Ancestor Altars: Working With Your Relatives

Ancestor Altars: Working With Your Relatives October 7, 2019

It’s the time of the year where we hear the words “ancestor altar” much more often in conversation. The veil is said to be at its thinnest, and those who commune with those not in this realm stay busy with messages, while the rest of us wonder about our deceased relatives, and what to do, if anything.

Photo by Lisa Wagoner

Building an ancestor altar is a sacred activity that I look forward to all year. I keep an ancestor altar up all the time, but I set aside the month of October to pay deeper homage to them. I have a frame upon which many photos are hung, with photos of relatives represented the way back to great-grandparents. They are always with me, these ancestors. I see my father’s face reflected in my younger son’s, I glimpse my mom when I fix my hair sometimes, and I often feel my grandmother admonishing me when I am cooking. Lovingly, of course, but she taught me all I know about cooking, so I take care to follow her instructions.

Oddly enough, I am not one to regularly commune with the dead. When I say I hear my ancestors, I know it is them because it is not my voice I hear. I don’t hear anyone else, just my family. It’s not even a voice sometimes, it is more of a sensing, a gentle nudge, or a reminder. Sometimes messages come through via those who are gifted in these areas, and then I am assured that I am loved and protected from beyond this world.

This year, I felt called to dedicate my altar to my grandmother. She was a formative part of my childhood, and I spent many happy summers in her company. We are German and Austrian on my mother’s side of the family, so my grandparents were called Oma and Opa. My grandparents were magical. My Opa inspired three generations of wanderlust, as he was a restless soul who found comfort in traveling and exploring. He had a wicked sense of humor, and a twinkle in his eye that I can remember to this day.

My Oma, however, was our foundation. Quiet and unassuming, she was a strong woman, with a steely determination to get things done. Always pleasant, seemingly content, only exasperated when I asked her a billion questions. Oh how I wish I could ask her a million more. Details I wish I had paid attention to, names I forgot to write down. Yet all that doesn’t matter, because I know she remains in my heart.

This year, on my altar, I placed a black cloth to honor the veil. Oma very rarely wore black, but when she did, we knew it was a somber occasion. On it, I placed her photos, and some thread with a needle. She was a seamstress all her life, and always fixed my clothes for me, because I am short, and clothes were invariably too long or too big for me. She made me some beautiful clothes growing up that I wished I still had. I can remember them to this day, because I loved wearing the clothes she made me. When I wore them, I felt loved and protected. Indeed, I think she wove her protection magic into them. Later, when I was pregnant with my first child, I bought a pattern and some material, and asked her to make me a maternity dress. She laughed, and said, “I’m too old to sew anymore!” But I wheedled and cajoled until she gave in and made me a beautiful summer dress. It was the last item she made me, and I treasure it always. I like to think that her love and protection cradled both my children before they were born.

In addition to her photos and sewing items, I placed a beautiful bouquet of dried flowers. A local friend creates these beautiful bouquets, and I know my Oma would appreciate them. She had no use for fresh cut flowers, but dried flowers she would accept. Daily, I bring her a fresh cup of coffee, because, like me, she was a faithful daily coffee drinker. I am preparing a little vial of her favorite cologne, 4711, to place on the altar as well. She wore it regulary, because in her no-nonsense way, she found something she liked, so why change it? No use to try other colognes or perfumes, she would say. Every time I smell it, I am transported back to sunny days with her. It smells a bit like Florida water, which I also use for protection in my home, as for me it summons her memories and protective energy.

When I cook this month, I will leave her a little taste of what I’ve made. She made good, simple German food that filled your belly and warmed your heart. Flavorful and never too salty. She taught me a few of her recipes, which are cherished by me, because although  I like to cook, I never seem to make enough time to do it. She cooked daily. Although most of my family worked in restaurants, she had no interest and felt they were a waste of money, when her cooking sufficed.

I will light candles daily, in honor of her and all the other ancestors that have a place of honor behind her. Each morning, I will spend time with my Oma, working with her to provide clarity in my life. She was a minimalist before minimalism was in fashion. I try mightily to meet her standard. I am very close, but still a way to go. In these latter years of my life, I understand why things matter less than people or memories do, so I follow her example. I turn to her for mothering advice and patience, for resolve when I feel weak, and for support when I feel alone. I am working with her this month to provide a foundation for the winter ahead. Seeds I have planted have come to beautiful fruition, and sometimes the harvest can be overwhelming, so I need her steadiness to guide me.

This Samhain, create your ancestor altar. It can be as elaborate or as simple as you would like. Pay homage to one or many of your relatives and ancestors. Work with them. Let their life and presence fill you with what is needed in your life: conviction, steadiness, adventure, calmness, and all the lovely, beautiful ways they can fill what you’ve cleared this season. Let their love fill the empty spots. Let it warm you and guide you in the months ahead.


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