A collection of family heirlooms and keepsakes, bookended by a small replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet and a skull. These altar pieces represent and celebrate my Saxon ancestors from Wollaston, Northamptonshire UK.
The tradition of toasting can be found throughout cultures the world over. A toast is usually given at a feast or other formal event, and is usually given in honor of someone and their achievements. Toasts are often given in honor of people who have passed away, and it is this type of toasting which I’ll be talking about, specifically in the Germanic Heathen tradition known as “Symbel”
Symbel is a three round drinking ritual where toasts are made to various gods, heroes and ancestors. Although I am almost never at a loss for words when toasting gods, goddesses or heroes, it is the ancestral round which I often have problems with. Mainly because a lot of my ancestors weren’t necessarily the nicest, most honorable, most sane, or even the most vaguely admirable people at all. It is arguable if some of my ancestors are worthy of a toast in the first place.
This is an especially difficult conundrum when in the presence of other Heathens who extoll the past accomplishments and honorable deeds of their deceased family members, particularly during this time of the year (known to many Heathens and Pagans as Hallows, Samhain, Winternights and Winterfylleth) where ancestral rites are performed. Sometimes when the mead horn is passed to me I’m at a loss when I reflect back on people like my parents. People who gave me life and were supposed to have loved me unconditionally, but who often chose to be careless, selfish, and downright cruel instead. Add to that, my father’s side of the family who (for the most part) stopped talking to me after my parents got divorced in 1987, and my grandmother on my mother’s side who I never really got along with, the amount of ancestors I can honestly raise a horn to with any bragging or praising becomes quite diminished.
In a nutshell, the ancestral round can often be like running a spiritual gauntlet for me. I’m never tongue tied when speaking about my maternal grandfather, as in my entire family, I consider him to have been the most honorable and admirable. There is only so much airtime I can give to him without starting to sound really biased though. The rest, well… they often present a very difficult challenge when I think about how they behaved while they were still here on this earth.
Sometimes the past comes back and bites me with a vengeance, and reminds me of who and where I come from whether I like it or not. This was totally apparent three years ago when I attended a party in my hometown in suburban, central MA. I have only set foot in my home town on a handful of occasions over the years, and always for very brief periods of time. One summer after getting re- acquainted, and quickly de- acquainted with a high school friend, I traveled up to my home town to meet up with her and her family for a Fourth of July party.
What I noticed right away is that my home town looked a lot like “the land that time forgot”. Virtually nothing had changed since I moved away from there 18 years earlier. Even though it was cool to see most of the local businesses still up and running and most of the woodland still in tact, it was really bizarre to see that the actual landscape and architecture of the town itself had remained almost completely the same.
Most of the people I met at the party were aging Boomers who had lived there their entire lives. They all seemed to know each other, had grown up together, and seemed to be REALLY interested in each others private affairs. It reminded me of exactly why I got the hell out of there in the first place. I couldn’t help but be amused though, and later on when a fire was lit and someone broke out an acoustic guitar, I decided to sing along with a few of the classic rock songs he was playing.
After I’d sung a couple of Beatles songs (which is ironic, as I really don’t like the Beatles very much) a man approached me and asked. “Hey, you look familiar, do you know Denis Morrissette?” When I heard this I froze. Denis Morrissette was my father, and was still alive when this man inquired with me about him. He had also grown up in the town I was hanging out in, but had moved to a neighboring ‘burb shortly after my parents got divorced in 1987.
My father was one word- nuts. Growing up with him I’d witnessed him kick cats, shoot dogs, beat up my mother, beat up me, knock my sister unconscious, get fired from almost every single job he had, and generally be an irrational, destructive asshole well over 90% of the time. He didn’t need to be under the influence of booze to do any of these things, in fact, it almost seemed like he was actually less of a jerk when he was inebriated. Later on after he’d been out of our lives for over a decade, my sister and I determined that he must have suffered from some type of multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia. At any rate, our memories of him were far from pleasant, and when he decided to make an encore appearance in my life in 2005 after tracking me down on google it took several very calm and patient people to talk me out of driving to his house and beating him to death. It seemed that he felt it was an appropriate time to write me several six plus page letters calling my dead mother every name in the book.
I must have turned every shade of green when this gentleman inquired about my father, but fearing that he may report back to him (my father had a bad habit of stalking people, namely my mother after she divorced him) I decided to lie by saying “Oh yeah, that’s my dad, he’s doing great!” The gentleman then continued to expound upon the fact that I looked, spoke and sung EXACTLY how he’d remembered my father singing, as well as having the same smart assed sense of humor. He’d remarked that my father and my aunt were always a lot of fun at parties, due to their musical and story telling talents, and that many of his old friends missed hanging out with them.
The fact that my father was at one time considered to be the “cool guy” at the party was something I just couldn’t get my head around. On the ride home later on I was completely at a loss. Was there something about my father that I missed? Had I been too harsh on him? Was he really that bad? Did my mother, my sister and I somehow MAKE him act like an abusive lunatic? All of these questions ricocheted in my brain to the point where I collapsed in total exhaustion once I’d gotten back home to RI, only to wake up feeling even more confused than I did the previous night.
After many torturous internal discussions over the years, I finally had to come to the resolution that my father actually did have some positive characteristics, although I had chosen to ignore and deny them after I stopped talking to him when I was 18. My father was indeed very talented musically, very charismatic and very intelligent. He was also very funny, and I can actually recall a small handful of times when I did enjoy his company. The overwhelming amount of cruelty in his actions though, was simply unforgivable.
So how do I honor someone like this? Or more importantly, why even bother honoring him? Well for starters, the resemblance between himself and I was apparently strong enough to get an entire group of his former high school classmates to remark about it, so the fact that he and I were of the same blood was pretty obvious. Do I simply pick and choose which aspects of him I find honorable and try to ignore the rest?
The answer to that question is difficult. I feel that any individual is the sum total of their deeds, and there is no way to undo the cruel treatment that my father showed me. I can however, speak of him honestly during a toast, and decide at that time if I choose to focus on his positive characteristics rather than his negative ones. A toast is never a time to be dishonest mind you, but it can be a time of healing, a time to vent, a time to heal, a time to laugh and even cry.
I have not forgiven my parents and I’m not sure I ever could. I am well aware that being angry at two people who are gone and can never be spoken to again is not healthy, but the damage they caused in my life as well as many of my other family members and even some friends of my family cannot be ignored or undone.
But, I can honor them for the gifts that they did pass onto me. The gifts of creativity, intelligence, resourcefulness and honor. They didn’t always display these virtues, and often failed miserably when it was imperative that they did, but I am grateful that they passed these gifts on to me. I still feel obligated to nurture those positive attributes while trying to starve the negative ones, even though the damage they did to me is far from repaired. I do this because I have no other choice, and I will not make up an alternate version of my childhood to try and suppress some very real issues and baggage I have.
I will not play the victim either though, or at the very least, I will try not to. I realize that if I were to go tit for tat with sob stories that there are a lot of people out there who have suffered far worse treatment from their family members than I have. In a way, I guess I am lucky to be surrounded by my mother’s artwork and to hear stories about my father’s entertaining teenage antics. I hope to someday be able to remember them as those people, rather than people I grew to excommunicate and eventually despise in my adult life. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to toast them, and in complete honesty say “Mom, Dad, I forgive you.”
I am still a long way away from doing that, and for the time being I aspire to merely accept rather than forgive my parents. I often wonder if forgiveness is a virtue worth lauding in the first place, and struggle between thinking that it is actually a very self centered act of capitulation, essentially a way of taking control of a situation in a very passive aggressive manner. I’m also skeptical of how sincere people who make statements like “I’m not angry at you, I’m just disappointed” and “you are beneath my contempt” actually are. These often come across like halfhearted attempts at trying to circumvent a situation where there is a perpetrator and a victim. A situation that the victim rarely feels comfortable with, and the perpetrator rarely admits to, yet a dynamic that our culture seems to fuel itself on.
This dynamic seems to be perpetuated by our modern consumerist culture that I hope to witness its demise of before I leave this mortal coil. This dynamic sadly seems to have infiltrated every single facet of our lives, even in places where it has no business rearing its ugly head. It is the profane idea that everybody and everything essentially has a price tag. This is an idea that is completely antithetical to people becoming self aware and empowered. It is so pervasive in our society, I think people propagate it completely unconsciously.
I often felt like my parents put an actual value and exchange rate on their love and acceptance of me, thinking of me as yet another accomplishment or possession of theirs rather than an individual. By the time I had reached adolescence they had changed quite a bit from their hippie days. They seemed to equate their embrace of that status quo as a sign that they had grown up, when in fact, I’d argue they had actually regressed to a much more self centered, primal “id” state.
I find it tragic that neither of them ever gained the self awareness to realize the folly of their self centered behavior. Perhaps it is my duty to try and cultivate alternatives to this unhealthy (and downright unnatural) programming now that my parents have passed on. And to once again speak of our ancestral connection, perhaps in some way, they are actually cultivating their own self awareness through me.