I come from a family of packrats. Sometimes it seems as if my ancestors saved all these treasures to hand down to me, from my great-great-grandfather's Civil War diary to my great-grandparents' love letters, and much more.
These artifacts resurfaced when I began to study West African spiritual practices with an initiated elder of the Dagara tribe. Through group rituals, I forged alliances with my ancestors, as healing as psychotherapy and charged with inspiration.
I decided to research and write my family's stories. I went to Mississippi to find where diarist William Davies lay on the Vicksburg battlefield, to Georgia to figure out how he survived three months as a prisoner of war at Andersonville. I visited the village where my grandfather was born in the Italian Alps and found my great-great-great-grandparents' graves in western Maryland.
Parts of these stories, which are in the process of becoming a book, can be found on my blog, News of My Ancestors.
Indigenous people believe our relations with our ancestors give depth and balance to our lives. When I started writing mystery novels, the ancestors pushed their way into the plot. The accidental crime-solving adventures of Ev Moon, a New Jersey realtor, proved to be the perfect vehicle for a fantasy of the Other World, where the unresolved dead reach out to the living for mutual assistance in the struggle to move to a more peaceful realm.
Even my short stories tend to touch on the legacy of the dead. "The Halfway Café," published online in The Otter and recorded as a podcast for The Strange Recital, is a tale of the afterlife, about characters from the first Ev Moon book, Stone's House. Also on The Strange Recital is a memoir, "My Ghost."
We all have ancestors, and we will all become ancestors. The West African rituals for relating to the dead are powerful, but they are difficult to transplant to the American world. I have devised a simple process called “Ancestor Interviews,” enabling us to connect to our ancestors without a need for psychic mediums or elaborate ritual. I am happy to demonstrate this procedure to a person or group, along with a reading of my work or as a separate activity. See "News/Events" on the menu for scheduled Ancestor Interview workshops.
My mutt family history
The first of my Puritan ancestors to emigrate were Thomas and Ellen Dickerman, arriving in Massachusetts 13 years after the Mayflower. My maternal grandparents each had a line of Welsh forebears (Davies, Hughes) and a number of Germans (Wingebach, Hergenrother). I also have Swiss German Mennonite ancestors, including Peter and Katharina Newcomer, who came to the U.S. in the late 1700s, their grandchildren later settling around Hagerstown, Maryland. My paternal grandfather, Attilio Ciliotta, grew up in Valle di Cadore, a village in the Italian Alps, and his wife, Rose DeMarco, was from Fanna, near what was then the Yugoslav border.
Tracking down these families has required compelling detective work and brought me closer to all of them. I love to tell their stories and to help other people tell the stories of their own families. A series of writing workshops in the Catskills area (upstate New York) is in the works, and I am available to teach "How to Write About Your Ancestors" at other venues.
I can be reached at violetsnow77 [at] gmail [dot] com.