Rattling Bones

I just returned from a family reunion—the first time this branch of my family has gathered in nearly 30 years.  I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to reconnect, or to bear witness while the old guard, our parents’ generation of wise mentors, walk among us. But what I learned shook me to my core.

As in every family, we have genealogists and historians.  I was proud to learn from them that our ancestors immigrated early—1600s for one group and 1700s for another, both  intent on escaping religious persecution from their homelands.  I was proud to learn that our ancestors fought as Patriots in the American Revolution and, pushing roots deep,  helped build this country.  I squared my shoulders, imagining wonderfully creative and heroic tales of the men and women of conscience from whom we descend.

But, as any good story is rife with conflict the secret door opened, skeletons emerged, and bones began to rattle.  I was not proud to learn that two of our ancestors owned slaves.

As that stark truth sank in, my brother whispered, “I’m not feeling so good about our family right now.”  The power of understatement.

Scenes of human beings bought and sold as if they were livestock, of people “inherited” as wedding gifts, and images of whips and chains, manacles and slave ships, of families wrenched and broken into fragments all sprang to mind.  My stomach turned.

I’ve written novels about the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the need to stand for the freedom, rights, and human dignity of others, no matter what the chaotic world demanded, no matter the clamor for greed.  I’ve written about the fair treatment of immigrants, and raised my voice against human trafficking of all races, ages, and genders.  And, now, to discover this in my own family . . .

It’s simply not enough to say, “Well, it was wrong, but it’s just the way things were at the time.”

“Just the way things were/are” is a slippery slope.  It’s what people in every generation have said when the injustice they perpetrated against others or their environment was thrown up as a mirror before them.  It’s the revelation of an ugly reflection.  And even though most of us are not talking human slavery, it’s what we’ve all said in our time.

Sadly, I can’t change what happened in the past—not my ancestors’ past, not even my past.  I can’t heal the injustice or unthinkable cruelty to others or take away inherited shame.  But I can change my legacy and offer hope for the future by taking action in the present.  I can raise my voice, take a stand, and open my hand for the good and uplifting of others.  I can step off the slippery slope of “just the way things are/were” onto firmer, more solid ground.

I don’t know how future generations will view the decisions I’ve/we’ve made.  But I pray for the conviction, courage and determination to right whatever wrongs as soon as I identify and understand them.  I pray for forgiveness, and for the courage to look, unflinching, in the mirror raised before me.

Bones will rattle, but I’d rather drag those skeletons from the closet now and allow their ugly history to inspire me to do better than to leave them for my children’s children to discover and weep over in shame.  What do you think? Can we learn from the mistakes of our past or our family’s past to inspire a better future?

The garden is draped in emerald green—ready for a late spring prom.  Recent rain and the sudden surge in temperatures have yielded hothouse growth in the surrounding forest.  We’re suddenly, vibrantly cocooned, and summer’s not even begun.

The changing seasons are gifts, and the blossoming peonies, just in time for Mother’s Day, divine!  Did you catch their fragrance on the breeze?

How about some sweet iced tea on the porch?  A sprig of mint?  We’ll settle into wicker rockers, watch the Carolina wrens build their nest in the hanging fern, and talk.  There’s much to plan, much to do.

I look forward to seeing you here, in the garden, next week.  Happy, Happy Mother’s Day!

God’s rich blessings for you,

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  • Hi Cathy,

    What’s that saying? “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”

    Learning from past mistakes is wise. We can’t change the past, but we can take responsibility for our own decisions.

    Susan 🙂

    • Cathy Gohlke says:

      All so true, Susan. Understanding mistakes and the ways actions hurt others in the past must surely create a springboard, if not an opportunity, for us to do better in the future!

      Thanks so much for stopping by.

  • doris fodor says:

    When I first read this I just thought Wow, but I agree with Susan who said ‘those who ignore history are doomed to repeat’. I can’t say much, I don’t know of my ancestors so I don’t know what they did or didn’t do. Also how future generations will look back on my decisions which I never thought of before just now. This is food for thought. Maybe a chance to right a wrong by writing a story about having slaves and then see the light about how wrong this is and becomin a voice for change. Will not change the past but maybe help you feel you had a chance to make up for what your family’s past.

    One other thought the book about the Titanic was awesome. I am retired for 2 years and this February I returned to reading for pleasure which I gave up about 25 years ago after returning to school and reading was a necessary thing for the schooling and then as many required reading to maintain my job. But now to read as long as I want to. I can read a book in a day if want to.

    Thanks again Cathy keep writing,

  • Cathy Gohlke says:

    Thank you, Doris! I’m so glad you enjoyed “Promise Me This.” It’s a book I loved researching and writing, and its themes are very near my heart.

    I agree with your idea of writing a book about slavery–the amazing thing is that I’ve already done that, never knowing my family’s history! My first novel was, “William Henry is a Fine Name”–about the Underground Railroad, in which I dealt with the aspects and issues of slavery. My second novel was a sequel, “I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires”–which followed the characters through the Civil War.

    Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

    Enjoy your retirement and your reading!! God’s blessings for you!

  • JAN says:

    I just finished Promise Me This and fond it to wonderful I hope you write a sequel to this to follow Annie and Michael with their new life in New Jersy as well as family
    This is my frist novel I have read that you have written and now finding myself going back to the store for more.
    thank you so much the novel was so good it was hard to put down and well be sharing this with my friends.

    • Cathy Gohlke says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed “Promise Me This,” Jan! I’ve been thinking about the possibility of a sequel, but am not sure at this time. I, too, would like to know more of how things turned out in the years ahead!

      I hope you enjoy my other books. “Band of Sisters” will release in September.

      God’s blessings for you!

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