Visiting the Ancestors

By Ellery Littleton.

Another summer has slipped away, and as always for me, there is more than a hint of nostalgia and regret that comes with the end of the season.  This year, those feelings came to the surface most poignantly during my visit in late August to the little rural cemetery in the Alberni Valley where my parents and much-loved matriarchal aunt are interred.

The cemetery is really just a field on the edge of town, near where I grew up, with fading gray gravestones and crosses poking up through the grass.  Many of them have familiar names from the past engraved on them, names from my childhood. 

I like visiting the cemetery.  It reminds me of the Alberni Valley as it once was, before I grew up and moved away.  Most of the time, it is silent, except for the whispering of the wind as it moves through the long grass and the trees, and the occasional croak from the ravens who live in the woods nearby.  Sometimes a car passes by or an airplane drones on above; then it is quiet again. 

During my August visit, I did what I always do when visiting “the ancestors,” as I call them.  I sit down on the grass next to the plot where they are buried and meditate for a while, breathing and remembering.  I visualize each of them as they were at various times during their lives; I embrace them; I tell them how much I miss them and love them; I tell them about what is going on in my life right now: about the weather and the cabin at the lake where we are staying, about how I am doing – my joys and fears, hopes and consternations; my wife and children; any old friends who might have died (there have been many recently); about how the big old house on River Road where we all lived for so many years looks, since it was refurbished by the new owners.

Usually, I shed a few tears and allow myself to really feel just how much of them I still carry, all around my heart, deep in my fondest memories.  I don’t indulge in the memories that are not so fond; that’s not what these visits are about.  I have dealt with all that anyway, and it has seeped into the compost of the past, transformed into nourishment of sorts.  I am who I am because they were who they were, and I have long since accepted that.

Leaving the cemetery, driving back out to the lake, re-immersing in my living family, is rather like coming slowly back up from the bottom of the deep pool of the past, to be here now.  It is comforting and I am happy to leave the bittersweet ambience of what was, which fades and slips beneath the surface of awareness for a while as we dig into a dinner of corn on the cob and salmon, with potato salad and cold beer.

For my book of poems, Travelling Light: Haven Haiku  published a few months ago, I wrote a series of haiku about family, after one of my visits to the cemetery.  These poems, I think, are universal, in that they speak to the experiences of most people, not just mine.  That was my intention, anyway, and several kind readers have confirmed that the poems worked for them. 

By way of saying goodbye to the summer just passed, and in reference to the tribes from which we have all sprung, I would like to offer here a few of these “family” poems.  I hope they work for you as well, and trigger a sense of recognition for you; maybe even a few loving recollections.


at the cemetery today

visiting the ancestors

visiting myself


just because they’re dead

doesn’t mean they don’t

need to be loved


you can’t blame

mom and dad



I wonder if they know

that I have long since

forgiven them


my relationship

with my father

improved dramatically

after he died


I saw my mother

in the mirror

this morning



who they were …

the essence of

who I am


dialogue with my father …

warmer softer

still a bit prickly


dialogue with my

mother …

she loves me

and I feel it …


… but she would

still like me

to do something

with my hair


Travelling Light: Haven Haiku is available in the Haven store.  Ellery will be offering two weekend Spirit Journal writing workshops at The Haven in 2017:  April 7-9 and November 3-5.

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