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Judy Wells

Ancestor Conflict

The more I think about my Protestants,
the more my Irish wants to come out.
I turn on Máire Breatnach’s CD
and her fiddle on “The Mystics’ Slipjigs”
pours through my bones.
I raise my arms, sway to her
breathtaking Irish music
to counteract my upright
New England Protestants.

Like Nathaniel Dickinson
my great-grandmother’s brother.
Even though he was a rebellious teen
and his mother feared
his best friend Charlie Purple
was a bad influence on him —
Even though he ran away once
and his mother thought he shipped out
to California on the Northern Lights —
Even though he finally got his adventure
by enlisting in the First Vermont Cavalry
and spending three years fighting for the Union
(a miracle he did not die) —
Nathaniel Dickinson ended up
a staunch Protestant farmer,
church builder, school builder, in Nebraska.
He wore threadbare clothes
his whole life, disapproved of dancing —
the Devil was in the fiddle —
though his family sometimes caught him
at an open window
toe tapping to distant music
from the Prairie Creek Dance Hall.

I cannot keep my body still
when I hear music.
Is that my Irish?
Or does that come from my Protestants?
My Phebe and Ardelia Dickinson singing
in their new California churches —
My Dad, descendant of the Dickinsons
with “the gift” —
He could play the piano by ear,
sit down and play the tune you named
with no sheet music in front of him
but it was always in minor key.
As a child, this meant for me
“the black keys” — something mysterious
about my hardworking, thrifty father.

My Irish mother called him “Twinkle Toes.”
Oh, how he could dance, ballroom,
and later square dance and folk dance —
a private side of my father’s life I never saw.
The roaring 20s
must have transformed this Protestant
at least a little,
so his musical talent leaked through
the restraint.
Strangely enough, my mother,
my Irish mither,
claimed she could not hold a tune
but only croak.

Could it be
my love of rhythm
comes down through the Protestants?
Oh, tell me it’s not true —
that the toe tapping comes from Dickinsons
and Protestant hymns
in their starchy steepled churches
and not from “Deo grátias, allelúja!”
and not from Irish jigs and reels
and “Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.”
O sing out, you Puritans
if you’re the source of my music!
Sing out you Massachusetts Protestants!
Sing out you Dickinsons!
Attempt an Irish jig
and blend these two opposing strains
in my mind and body.
Dance me whole again.