Robert Gallagher, Wake
We have ancestors from whom our bodies are not descended.
They are our spirit ancestors. Sometimes we don't know who they are. We only know that our family picked up a defining trait at some point. Sometimes we have the names of those people; we regard them as family friends or aunts or uncles. What our spirit ancestors have in common, though, is that they had the ability to leave a lasting impression. It might be that they possessed a grand idea or a skill, like negotiating, that the family didn't have before. It might be that they transmitted something as ephemeral as a love of music. Our spirit ancestors could provide us with examples of courage, or sophistication, or civility, or anything.
In the case of our nation, we are, as Americans, spiritual ancestors of the Haudenosaunee. The founders of our nation cited the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederation, as their best, living example of what our country could become. The Haudenosaunee tribes demonstrated that a democratic republic made of multiple states was possible. Such an arrangement could last for generations, perhaps proving as stable as a monarchy but more fair.
However, as far as the individuals on my mother's side, the most obvious spirit ancestor is a monarchist. He was Lovidicus Stockett, Surveyor of the Queen's Works. He rose in the Elizabethan court as an architect and builder of her majesty's infrastructure. Not only did he hold a high office, he set an example that allowed his descendants to hold offices in various royal courts. He was both a blood ancestor and a spiritual one, as he inspired family loyalty to the court that extended through the generations to Thomas Stockett, who hid Charles II in France after the first King Charles was killed. This eventually brought the family to Maryland in order to claim their land grants from Charles II when the monarchy was restored.
More recently, my mother's sister Lois assembled family history and played a part in relating the family temperament. My grandmother, Adele, probably also transmitted to us part of her brother Harry's spirit. Harry Tolson, along with the other Annapolis men in World War II, enlisted and survived the D-Day invasion but later died in a counterattack.
"You mean like Caspar?" my father said. He waved the cigar.
"Who's that?" I said, thrown off by the mention of an influence on his life that I hadn't heard mentioned before.
"A friendly ghost. Like your spirits, right?"
"Ha ha." With my right hand, I tried to clear the air of stale cigar fumes. It was futile. There was nothing to replace the smokey air except more of the same. "I meant like my Great Uncle Jack. He influenced the family."
"Oh, well, that makes sense. Uncle Jack was a good man."
On my father's side, we had to address the general lack of spirit ancestors. Maybe that's why my father didn't like the concept. Mostly, those influences had been wiped out. We should have had a spirit from Ireland but we were cut off from it. We should have had American Indian spirit ancestors but they were lost to us, too. That side of our family, such as we know them, mostly left us with stubbornness, grudges, a tendency to argue, religious fanaticism, suspicions about cooperating with a group, and a distrust of doctors.
To balance that, we also had Jenny Roberts, a spirit of joy and gentleness. And then there was the other, even more obvious spirit ancestor, Jack Light. He is the reason for my father's attempts at patience, for family loyalty, for understanding codes, for military service, for generosity, and more. Maybe Jack is the reason that my father felt competent to have a family at all and to sort through the spiritual ancestors available to everyone in books. There was a hidden spirit ancestor, too, from college: a philosophy professor that both of my parents liked. Through him, my father chose doctrines to guide him like those of the Stoics, Socrates, and Plato.
When we become spirit ancestors, we achieve our effect, perhaps, on the people around us. With hard work and luck on their side, the Stoic philosophers exerted an influence that we feel thousands of years later.
I brought up the idea of philosophers as spirit ancestors.
"No man ever steps into the same river twice." My father nodded as he quoted Heraclitus. "Because it's not the same river and he's not the same man. You always liked that one, didn't you?"
"It's one of my favorites, I guess."
Both of us turned our heads as my mother clomped down the stairs. Her hand appeared on the doorframe. She leaned. Her face appeared in the doorway.
"Are you two coming up?" she asked. She stepped out and put her left hand on her hip. "Everyone wants to go out to dinner."
"Everyone, huh?" My father waggled his eyebrows.
"Sure, I'll come," I said. I started to rise. My mother turned.
"Well, is my son paying?" My father hadn't left his seat. He really wanted that cigar.
"I thought I would treat everyone, Bob," she called. While she was employed and he was retired, she took a sort of glee in paying the bills. She could go places. He couldn't really object.
My father sighed. He leaned forward in his chair.
"Always borrow money from a pessimist," my father told me for the umpteenth time.
"Because they’ll never expect it back," we finished together. I knew that wasn't from a philosopher. That was Jack Benny, a spirit ancestor of skinflints and comedy.
"Yes, Ann, I'll come along," my father called up the stairs. He picked up a box of matches. "Give me a few minutes."