Though the first post didn’t appear until a few days after, this blog truly began a year ago on Samhain. I made a vow to write of my journey in the worship of the old gods. I pledged it in fire, and in the witness of my ancestors. I’ve written of my journey, and I’ve written of my gods, but my ancestors have stayed in silent witness. But it is again Samhain, when the veil thins and the departed are near us, asking to be remembered with reverence. Two weeks ago I gave a brief toast to my departed grandparents around a blazing bonfire, then walked a candlelit labyrinth under the cold night sky to greet them in the center of the worlds. Tonight my fire is small, a single candle, but I honor them all the more on this holy night as we pass into the dark of the year.
I never met my grandmother. Dorothy Rose Dieter Bierschenk died before I was born, of a cancer that took her from her large and loving family. I never met her, but I feel I know her. From my earliest memories, she is present in a portrait that hangs in my parents’ bedroom, coiffed brown hair framing a face that I know from my aunts’ and uncles’, my father’s and my own. I know her from my mother, who says she sometimes sees her in her dreams. I know her from her fourteen children and my many cousins. I know her from the way the whole family talks about ‘Mama’, as if she were only in the next room. I know her from her handwriting in a handful of recipes; I wish that I had more.
I didn’t attend my grandfather’s funeral. Alfred Michael Bierschenk, my namesake, died in the spring of 2002 while I was away at college in Ohio, when I had a performance coming up and he had many mourners in Texas. I’ve never forgiven myself, though I thought then (and still suspect now) that he would have wanted me to uphold my obligations. I last saw him a month before, for Easter, when he was weak and bedridden; I remember the goodbye felt very final. But in my memory he is strong and vibrant, wiry and purposeful. I idolized him. Sometimes, when I’m cooking something new for friends and family, I’m surprised to find his words in my mouth: “don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!” When we play Screwy Louie (a kind of rummy), I smile in knowing that I’m doing him proud to go ahead and buy that card and bring the whole mess together to win the game. His house, with a big, dry field of grass behind, was where I first learned to love the sparseness of North Texas and the plains.
My grandfather’s second wife, Oletha Downey Bierschenk, died only a year later, and I missed her funeral as well. We’d all been estranged following Grandpa’s death, and I was still in Ohio. And yet, I should have been there, too. Oletha Bierschenk was the woman I called Grandma throughout my life. She married into a large and tightknit family, which must have been difficult, but I always felt love from her. She’s the reason I tell people that breadcrusts make your hair curl, and coffee puts hair on your chest. Even though I find Hummel-style figurines overly cute, I smile to see them because she enjoyed them so much. When I was accepted to Ohio State, she told me she’d been born nearby, in Piqua — a life and connection I’d never known about. I still think of her whenever I see Piqua on a map. She holds a complicated place in my memory, but she’s present in all the happy recollections I have of family gathered at Grandma and Grandpa’s every holiday.
I believe that the departed are always with us. Sometimes near, sometimes far, but never gone so long as they are remembered. Mama died before I was born; Grandpa and Grandma died when I was far away and I thought, youthfully, that the pressures of my life were more important than honoring the dead. But I have not forgotten them. Though I never met Dorothy Rose in her life, I feel I’ve met her in mine. And though I wasn’t at their funerals, I hold both Al and Oletha in my heart.
Mama, Grandma, Grandpa: I am honored to have you as my ancestors. I remember.