That Samhain we sat in the third floor Aerie. That Samhain we sat on the floor in the dark. That Samhain we sat with a row of candles and lanterns marking a pathway. That Samhain we sat smelling the sweet incense.
Between those lights, we sat on the floor in the dark and laid our cards out between us and read them, one for the other, in honor of the darkness of the New Year.
We sat on the floor in the dark with the lights marking a path for our Mighty Dead. And we called their names.
John Dawson Carl Buck
Annie Hull Dawson
Cecilia Birmingham Mydlowski
Ann Elizabeth Dawson Torrey
Kristen Bennett Birmingham
Florence Antonia Finder Birmingham
Leo Van Birmingham
And on and on…And then we came to one more, one more. One important one more. Did we say her name?
The Ancient Grandmother
She was 102 years old that Samhain. Near to 103. If she lived until December. But we knew, all our family did, that she would not live to December. And furthermore, that she had not wanted to live as long, so many years, so, so many years, as she had.
But she had had an extraordinary life. This tiny bird woman who cleaned parts of her house every day and did a deep cleaning every weekend. (Can you imagine?! I can’t. Maybe just me.)
But cleaning is not what made her extraordinary. She was made of sterner stuff than her tiny body might lead you to believed. She had borne five children. She had lived through World Wars I and II in Germany. Her husband was sent to the Russian front and was released from duty and left to find his way home. Thank god for forethought: He had stashed civilian clothing. A mythic figure himself, you might say. But we are speaking of his wife.
And when Berlin was divided in two, she, Anneliese Clarenbach Vedder, found herself and her house on the wrong side of things. She and Hellmut got their family to the “free” side of Berlin.
But without her linens. Without precious fabrics that were necessary to run her household.
And so she walked, Anneliese Clarenbach Vedder. She walked to the East. She walked through the checkpoint, under the eyes of Russian soldiers with high-powered weapons. She walked and did not speak.
She walked miles and came to the house that had been hers, and she collected her linens.
And she, Anneliese Clarenbach Vedder, walked back past those Russian guards, looking neither left nor right and not speaking a word. I imagine her barely able to see over the pile of linens, small as she was. But I don’t know.
And then, ten years later, there no longer being much in the way of work for physicists, she and her family emigrated to the United States. From the oldest, Dietrich, to the youngest, Wolfram, she and Hellmut got her family out of Germany. Hellmuthe, who had drowned when she was three, did not come.
But Hellmuth, named for his sister, did come. And married the daughter of Agnes Pitts and became the father of my wife.
We talk sometimes in my family about “legends.”
But stories like this one, stories about Anneliese Clarenbach Vedder, are myths. I do not mean the word “myth” to mean something untrue, ridiculous, or fancified. I mean it to be a story people will live and die for. A story like the American Dream, the City on a Hill (whether the Augustinian idea or the Puritan-colonial one), the French idea of Fraternité-Liberté-Egalité.
I mean a tale. A tale of life-changing significance.
They are tales that remind us who we want to be. They are tales we spin like straw into gold. We find the gold that is already in the straw, already in the lived experience of our forebears. In the barely-spoken story of Hellmuthe. In the silences of soldiers. And in the glorious stories we do get to hear.
The myth of Anneliese Clarenbach Vedder and the Russian guards reminds me of “Even the smallest person can change the course…” of a family’s history. She was tiny. But her spirit was not.
She Blessed Us with Our Name
So this mythic woman was dying during Samhain.
This mythic woman did not flinch when her granddaughter came out. In her late nineties, she asked my now-wife, “So how is your mate?” and she wanted to know.
She blessed us with her maiden name. She blessed us with it. Clarenbach. “Clear stream,” in German.
Julie (whom she always called “Yulie,” of course) and I had gone round and round about a name for our new life, our new family. We talked about images that we shared, that meant something to us, and one of them was light on water. And then Julie’s face lit up as she realized the meaning of “Clarenbach,” how Anneliese was the last of her line of Clarenbachs, and what it might mean to her for us to have her name.
She gave us the Clarenbach family genealogy book, embossed with the family crest, written all in German. She blessed us with and for her name. We treasure that book, and now it sits on an altar.
But She Was Alive
That Samhain, she was alive.
That Samhain, her spirit clung to her failing body. Just gently. The dark, owl-soft wings of Holiness waiting to fly her to her next destination.
But she was alive. No longer lucid, not usually. Julie had been to see her and talk with her and spend time. But now, at Samhain, we sat in the Aerie on the floor in the dark and we wondered. Do we call her name?
Everyone else whose name we called was already through the path of light into transformation.
But Anneliese Clarenbach Vedder was on her way.
And so, yes, we called her name, and wished her well.
And she died.