On Thanksgiving day and each day, I honor all my relations

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2014


Thank you.

These are the first words I form when I wake. Sometimes softly, in my mind before I open my eyes. Sometimes out loud, before I roll out of bed and plant my feet on the floor.

Thank you. For another day of life. For the breath that fills my lungs.

Granted, as I start my day, I don’t always remember to say thank you, silently or aloud. Sometimes I remember when I’m washing my face.

Thank you.

For the roof over my head. For heat on a cold night. For running water. For the food in my refrigerator.

Or, I remember as I dash to dress for class.

Thank you.

For my job. For the privilege of sharing my knowledge and experience with a new generation of bright, shiny young people, earnest, restless, wise and naïve.

In our last class before the Thanksgiving break, I asked the students to stand in silence and reflect on what they were thankful for. When they opened their eyes, they shared their thoughts. Thank you. For friends and family, for their love and support.

I said I was thankful for our class and my friends and family, though time zones and oceans separate me from those I hold dear. My parents are still here, having weathered health crises that threatened to tear them from us.

Thank you.

For my ancestors. This Thanksgiving break, I’ll visit their graves and leave flowers, new American flags, seashells and chimes. They dreamed for us—college educations and happy lives. I especially celebrate my matriarchal line and my great grandmother. Widowed, she ran the family farm and raised her nine children. Born after the Civil War, she was ahead of her time. She insisted her six daughters got training to work, so they could support themselves. A suffragette, she blazed a trail for all women who followed.

I am thankful because I have spent time in dark places. Events I’ve witnessed and the suffering I’ve photographed seared my heart and scarred my soul. I remember the dark times. In my mind’s eye, I hung over an abyss, clinging to the wall and life by the very tips of a few fingernails. Every piece of my being pleaded with me. Let go, Cheryl. You’ve had a good life. Let go. You’re tired. It’s too hard to stay the course. It would be so easy to let go.

Except for the small, tiny, persistent voice that whispered “Hold on.” You don’t want to leave your niece and nephew. You want to watch their lives unfold. Hold on. You don’t want to leave this wide world. There is beauty here, even as you dangle above the void.

As a photographer, I know well the beauty of the shadow and light. I also understand the importance of where I place my focus. If I focus in one direction, things may look bleak: I don’t have a job lined up after my third year at Allegheny College. If I shift my attention slightly, I see things in a different light. I have a job now and the possibility of new adventures—and that’s where I place my focus.

If I look in the mirror, I reminded that I’m overweight. I’m forced to face the extra pounds I carry every time I put on a swimsuit or dress for class. Most of the clothes in my closet are two or three sizes too small. They wait to dress a version of my self that I miss and despair I will never recover.

I shift my focus. I’m alive and I’m healthy. With some effort and commitment, I’ll resurrect the athlete I’ve buried and strengthen my core, my muscles and my resolve.

I choose each day to say thank you for the things I have. I don’t spend too much time lamenting what I don’t have or might have lost. I think of the strong women in my life and lineage: my mother, my grandmothers and my great grandmother.

Thank you. For your strength. Your inspiration. Your courage. Thank you for the sense of wonder and lust for adventure that pulses in our shared blood.

In bed at night, before I fall asleep, I again say thank you. For the glorious, precious gifts of the day and this life. For my friends and family. For the beauty of our Mother Earth and all that share the land, ocean and sky.

Mitakuye oyasin. All my relations.

To the Lakota Nation, this is a prayer, an invitation to remember that everything, all life, is interconnected and sacred.

On Thanksgiving Day and each day, I remember all my relations.

Thank you.


Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.


All my relations

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I wasn’t accurate when I wrote in my post yesterday that I went straight to Sachuest Point. On the way to the ocean, I stopped at the cemetery.

Whenever I return to my parents’ childhood home, my first stop is the cemetery. My grandparents on both sides of my family, my aunt and many relatives I never knew are buried in the cemetery on the way to the ocean. Both my parents can trace their families back to the 1600s and 1700s on this small island.

I stop first to visit my dad’s parents’ grave. I usually say a quick hello, let them know what I’ve been up to. I check on the flowers. Grandma liked pink so I usually put pink flowers on her grave.

And, of course, an American flag. As long as I can remember, both sides of my family have always flown the flag in front of their houses. And many men on both sides of my family have served in the Armed Forces…and in combat. My grandma’s brother is buried in Italy, where he died fighting in WWII. One day I’ll visit his grave so far from his island home.

Next I visit my mom’s parents’ grave. I barely knew my grandfather. He died when I was young. He was a fisherman and sang in the choir at Trinity Church (where my father also sang as a boy.) Mom remembers her father had a beautiful voice. He was a mason and served in the RI legislature.

Mom’s matriarchal line is strung with strong, progressive women. My mom’s mother’s mother was a suffragette and a reporter. My mom’s twin (my aunt and godmother) is buried near her parents.

In the summer, I had placed purple petunias on grandma and grandpa’s grave. And my aunt, who was a nurse and an avid gardener, got lavender, shasta daisies and a new set of tiny wind chimes. Her front and back porches were lined with all kinds of chimes. We figured that she’d like the sound.

And, both graves have flags.

Most of the summer flowers had faded. I decided to herald the arrival of fall.

Today I bought three bowling-ball size pumpkins from a local farm produce stand. Next I went looking for mums at a local nursery. (Yes, I spend my money at local, family businesses.)

I bought some sweet pink and white mums for dad’s parents’ grave. Gold and orange mums for mom’s parents. And a deep mauve mum for my mom’s sister’s grave.

At each grave, I cleaned the weeds and dead grasses away from the tombstone. I dug a hole, filled it with water, teased the tight roots on the newly liberated potted mum plant. I positioned and placed the plant then patted the dirt in place around the new addition. I watered again.

The Lakota Sioux have a prayer, Mitakuye Oyasin, that celebrates the connection between all living things. I believe strongly in this belief…that we are all connected and that all life is sacred and should be honored. When I visit my relatives and ancestors, I thank them for the life they’ve given me through the generations.

My parents and their parents and their parents’ parents grew up on the same island soil where they are buried. I was born on foreign soil and I have no home, no roots in the traditional sense. So it makes sense and makes me feel connected to return to my ancestors. It grounds me. And makes me happy to remember them.

So many of their stories are already lost. Those who kept the stories before me took much of the family history and secrets with them to their graves.

Note: When I did a Web search about the practice of visiting graves, I found a couple of interesting links about the practice in different cultures.