Discovering Your Ghosts - The Wholesome Handbook

Before Hallowe’en was Hallowe’en, it was All Hallow’s Eve. The day of the dead.

On this night, the veil between worlds is so gauzy and tattered that you can almost see through it. This is the night that spirits slip between the cosmic warp and weft and return to the world of the living. This is the night for ancestors and ancients. This is the night for ghosts.

They spill into the streets, laughing. They’re giddy with the stink of life, the flush of remembrance, the heavy warmth of being. They remember their hands, how they gripped the hipbones of lovers and soothed the foreheads of fevered children. Their pale tongues cold against their teeth, they remember butter and peaches and mama’s famous borscht. With featherlight feet, they dance ceili and bhangra over the treetops. They shiver with pleasure to once again gaze up at the moon.

What a fabulous night.

For years, my ghosts have followed me. Every October, I am inexplicably drawn back into the thrill of discovering them. There is no greater yearning of my heart than to unveil the lives of the people that came before me, and to attempt to retell their stories. To find bits of myself in these people, and to find bits of them still living in me.
Discovering Your Ghosts - The Wholesome Handbook
Discovering Your Ghosts - The Wholesome Handbook
Discovering Your Ghosts - The Wholesome Handbook
Discovering Your Ghosts - The Wholesome Handbook
Discovering Your Ghosts - The Wholesome Handbook
Discovering Your Ghosts - The Wholesome Handbook
Ancestors are important. I wholeheartedly believe that. We didn’t spring fully formed from the earth – we were grown, pieced together nucleotide by nucleotide, incubated for thousands of generations in the DNA of our primogenitors. Our ancestors peer out from behind our eyes, and on this, the day of the dead, they finally come out to play. Hallowe’en is the perfect opportunity to begin to commune with your ghosts.

Researching your ancestors and learning their stories will change you – you will find heartbreak and triumph, you will be ashamed and inspired, and you will come away with a deep and abiding sense of belonging. It is magnificently soulful work.

Start by talking to your family. Ask them about their own lives, their memories and experiences. Call your grandparents, ask for photographs, and write every last detail down. You’ll be surprised at how far this alone will take you, as well as how many mysteries unfold in front of your eyes. My great great grandfather, for instance, is one. What was his real name? Karl? Wilhelm? Charles? Why did he change his last name from Kromhaus to Tyson? Who were his parents? Why didn’t he exist in any records until he was 27? The whole extended family has been searching for years, and we can’t find a damn thing. This infuriating vagueness, of course, makes him all the more enticing, and he’s become a bit of a giant of my imagination.

The next step is good, old-fashioned research. It’s important to compare your sources – I’ve found both Ancestry.ca and FamilySearch.org to be fairly accurate, but nothing is infallible in the digital age. Trust written records above all. Scour every municipal archive, census, and parish record you can get your hands on. Government databases are useful for birth, marriage, and death certificates. FindAGrave.com is terribly interesting, especially if you love cemetaries.

Follow every lead, read the boring documents to dig out the gems, and above all, have fun with it. I recently discovered that my 32nd great grandmother was Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, a legendary Welsh warrior queen who led her people into battle against the Normans in 1136. She lost her head at Castle Kidwelly. I’ve been trying to channel her when I need to be brave.

And every time I need to feel capable, I remember my 3rd great grandmother, Creszentia Meyer, who sailed across the Atlantic to raise thirteen (!) children on a homestead in Belle River. If she could do that, I can suck it up and learn how to fold a fitted sheet.

And my guilty pet project, my grandfather. Alan Dye. A farm boy with salt-of-the-earth parents, an absent and abusive father, and a handsome devil with the signature Dye-brow, a permanently-cocked right eyebrow that’s been gracing the face of every Dye man since at least 1810. My uncles, brothers, and male cousins all sport that eyebrow. Alan was roguish, manly, passionate and repressed. I can imagine the gravel of his voice, the fire in his eyes. A real heartbreaker, by all accounts. And hell, listen to me ramble – he’s still enticing women from beyond the grave.

On the day of the dead, our ghosts walk the streets. Invite yours in, ask them to stay awhile, and let them tell their stories. You might find a little more of yourself in the process.