I come from a family of packrats. As a writer, I sometimes feel 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. They have taken me on delightful adventures.
My great-grandmother, Mary Davies Wingebach, for instance, traveled from Kansas to Wales in 1892 to visit her father's relatives. I've made several trips to Wales myself, seeking places she described in her diary. I walked to the old churchyard on the marsh, where she sketched the cows. At a history museum, I sat on the wooden bench of a train car that used to take passengers from Swansea to Mumbles. In these places, I felt her looking happily over my shoulder.
Later Mary settled in New York City, worked for a publisher, and then married at the age of 30. She kept carbon copies of the typewritten letters she sent to her mother, describing her baby daughter (my grandmother) and the women's club she joined in the Bronx. These letters proved to be a vital source of detail for my novel To March or to Marry, in which one of the two protagonists is based on Mary.
Many family artifacts resurfaced when I was studying 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 Georgia to figure out how diarist William Davies survived three months as a prisoner of war at Andersonville. In western Maryland, I found the graves of my Mennonite great-great-great-grandparents.
Parts of these stories, which are in the process of becoming a book, can be found on my blog, News of My Ancestors.
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.
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 invigorating 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 families and their own lives. I teach writing workshops in the Catskills area (upstate New York)--see the Events page for current offerings. A series of online classes is in the works. I am available to teach "How to Write About Your Ancestors" and “Dig Deep: Writing the Past” at other venues.
I can be reached at violetsnow77 [at] gmail [dot] com.