Do you ever think about how it’s just shithouse luck that you’re even here?
In The Book of Secrets, Deepak Chopra shares the experience of throwing his father’s ashes into the Ganges River, as is custom in India. The family priest came with a register. In the register was an entry of his father, when he brought the ashes of his father to the same place. Then, there was an entry of his grandfather, when he brought the ashes of his parents. And so on, and so on.
“How far can you go back?” Deepak asked the priest.
“To before Christ,” he said. “To the year 323 BC, when Alexander the Great came to this country with his armies from Macedonia.” Then the priest said, “Sit down. The fragrance of your ancestors’ souls is here, even though every generation comes by like a passing breeze. Write a note to your children, when they bring your ashes here, and your grandchildren when they bring the ashes of your children.”
And looking over the names of his ancestors, Deepak feels the great miracle of his own existence, because of those who existed before him, who connected with another to create, back and back and back. But, it’s more than that, as interviewer Duncan Campbell points out: “So you have a sense of your whole being extending backwards through, literally millennia, so the notion that we’ve all been, as you point out, in ourselves at one time a cloud, a mountain breeze.”
Although we don’t have this custom here, of the son burning the body of the father and then throwing the ashes in a sacred, spiritual river, or of a grand register recording our ancestry, there is nothing preventing the flow of stories from one generation to the next.
My father was quiet, stingy with his stories, so I’m doing an archeological dig on him. My mother was more generous, sharing stories about her father, a wiry, pipe-smoking, harsh-talking man with a Gaelic accent who always scared the crap out of me when I was little and on our annual summer visit to Canada’s east coast. But, when I picture Archibald Hoban as a young man, scared and freezing in the north Atlantic, I’m so grateful for his survival, which allowed him to fall in love with Naomi Keel, creating my mother, Jeanette, who fell in love with my father, Vincent Clair Hartley.
William Hoban, my mom’s grandfather, was a fisherman from Burin Bay, Newfoundland, who built his own boat, then travelled all over the world, selling fish for supplies to survive the harsh winters. His ship, Undaunted, had four fishing dories, two on each side, with two horse-power engines. William was captain, my great-uncle Bill was first-mate, my grandfather Arch (born in 1900) was second-mate and my great-uncle Fred was the cook.
When Arch was just 22 or 23, this crew set out for Portugal with a load of fish, planning to return with a load of salt. Unfortunately, they got stranded in ice, wearing just summer clothes. By the time they were rescued and taken to Halifax Harbour, all they had left to eat were raisins.
After that experience, my grandfather Arch looked at work prospects on land, finding a job in Sydney, Cape Breton at the Dominion Steel and Coal Plant. He was a rigger, climbing high stack chimneys and inspecting inside. One day, he and his best friend, Jack Rhymes, were waiting for an elevator. Jack stuck his head inside the shaft, to see if it was coming, and indeed it was, so close that, like a guillotine, it took his head right off.
After that experience, Arch quit the steel plant and enjoyed a long career as a painter at Sydney City Hospital, also becoming an active and articulate spokesman for CUPE Local 756. It’s quite likely Arch’s passion for ensuring fair treatment of his fellow workers was sparked by the tragic death of his good buddy, Jack. Also, Jack’s widow lived next door, so Arch watched her struggle to raise her four sons on mother’s allowance and then helped her rebuild her house after it was destroyed by a lightning strike.
Write a note to your children. Share your stories. They might not want to read or hear them right now, but by golly, they will one day, as will their children and their children and . . .