This quirky Halloween ritual made me see my family in a whole new light.
My friends have a tradition they do every Halloween. Since it is traditionally the day of the year when the veil between this world and the spirit world is at it’s thinnest, they have an ‘ancestor dinner’.
The idea is that everyone brings photos or memories of their ancestors, and we all eat a meal together in silence, with the memory of our ancestors. And then there’s some drinking and storytelling afterwards.
And so I was digging up some photos of my family to take along. There’s one photo of my grandfather on my father’s side that I’ve always like, so I got it out and held it in my hands.
And a strange feeling came over me.
I realised that right now, I am quite a bit older than my grandfather was when this photo was taken.
Suddenly I saw my grandfather in a whole new light.
I was young when I first saw that photo, and the man in the photo didn’t seem all that different from the man I knew then. My grandfather – wise, strong, in control.
(And from the perspective of an eight-year-old boy, everyone looks old.)
But now I’m looking at this photo with fresh eyes. He’s probably early 40s, and quite a bit younger than I am now.
And so now, rather than seeing my wise old grandfather, I’m seeing a man in their mid-40s, just doing the best they can.
I’m seeing someone who probably doesn’t have it all figured out. Few 40-year-olds do. (Few 90-year-olds do!) I’m seeing someone who is probably wrestling with all the usual stresses of life – work, raising a family, putting food on the table, educating the kids.
I’m also seeing someone whose daily life is hemmed in chaos. The war, the years after the war, the fascists, the communists, the nuclear age.
Suddenly, I’m feeling two things I haven’t felt before.
The first is compassion. Like, geez, bloke. You had it tough. You didn’t have all the blessings that I have now. You had to wash your socks by hand, and that’s just the start of it!
Us grandkids were never shown the realities of your life. We were too young. You don’t burden kids with stuff like that. You let them live in the peaceful fiction that everything is fine.
But now I know there must have been so much going on that we just never knew about. That your life would have been full of stress and anxiety and drama… just like everyone else’s.
And so I feel compassion for the hardships that you must have endured.
And the other thing I feel is gratitude.
When I looked at the hardships you must have endured, the challenges you must have overcome, the bullets you must have dodged, just to set us up in this lucky country we call Australia, I feel deeply grateful.
My life is the gift you gave me.
And now I feel ashamed that I never thanked you for it. I had to come this far in life before I could even recognise the gift for what it was. I’m embarrassed that I’d never thought to look up from my own indulged, self-centred and childish understanding of my place in the family.
Perhaps I just wouldn’t have understood until now.
But I just wish I could shake your hand and say thanks.
The other thing that comes is the realisation of that old truth – we’re all just doing the best we can.
My father and grandfather were products of a particular time and a particular culture. Maybe it would have been nice if they were more “emotionally available”. Maybe it would have been nice if their views were more ‘modern’. Maybe it would have been nice if they didn’t think moral character was won with the slap of a belt strap.
But that’s just how it was. They were just doing the best they could.
All my ancestors were just doing the best they could.
And the best they could do has won me the life I have now.
So thanks, ancestors. I wish I could go back in time and shake every one of your hands.
But I can’t. So I’ll have a drink for you instead.