Arts & Culture


With my great-niece, Rayley, perched on my hip, I clamber with my husband and three kids through the three-room log cabin built by my great-great-grandfather, Johann Conrad, in the mid-1800s where my father and his ancestors were born. A 1932 … Read More

By / August 5, 2009

With my great-niece, Rayley, perched on my hip, I clamber with my husband and three kids through the three-room log cabin built by my great-great-grandfather, Johann Conrad, in the mid-1800s where my father and his ancestors were born. A 1932 calendar remained on the wall for over twenty years after they moved into the newly built farmhouse a few hundred yards away, and patches of wallpaper from the Depression still are on the walls today. My father had the house restored on the outside so that it wouldn’t deteriorate, but inside, it is dusty and run down. Nonetheless, I can imagine the world in which my father and my ancestors were born and raised.

All evening, with my brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles convening at the farm for supper, the past has seemed ever-present–from the blueberry bushes where Rayley and I pick blueberries  to the big garden where I spent many summers hoeing and weeding and picking vegetables. As dusk falls, and the kids wave sparklers around in the dark, I suddenly get the sense that ancestral ghosts are walking along with us, watching us, the inheritors of their hard work and their dreams. What do they think of me, their daughter, who has decided to leave, to create something different?

The next day, I’m standing in the hallway in the parish center of St. Joseph’s church in Jasper.  My son Daniel is using the piano in the presentation room to practice, in anticipation of the two week music festival in Portugal in August. As notes of Rachmaninoff float faintly in the hallway, a man in jeans and a flannel shirt comes upon me and asks me if I want to join him and two others in the archive room.  I happily follow, and we ooh and ahh over the various items behind plexi -glass: an old, brown Latin prayer book, four statues of the saints that once adorned the altar in St. Joseph’s, a relic box that contains cloths from popes and nuns. "Did you notice that each stone in this building is a little different?" the man asks.  "Every parishioner was expected to help erect the church, so each stone bears individual marks."  I spend about a half hour talking to the nice man, impressed by how knowledgeable and friendly and spiritual he is.   In the end, I introduce myself and he shakes my hand and says, "I’m Father Ray."

My sister Wanda whisks me and Daniel off to a mysterious destination out in the hills of Loogootee where the Amish clip-clop past in their horse drawn carriages, waving and calling out a smiling, "Hi!"  We pull up in front of a dome-shaped, 16-sided home which is surrounded on all sides by thousands of brightly-colored flowers.  A red-faced man waves his hands back and forth over his head in greeting. He’s Bill, the owner. He ushers us inside, where the dim space is lit with long strings of Christmas lights woven through hand-painted bird houses, some of which contain fake birds that squawk when you clap your hands or make a noise. Outside, we gaze out over the beds of red and white and purple flowers spread across his yard–each year he plants 13,000 impatiens, and an additional 13,000 or so seeds, and he spends 3 ½ hours every morning watering the blanket of flowers. Back inside, I spy a piano in the corner, and ask Bill, if it would be okay if Daniel could play a song, (trying to get in as much practice as possible). He says, sure, please, so Daniel sits on the piano bench underneath the twinkling lights and plays his Rachmaninoff.  When the last note ends, Bill smiles and claps, which prompts his fake birds to chirp and squawk and we all laugh, as if they are witnesses hovering above who want to make their voices heard, too. 

Just a week later, we are in Chicago, for my nephew’s wedding. Holding Anna’s arm, my mother-in-law makes her way slowly across the graveyard in Chicago where her parents and grandparents are buried. At the graves, she recites the prayers from the Yizkor book, and tells us a little about her parents, and I feel again the presence of ancestors, and a bitter-sweet, indescribable sense that the past and present are one moment. As I watch her mouth move silently over the Hebrew words, I am struck as I often am by how her faith and her practice are one and the same. The night before, over dinner at a restaurant in Chicago with my husband and three kids, we’d had a spirited, shall we say, discussion on belief and practice with respect to keeping kosher–does one have to believe in order to practice one’s religion, and if you don’t believe that God wants you to do it, then why are you doing it and are other reasons equally valid? I took the position that unless I felt that God required something of me, I wasn’t inclined to do it, nor did I think that it was necessary for anyone to feel compelled to do it for their parents or grandparents or tradition or anything else.

Still travelling, we go from Chicago to Portugal. It’s our sixth year coming to this festival, and when we arrive we are recognized around the small town. The shopkeepers smile hello, the waitress who speaks English at our café stops to chat with us, we smile hello to the woman who sits at the window and knits bright socks and we slip into the comfort and quiet joy that encountering the familiar and pieces of one’s past brings.

When Daniel auditions on the first day, and plays his Rachmaninoff, inevitably I am brought back to St. Joseph’s church and the nice priest who unlocked the door to the past for me and to the birdhouse man who has chosen to live his life however the hell he wants, to my father who has built a structure around the past to preserve it for the future, and to my mother in law for whom the past and the present, belief and practice are seamless and cannot be separated from one another. I can’t say for certain, but I can imagine that one day, when we meet our ancestors, it would be helpful for them if there are certain markers that are familiar and that help them to recognize us, even though we’ve carved our own individual stones.