I have been walking each day on the Catharine Valley Trail in Montour Falls, New York. The trail is named for Queen Catharine Montour, an Iroquois woman who led her people across Seneca Lake to Fort Niagara when General John Sullivan’s soldiers were on a rampage to destroy every Iroquois village in New York in the summer and autumn of 1779. Her name is perpetuated everywhere here, and there is also a memorial with the words, “Always Remember This.”Is this a feeble attempt by ‘white men’ to appease their guilt? Every Iroquois village was destroyed and the harvest of their three sisters – corn, beans, and squash was burned to the ground. At Fort Niagara, starvation ensued during one of the harshest winters of the times. And yet Queen Catharine is a mystery and no one really knows much about her. I walk with her and other ghosts of the past, including my own spectral memories of childhood. These ghosts breathe down my neck in the autumn breezes, sometimes gently caressing, but other times briskly groping for acknowledgment.
We have heard numerous times the words of the philosopher,Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”The forced feeding of dry, stale, and unpalatable history lessons in school did nothing for me. But I did feel the rumble of bones shaking out their stories within the graves of the cemeteries I rode my bike through. And sometimes I heard the blood curdling war cries of the Indians in the forest. A child’s wild imagination, no doubt, but what of this spirit of fancy? Can it become the conduit to bring forth the past in bite sized digestible pieces?
The ancient wonder of Samhain, a Celtic festival that we call Halloween today, is all about receiving the wisdom of the ancestors. Festivals are held on October 31st and it is believed that the border between the living and the dead dissipates. How apt it is to be in this certain place of ghosts that teases my imagination to bring forth flesh for the bones of historical facts. There are Samhain rituals to honor the dead and conjure them to life again. As a writer of historical fiction, I am always in the season of Samhain, seeking to bridge the chasm between the living and the dead and to make bones dance on the pages so we can remember.
As my mother and I drive to Wellsboro, PA for the Wellsboro BookFest and take the Mansfield University exit, she tells me that my great grandmother, Grace Matilda Thurston, was one of the first women to graduate from this university. Grace rode her horse to campus each day and graduated with an art degree. I didn’t know this. A few days later, my Aunt Sandy presented me with a weathered, but lovely, oil painting Grace Matilda created. I feel the touch of this ancestor and the boundary between the living and the dead disappears with her story.
I walked along Route 79 towards Ithaca, NY, taking photos of the vibrant quilted hills splashed with gold; this land that the Iroquois believe is the imprint of the hand of the Great Spirit. I looked down at the ground, and at my feet were two dried kernels of corn. No cornfields, corn cobs, or other kernels in sight. A farm wagon could have driven by dropping two kernels of corn? A raccoon meandering down the road could have left the two kernels? I picked them up, this corn, this sister of the Iroquois, because it was a Samhain moment of crossing from there to here, a reminder to honor the dead and give them story.