Sometimes when I’m writing genealogy a veil of loneliness falls over me, like walking through a misty cemetery at dusk.
It’s when I come across an ancestor who left barely any record of having lived. Just a name in the family bible. Or a lone census record that says she did indeed live, in a place, in a certain year.
Or, as it is with one of my ancestors, there is nothing but a name on a handwritten list of family members who sequentially possessed a family heirloom that eventually came to me.
There is no other sign she existed. No census record, church record, marriage record… nothing. I don’t have her maiden name, only her married one, and so do not even know which line to follow, though I’ve tried the likely ones, to no avail.
It’s then that a sadness comes, not because of my research failure, but because that person’s life left no apparent trace. It’s as if they lived so lightly that their footprints made no impression on the world.
Perhaps some personal record of their life is with another descendant, not me. Or, horribly, perhaps their memories were tossed in the dustbin of history, like Leon Trotsky’s Mensheviks.
I’ve been in second-rate antique stores, the kind that stuff a large bit of everything into a space too small, where in some hard-to-reach corner of the shop there is a cardboard box filled with old studio portraits. Solemn wedding pictures from the 19th century, hand-colored photos of precious children, dignified portraits of a family elder. Who are these people, and why did they end up in this sad place?
For how long were they remembered before an uninterested great-grandson or step-niece tossed their photo in a box and stuffed it into the back of a closet, to be passed down eventually to another generation who couldn’t possibly even dream of taking the time to search out who those people might be?
I have a box like that. For years it actually was a cardboard box. It’s where we kept our family photos when I was a child. When we sold our parents’ house the box came to me, and I hauled it around for years, first to one house, then another, where it would reside in a closet until we moved yet again.
It wasn’t because of dishonor to our ancestors that the photos were closeted in an old cardboard box. It was just because our home was a madhouse. When she was very old, my grandmother took the photos and attempted to organize them into an album. She used glue to stick them onto black paper. Then she turned to the next page, smashing the two previous facing pages together, and the still-wet glue adhered to the photo opposite it. This went on for the entire album.
Later, we tried to peel the photos from the paper, to varying results. The survivors went into another album, the victims into the box. As a child I liked to get out the box and look through the photos. My sister and I would occasionally scribble on the backs of them. Then we’d toss them back in, sideways, upside down, crumpled, whatever.
Now I’m restoring all these photos – to great success, I might add, using a young professional restorer in Romania who has worked magic (leave a note in the comments section if you want her contact info.)
I have identified nearly all of the ancestors in these photos. But a few still stare hauntingly at me from the box, wanting me to restore their names. Then that sadness comes. I feel nearly like these inanimate objects are lonely. Patently ridiculous, of course, but still….
Is that my fear of mortality? I didn’t think I had that fear. I’ve never thoroughly understood some people’s drive to leave a lasting impression on the world. Shouldn’t that be a byproduct of some objective, not one’s raison d’etre?
I don’t mind the sadness. There’s quiet in it. And empathy. It connects me to the person I’m researching. And it lifts when I finally fill in the blanks of their life, if I’m so lucky.
My husband occasionally tells me I think too much. He says I have a “busy brain.” But he’s never said I feel too much. That’s a good thing.