On Dusting My Ancestors’ Things

Some folks light candles on an ancestor altar, but I polish my furniture.

I take out the lemon oil and gently clean and nourish the physical presence of those blood relatives that inhabits the furniture, ceramics, books and art that now live in my home after my mother’s death. I am the finish line for most of my family treasures, as I have no cousins and my sister didn’t want any of it.  I have been caring for this collection since I was a young girl. Dusting and polishing was the one chore I always loved to do.  I know the curves of each wooden table, bookshelf and cabinet intimately and every time I prepare to polish and dust is a thanksgiving and meditation for me.

As I attend to these pieces, many of them centuries old, with oils and polish, I think of the stories I know about them, and imagine the stories I don’t. I wonder who made them, how they came into my family, and how they were used and cherished by my ancestors before me.  A few of these pieces may have been so beloved that they made the brutal trip on foot and horse from New England to the Midwest in the early nineteenth century. I imagine my predecessors would be delighted to think that the small family-crested mirror they carried with them would survive to travel to the exotic West Coast of America (surely unknown to them) two centuries on.

I bring shiny life back to the dark wood keyhole dresser, which almost certainly belonged to my many-times-great grandfather who fought in the American Revolution, and I can consider the ways in which that commitment of his shaped the values I now hold. I polish the legacies of the Freemasonic tradition in my family, present on both sides, embodied in a gold tipped cane that now rests in my front hallway and contemplate the impact that seeing my grandfather’s masonic funeral had on many of my life’s preoccupations.  Gently dusting the kooky large, wooden, gold-painted angel, probably purchased by my mother in the early 1960s at a Detroit Goodwill and always known to me as Archangel Ralph, reinforces the fact that I can’t escape quirky, and shouldn’t bother trying.

I have no need for a formal ancestor shrine (even if I were so inclined, and honestly I’m not), because my ancestors inhabit every room in my house, and I get to contemplate daily what of them I embrace–their tastes, predilections and aesthetics, and what I reject. Of course since I didn’t know any of the people personally who originally had these objects, my musings are necessarily refracted through my own sense of self, what my parents knew or believed and what stories I now choose to craft.  But I do know that I am so very fortunate to have this rich physical and material legacy from my family. Now that my parents are both gone, I feel held and comforted by these objects and the spirits they possess, and now that they are with me, I finally feel at home, as we all start a new chapter of our story together.