When I was a young girl, we always went to my grandmother’s house for Christmas eve. She had a lot of magical old-fashioned decorations and we would gather in the formal living room and drink eggnog made with real whipping cream and sing Christmas carols. Over the mantle of the fireplace, a very large portrait hung of my great-great grandmother. Born in 1820, she lived to be 100, and this year is the 100th anniversary of her death. I was named after my grandmother who was named after her. And I even have features like her – high forehead, small chin and cheeks, long nose, and blue-gray eyes. I learned recently she went by her middle name Eliza. Now she resides in my dining room and has been there for the last 35 years.
The funny thing is, she is SO BIG in my house that she became largely invisible to me. When I printed 4×6 pictures of a lot of my other ancestors to frame and gather for an ancestor altar, I didn’t print one of her. And when I started a class working with ancestors in June, Eliza didn’t come to mind much until recently. Which is so odd really, based on how much she is literally in my life. I walk by her every day. Lately though, she has been coming to mind a lot and she clearly wants to be heard.
She lived in Port Royal, VA, was the wife of the town doctor and had 5 children. She was 41 when the civil war exploded all around her. A family story says that her youngest son, my great-grandfather, was crying in the basement of their house while it was being shelled by the Union army. And this portrait of her was stored down there too. Until today, I never thought that Eliza must have been with him. What was it like for her? Her husband had left to be a surgeon in the big hospital in Richmond during the war, leaving her alone to protect her children in the middle of combat. I wonder so much about her life during those years in the middle of more chaos than we can possibly imagine. Did the war silence her or release her voice? Did it crush her soul or make her stronger? Or both?
In this portrait, she is a young woman of about 20, not yet married, with her life ahead of her… waiting. I like to think that she was a spirited young woman behind the strictly shaped curls and the barest of smiles. That she longed for passionate love and swooned over roses. Did she desire to be something other than what society allowed her to be at the time? Certainly, she had no idea she would be in the middle of a war zone some 22 years hence.
What is her message to me now, in the last month of the year of the 100th anniversary of her 100th birthday, at the winter solstice and a great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter as a Christmas star? It is like I am hearing her voice across the years, like she is my grandmother whispering in my ear at bedtime. I seem to hear her say: “Wait and listen, and the land will let you know what to do. Always be a mother first, and last. Everything needs mothering. Find time to rest and let the earth rest. She was so tired after that war.”
In 2014 I created an artwork titled “Waiting”. There is a feeling that resonates for me between this image and Eliza’s portrait. Like they both are waiting with open hearts for what wants to be born. To let seeds that are dormant, while still vibrantly alive, germinate and gestate. Seeds that are sleeping and resting and waiting, held on the wings of angels, as we approach the winter solstice and Christmas. May we be able to follow her lead and rest also, even if only for a day or two, as we wait for what wants to unfold.