shame now that the story is more fully known and understood with tenderness, gratitude, and deep love. I swear she even looks different in all the old photos I have of her, more buoyant, no longer weighted down. Now I feel those same roots feeding my generation and the generations after me with greater strength and new sweetness. It is a strange thing, this idea of healing the wounds of our ancestors, but if we can, it indeed does allow the generations that follow, to fly freer, with mended wings.