It is like a prayer to what is empty.
And what is empty turns its face to us
‘I am not empty, I am open.’
- Tomas Tranströmer, ‘Vermeer’
My sister and I are growing a genealogical tree . It's her fault, she started it! Our tree is lopsided. My father's branches are stunted by a lack of knowledge beyond the early 1800s, as is my mother's paternal branch. Much to my sister's early chagrin, I am a stickler for verification and citation. Records can be scarce and first person accounts are mostly suspect in a family lore rife with the usual entanglements of inattention, memory and imagination, and our own brand of family embellishment (embezzlement, too - if the stories are true). The lore fades after a couple of generations. Written records sometimes disagree, if you can find them at all; many were ash after the great Chicago fire, fires in parish churches in county Cork - fires, fires, everywhere. The U.S. 1890 census - save for six thousand or so names - lost in a fire. Society clearly lacked enough Bartlebys and print setters to keep up with things - forget about the luxuries of mimeographs and, god help us, microfilm. In any case it's not as though everyone was keeping detailed personal diaries like Samuel Pepys nor tallies resembling this:
And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth: And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters: And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.
And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos: And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters: And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died.
And Enos lived ninety years, and begat Cainan: And Enos lived after he begat Cainan eight hundred and fifteen years, and begat sons and daughters: And all the days of Enos were nine hundred and five years: and he died.
All I can say, some of those ancestors were living in some incredibly big heres and staggeringly long nows. Generations hence, human lifespans and virility nosedived. In general, my family falls into the " sons and daughters" camp. The detective work is addictive, but we're seeking remnants of ghosts. No matter how we wish to flesh them out with detail, they remain unknown, ciphers of our desire for... what? We're not looking to baptise our ancestors posthumously ( a practice I consider unforgivably presumptuous), nor will our discoveries likely lead to a better understanding of ourselves. There is, though, the humanity of it: the stories and lives that lead to these quirks, the blood and genetic skullduggery of inheritance. The end is always the same - "and he died."
We have an ancestor who was kicked out of Plymouth plantation for bad temper and blaspheming. He went to Providence and soon was banished from that society, as well. He ended his days in Newport, presumably finally chastened. There are some fascinating leaves on our tree, but that fallen, drifting one amuses me - something about the inherent clash of strict rectitude and humanity. The early pilgrims and puritans generally kept good records and it's intriguing to discover details of ocean voyages, land ownership and wills, marriages and children, social praise and disapprobation, ministers and church-shirkers.
Last summer my sister and I met in Rhode Island and set forth on an expedition of many days and hours poring through dry paper in dim tiny town historical libraries in coastal Massachusetts. We traveled down winding pavement roads to gravel roads to a dead end beside railroad tracks where a woman wandered out of the clapboard house there with her two young boys. We told her we'd heard there was a family cemetery in the area but couldn't find it. She said it was well hidden but not too lengthy a walk through her rambling property and the deep brambles on either side of a county-mowed swathe that lead to the Pierce Cemetery. She told Cyrus, her seven year old son, to lead us there. We followed Cyrus in his stomping rain boots with occasional stops to point out the places he'd seen a muskrat, until we came to the graveyard surrounded by a low fence with a hand painted sign that lay on the ground beside it. There were a few dozen tombstones, but the ones before the 1790s were illegible and sunken. Cyrus' mother called him home.
Early one morning on the Vineyard my sister and I took biscuits and coffee to the beach. We passed only one person with his dog; the narrowish beach was empty. On the grey seawall we sat and ate our breakfast. My sister stayed while I walked into the cold, lapping water which further out was calm with small swells that buoyed me up and briefly carried me. I felt safe and soothed in the huge Nantucket Sound, watching my sister wait for me. I floated on my back, delighting in the cool water, the warm air, and the morning sun. I felt I could have stayed forever, floating.