Ancestral Frið

Edward and Ingrid walked up the broken concrete steps to their Aunt Millie's house, their Mother shooing them forward, a casserole dish in her hands and using her foot to shut the chain link gate behind her.

"Now, children, go up to the porch and ring the doorbell." Edward and Ingrid looked at each other warily, each urging the other to do it. Edward was a year older than his sister, so it was his name that his mother snapped out: "Edward Karl Williamson!" she needed not go farther than that, the doorbell rang for almost too long, so quick Edward was to ring it.

They waited, in silence, for Aunt Millie to appear. After a few moments, just when Ingrid and Edward looked at each other in hopes that the old lady wasn't home, the rapping sound of a cane began to get louder.

"Go away!" Said the voice from inside.

"Aunt Millie, its Sarah, and the children. We brought you some food."

"Don't want none!" Said the voice, the curtain fluttering slightly as if someone was taking a peak.

"Aunt Millie, its my Mothers Lasagna. She always said you liked it so much." Mom's smile was wide and as forced as ever.

"I don't care, I said I don't want none, now go away!" Said Aunt Millie, the cane smacking the wooden door for emphasis.

"That's fine, Aunt Millie. I'll just leave it by the door. If you don't want none, Will will be by tomorrow when he comes to mow the lawn."

There was a pause, and the voice said, "Well its about time. Thought I wasn't gonna be able to see the street for the weeds!"

Mom's smile was rigid by this point, "Well, Will has been busy with work. He'll be by in the morning to take care of that for you. We won't bother you no further. Come along children."

The children breathed a collective sigh of relief as they practically bolted off the front porch. A little later, in as Edward sat next his mother in the car, he sighed. "Mom, why do we have to keep going there? She's mean!" Ingrid nodded from the back.

"I know, Eddie. But she's family."

"Family shouldn't treat you like that!" Said Ingrid from the back.

"Family is family, Ingrid Alice Williamsdaughter!" Her voice became stern, "Your Aunt Millie is 82 years old, and her children have all moved away or passed on themselves. If we didn't remember she was there, no one would. She may not like us, but she is still family. And you do for family."

"But momma, why?" Ingrid asked, plaintively.

"Because your Grandmother asked your father and I to look after her sister when she died. You both were too young to remember, but your Grandmother used to live in that house as well. And when we pour her a cup of coffee on Mother's Night, I want to be able to say to her that we have kept watch over her sister, as she asked."

Ingrid paused, and Edward spoke up, "So we do this for Grandmother, not Aunt Millie?"

Mom smiled, softly, and touched the top of Edward's head. "No, son. We do this for Grandmother, and Aunt Millie."

The question of honoring our ancestors, when they might not want to be honored, or might not necessarily have been good people, is one that comes up a lot in the context of the heathen religion. What I hoped to illustrate in the story above is what we do is not always about the immediate relationship, but rather the web of relationships that exists among all times and all peoples everywhere. We honor our ancestors because they are our ancestors, because without them we would not exist.

Sometimes, we honor them because they are good people, but other times, we honor them because they were loved by good people. We will never know, in the end, what lies beyond the Iron Gates of the underworld, but I do know this, no one likes to be forgotten; and no one likes being abandoned. The relationship web for the dead can be as complicated and unknowable as the web of the living. The values of frið even today can be seen where two brothers will come to blows over something as simple as dinner time, but an outsider so much as says a harsh word and those same two brothers turn their fists outward.

Our relationships with our dead are extensions of that frið-web. Our strength comes not only from the way things are when relationships are good, but also how we act when the relationship is difficult or strained.

Some questions to think about, on the relationship between the living and the dead:

  • Is it possible for you to have a relationship with a family member of another faith?

  • Does honoring our ancestors mean we think them without fault?

  • Does not speaking ill of the dead mean that we are no longer impacted by their actions?

  • Does your Great-Aunt at 82 ever stop being your Dead Grandmother's Sister, or your Great-Grandfather's Daughter?

  • Are the only relationships the Dead have with the Living?

  • What happens to the dead when they are forgotten?

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