If I have been blessed beyond belief, it is with the best family a girl could ask for. My parents are my heroes, my brother is my best friend, and I love my grandparents dearly. They raised me to be hard-working, kind, honest, and polite, but above all to serve others humbly. Almost none of my family is remotely religious, with the majority of Nelsons and Plunks agnostic or atheist. My parents humored me a lot when I was a weird little kid talking about Odysseus and Atalanta and Hermes and Athena in elementary school, then angels and demons and Samael as well. They may not believe in my Norse gods or understand or believe in witchcraft or Paganism, but they respect my beliefs and love me nonetheless. If mom and dad had a god, it would be Mother Nature. As my mom said, she just wants to worship trees!
My family on both sides sacrificed a lot to get my brother and I to where we are today. They are comprised of four families, the Westendorfs, Plunks, Wilkes, and Nelsons. The Nelson’s matriarch, NeNe, my great grandmother, was a free-spirited daughter of a dishonorably discharged and deadbeat Prussian soldier and American woman, who was fostered by the wealthy Macy family that owned many of America’s railroads. The Macys adopted my great-grandmother like she was one of her own daughters and it is from them the Nelson clan got three of our four Monhegan houses in Maine. My NeNe went on to marry a women’s college Mathematics professor, my great-grandfather, and they had four boys. It is through my great-grandfather Cyril that I get my little bit of Norwegian blood (18% precisely), other than that I am overwhelmingly German. They raised my great uncles and Grampy in a luxury of early 20th century New England lifestyle, and my great uncles went on to be spies in World War II, pilots, and my grandfather himself went to Yale and studied zoology like me – we both even raised spiders for our college studies at one point.
My Grampy and Nana were on duty as doctors and nurses during the Korean War and had dated everyone in their unit except each other when they decided to give it a go! After the War and happily married, they lived for a short time in Boston and then settled in Anneville, Pennsylvania where my Grampy was one of the founders of neonatology, or the study of premature infants, and head of Penn State Pediatrics in Hershey for 30 odd years. Running a hospital saving the lives of infants, he would dress up as Santa Claus (my grandfather looked just like him with a fake beard on!) and take pictures with the preemies. I was honored to go to a celebration of his achievements in 2015 after his passage, meet world-class doctors he had mentored and his colleagues, and view a lecture series established in his name. My Grampy was so proud of me for studying biology, and I grew up going with him to DeGas and Van Gogh exhibits, he would always buy me artbooks and I have his collections of Raphael and Titian. I inherited my love of the fine arts for him, and at age 80 he went back to Yale for the summer to take a summer class on the classics, reading everything from the Illiad to the Aeneid. I grew up going to Monhegan and spending summers with him in the Hudson House where the Wyeths and Rockwell Kent were known to dine with Eric Hudson on their trips to Monhegan, which we inherited from his artist daughter, Jackie Hudson, who is dearly beloved to me. My Grampy had a room in the sun room and would sit on his leather chair reading the New Yorker and New York Times cover to cover. We would discuss philosophy and fine artists and politics. Grampy, and half my family, are traditional fiscal Republicans, and it isn’t a Nelson dinner if the table doesn’t devolve into Democrats and Republicans drunkenly arguing! My Grampy and his friends would go on National Review cruises to Antarctica and the Amazon and Ireland and Russia where conservative lecturers like Glen Beck would entertain them at night, but even in his last years, he voted for Obama! He taught me how to debate politically and defend my liberal beliefs. I remember the year before he died, my last time seeing him – we went to an art exhibit and out to dinner, and he told me how proud he was of me for overcoming my bipolar and persevering in college. My Grampy is one of my biggest heroes.
My Nana unfortunately died shortly after I was born, but I have always felt her presence as a loving guardian angel. She worked at Planned Parenthood as a nurse in a time when abortions had just become legal, and her job was stigmatized. Virgina Araminta Wilke Nelson dedicated her life to providing sexual healthcare and family planning to thousands of women, and there is a little plaque for her in Anneville we used to often walk to. She was the Democrat to my Grampy’s conservative, the quiet and prim and proper introvert yet fearless mother of four boys and girls. She used to go antiquing in Pennsylvania with my mom and her kitchen was a refuge in the uproarous Nelson household. She decorated their pre-Civil War huge stone farmhouse so meticulously that they were featured in national magazines for the holidays, with boughs of evergreen and bells and candles in the window. My Nana reminds me a lot of my little brother, and it is from her I take my middle name.
My Grandpa, on the Plunk side, is the descendant of Pennsylvania Dutch and Scotch Irish Appalachian farmers in Tennessee, dirt poor and hardworking as Hell. He owned no shoes for many years of his childhood, and his mother died shortly after his birth, so he lived with his grandparents. He had ten siblings, and there is a whole town of Plunks called Finger, Tennessee, outside Knoxville. The annual family reunion is something I would like to go to someday, and see the family farmhouse that is still in use. Grandpa didn’t have a penny to his name. But he had dreams: of flying. Grandpa was walking to school at the age of four barefoot on train tracks when he saw his first plane in the thirties, and he stepped on hot coals accidentally then was overcome with a horrible infection and fever. Unable to afford a doctor, his parents brought in a hoodoo spiritual healer that prayed over him and, at death’s door, miraculously cured him. My grandfather could have been an engineer in any other lifetime, had poverty not barred the door, yet he was the first to graduate from high school in his family and bought his dad a tractor at 18 with savings he had worked hard to accumulate that revolutionized my dirt poor family’s farming practice. At 18 it was off to the Air Force, where he became a flight technician and met my Mema in Berlin during the 50’s. My grandfather achieved his dreams, flying high in the skies, dining with rajs in far off countries, raising a proud family where his daughter was the first in his family to go to college and Georgetown at that, followed only by my uncle’s Notre Dame! The Plunks are all about hard work, hard work in school, saving every penny, and nothing will be handed to you in life. Not by God, not by the authorities, Grandpa was a pull yourself up by the bootstraps Republican til his dying day. He built cars by hand and built my family a huge cabin in Eagle, Alaska with a bay window framing Mount Denali where they lived for twenty years. After they retired, my Mema and Grandpa got an RV and traveled the continental US for twenty years, always on the move through national parks only to visit us during the summers!
My Mema is the most like me, and I want to write a novel of her life one day. Born in Rostok, Germany to a wealthy family that owned a hotel on the Baltic Sea, her mother died in childbirth and her first stepmom ran away with another man, leaving my great grandfather to marry an abusive woman only ten years older than my Mema. Everything was taken from my Mema during World War II, she remembers eating bark when she had eaten delicacies, her Jewish friends disappearing in droves, and was about seven when the War ended. The Soviets took our hotel as collateral and made it a general’s house, and the Westendorfs fled with some of their wealth to East Berlin. My Mema rebelled from an early age and was quite the wild child, only to be punished with beatings and starvation by her jealous stepmother. She was sent away to a nun’s boarding school and couldn’t have been happier to graduate, living the life in East Berlin. She made in on the last train out before the Wall went up, and her father tried to marry his fortune through her to that of a wealthy butcher family’s son, and they dated in a motorcycle gang, which my Mema rode helmetless. All would have gone as planned had she not been working in the cafeteria at an Air Force base for Americans and my grandfather, waxing his plane’s wings, saw her, tripped on the wax, and broke both his legs! Like me, my Mema talks a mile a minute, whereas my Grandpa was known to speak about a sentence each hour, but she nursed him back to health and they fell in love in their broken English and German. My Mema ended up getting engaged to Grandpa, threw her old engagement ring into the Rhine river, and flew away to America with my Grandpa to start a new life!
As I’m putting my ancestor altar together, I can’t help but think of the boundless love my grandparents showed me, the love of my amazing parents, and my brother as my best friend. As a Heathen, ancestors are extremely important, venerated, and honored. My grandparents made me who I am today and each were brilliant minds and kind people. You only live as long as the last person who remembers you, so I hope to immortalize their stories in fiction, making Nicholas and Virginia and Christa and William immortal. I know they are watching over me and hope to someday see them in the halls of the ancestors. I can feel their love as I assemble my ancestor altar, and feel their presence as guides. I am nothing but my roots and the dreams of my forefathers, and so I honor them. Hail!