Becoming an Ancestor

It’s hard to know when or exactly how it happened. For years the photos of Ben, fifing in the 4th of July Parade during All Star One, had shown up in our mailbox from various conferees – all of them sure that Ben would want their unique photo which commemorated July 4th.   Year after year, the pictures were the same: Ben with a red and white striped shirt on, fifing, next to Jack Dunn, who led the parade, followed by Roe Hendrick, who raised the flag and led the Pledge of Allegiance.

And there were photos of Jean Dunn, motherly, sweet, caring, always in a simple jumper and sneakers, handing out flags to the children for the procession, joined by her daughters Corny and Cindy, who gave out gold “doubloons” to the kids – to be used for ice cream at the snack bar – upon their return from the flag raising.

And there are even earlier photos in our archives from the mid-1950’s, of me, dressed as the Daisy Queen or a bride, and Ben, dressed as a cowboy or pirate, in the 4th of July parade, when it included costumes. It was the height of tradition, and it continues, year after year.

But one year, Jean Dunn didn’t come back – despite our departing conference chant. Corny and Cindy carried on, but we felt Jean’s absence keenly. And then, Roe Hendrick died. His sons, Jeff and Jon, stepped in to raise the flag their dad so loved. Then Jack died, too, and the mantle of ‘leader of the parade’ fell to Ben. And before you knew it, I was the one on the porch handing out the flags, just as Jean had done all those years ago. Without planning on it, we had become Jack and Jean Dunn, and Jeff and Jon Hendrick had picked up where their father had left off, at the flagpole.

Star Island, of course, is one of those places where traditions are handed on, generation to generation. The years go by, and while there are changes, they’re pretty subtle. The essentials of Star, the conferences we attend, and even the people who show up, remain quite constant. But over the years, people do become ancestors. They make this transition not only through death, but through the mantle of responsibility they have carried, through the respect they have earned, from the generations who have come before.

It is not easy, being an ancestor: we rely on their wisdom, their observations, their deeds and their aspirations, to guide us, now and as we set a path for the future.

Among us here today, people can tell the stories, about Albert Doolittle crawling under the hotel porch to check the support beams, about Edith Doolittle and Ruth Koe, who brought their vision of a lobby store to beautiful life, about Rozzie Holt herding her crew of chambermaids to make sure every dust kitten was driven from under every bed; about Harry Lent having the knack of showing up just at the very moment the contraband vodka was making an appearance from its hiding place in a Pelican’s room; about Fred McGill inspiring shoalers with his story of the Star Thrower, about Ginny McGill, sending off the homing pigeon to Portsmouth to find out how many guests would arrive for lunch.

They are, all of them, ancestors, beloved in memory now, but leaving a lasting imprint on the ground that makes up this island.

Rev. Josh Pawelek, Unitarian Universalist minister in Manchester, Connecticut said, “When we seek to know our ancestors’ story, [we want to know]: What obstacles did they face? How did they achieve liberation? For what were they thankful? What did they pass on to us?

“If we know more clearly who our ancestors were, we know more clearly who we are. Let us remember and honor the ancestors, those into which we were born, those into which we were adopted, ancestors of blood, ancestors of our generation, people who struggled so that they could pass on something of meaning to us.”

The song, “Season of Love,” from the musical “Rent,” asks the question:

525,600 minutes, 525,000 moments so dear

525,600 minutes, how do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee

In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife…

in 525,600 minutes

How do you measure a year in the life?

How about love?

How about love?

These people showed their love of Star Island, their love for many of us, through their labor, in their unrelenting and dogged determination to make Star Island a better place, for families, for those who come now, and for those who will come later.

I don’t know that most of our ancestors thought about the magic of Star, although I’m sure that Fred and Ginny McGill did, in their writings, their discussions of Star throwers and lights that we bring and take away. But every one of the people we honor today, every one of the people we remember in our hearts, shared the belief that this rather barren rock, this “stern and lovely scene,” was worth the effort.

Part of the process by which we honor our ancestors is this one: a gathering of those who loved them, who remember them and their good works in our world, who want to keep them alive by telling their stories, lighting candles in their memory, laying stones in their honor, sharing their names.

The Persian poet, Rumi, summarizes the gifts these ancestors brought, with these words: “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Through us, and through their deeds, they live on. Mary Oliver once asked, “Tell me: what is it you will do with your one wild and precious life?” To our great fortune, Fred and Ginny, Edith and Albert, Harry and Rozzie and Ruth and others as well, chose to bring their lives – their talents, devotion, dedication, and love — to Star Island. They believed in this place and what it stood for, and we, today, can do no less, in tribute to them, in hope for tomorrow.

Through us, the word is passed: person to person, Pelican to Pelican, shoaler to shoaler. The stories go on, the light continues to shine. So may it be with them.

So may it be with us. Amen.