Although I had, as a teenager, been peripherally interested in the history of my family, it was not until a few years ago that I began a serious genealogical enquiry.
After my father’s death in June of 2015 my siblings and I had gathered to clear out his apartment for resale, and to dispose of the last of his personal possessions. My brother David, who had assumed the task of organizing this event, at one point held up a manila folder he had found in my father’s desk and asked if anyone was interested in some family documents that it contained. I was definitely interested, and besides a small collection of birth, baptism and marriage certificates I found that the folder also contained some correspondence from a distant cousin of my father’s, Barbara Peters, along with an outline of her initial genealogical documentation of the Keenan family, of which she too was a descendant. Strangely, on the outside of the folder I found that my father had penned my name and underlined it. For some reason that notation struck me as powerfully as would a voice from beyond.
In answering that voice I found myself unknowingly falling into what my brother David would later call “the rabbit hole of genealogy”. And what a rabbit hole it is. One is transported back into another world and another time. As you methodically and relentlessly accumulate the documentation and the myriad details of your ancestor’s life a strange thing occurs. What starts out as just the skeleton of a person – a name and some dates – soon takes on form and flesh as you watch the trajectory of their life develop and unfold. You begin to get a clear sense of who they really were, or at least you imagine that you do, and more startling still, you find that you have come to care about them.
In 2017 Pixar released an animated film entitled “Coco” based on the traditional Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. During that festival, held on November 1st (my father’s birthday), altars are created and decorated with flowers, candles, pan de muerto, ceramic skulls, and most importantly pictures of loved ones. Food is also placed on the altar consisting of the loved ones’ favorite dishes and treats.
In the story of “Coco” on the eve of the Day of the Dead young Miguel travels into the spirit world to discover his great-great-grandfather and unravel a generations-old family mystery that was never spoken about, but which shaped all of their lives for the worse. As it’s conceived of in the Mexican tradition, there are three levels of existence: firstly the physical world of our mortal existence and secondly the spirit world, where our deceased ancestors live on in their full personality. The Día de los Muertos is a day of rememberance, appreciation and communication with those ancestors. However if they are not remembered by the living, their spirits soon fade away into a third level of amorphous undifferentiated existence.
That movie resonated deeply with me for a number of reasons.
Several years into the exploration of my family history I visited my cousin Martha who had in her possession some family letters and documents which I wanted to copy. Martha also had inherited some furniture from our great-aunt Retta (Keenan) Mulvaney, who had been a wellspring of love and support for my father and his siblings after their mother Margaret died when they were all quite young. Just before I left to return home Martha cleared off the old claw-foot mahogany dining room table of Aunt Retta’s and covered it with a fresh linen tablecloth. She went over to the highboy china cabinet, which still housed Retta’s collection of porcelain dishes, teacups and cut Waterford crystal. Martha opened the curved glass doors and withdrew two glass candlesticks which she placed on the table and lit. Then she took out a decorative ceramic canister and a small satin-lined silver box and placed them between the candles.
She looked at me for a minute and said, “I’m gonna give you some of the Keenan ‘mojo’”. She opened the canister lid to reveal an interior packed high with dried flower petals.
“These are the flowers from the funeral of Margaret Keenan when she died in 1932. I’m quite sure that Aunt Retta sat all the kids down around the kitchen table and had them strip and dry the petals. That’s something she would have done to keep their minds focused and their hands occupied.”
She took a small handfull of the petals and placed them in the silver box.
I thought I caught the faintest whiff of roses. There was something palpable in the air. A memory stirred. Martha closed the lid, handed me the box and blew out the candles. Then she returned the canister back to the china cabinet.
Whatever occurred in that moment has driven me relentlessly to come to know and write about the people who preceded me, about where and how they lived, about who they loved and how they died. And so at the end of a four year journey down the rabbit hole you might say that I have laid out an altar of remembrance to those who have passed on – so that somehow they may continue to live.
Mark Fay, June, 2019