Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Gone is gone


Credit: Library of Congress
A few years ago, I helped a woman in her 80s write her memoir. I did this under the auspices of a nonprofit that was trying to keep house bound elderly people engaged with life by telling their stories. When I saw the ad on Craigslist seeking volunteers, I wrote back immediately. This was right up my alley. I couldn’t wait to get started.  

The work was even more fascinating and rewarding than I’d expected. I loved my “learning partner” and I loved trying to get her story on paper. Once a week for a year I drove to P’s house, sat down at her dining table, and took notes as she told me about her life. Then I’d go home and type everything up, trying to make it flow as a story. Where the narrative seemed thin or behaviors went unexplained, I’d make a note and the next week I’d see P again and we’d talk some more. We circled back over her life scores of times and in every rendition something new came out, the story got richer. There was probably more food in this memoir than any in the history of the program, but there was a lot of everything. I hope she and her family were happy with the memoir. I was.

Early on P told me that she had not seen her father’s face since the early 1940s. He’d had a stroke at the salt mine where he worked and left behind a widow and 15 children. P had adored her father. There had been photos, but they’d been lost. It haunted her that she didn’t have a picture of this beloved man.

Well, telling me this was like waving a meaty shank bone in front of a hungry hound. A quest! I was going to find a picture of P’s father if it killed me. I wrote it down on my multi-page to-do list. For weeks I scoured the internet looking for pictures of black men who had lived in a certain region of Louisiana in the 1930s. I inquired about archives at the salt mine. I spent hours on the Library of Congress photo site. I googled every possible combination of keywords and then a few days later I’d think of some more and try those.

Every week or so I printed out a new series of photographs of unidentified men — men in overalls sitting on the steps of general stores, men sitting on carts, everything available —  and brought them to P. The first time, she looked at them with a strange expression on her face. She said, “I don’t know why they never show blacks who are doing well, they always have to make us look poor.” 

Indeed, all the photographs I could find of black men in rural, Depression-era Louisiana told a picturesque story of Southern poverty. This was not the way P remembered things. The disparity between her memories and the pictures the photographers chose to take — and our institutions to preserve — would be interesting to explore.

But that’s another story. What matters is that P never saw a picture of her father among those that I brought to her. It was always a long shot.

When I had exhausted what the internet had to offer, I actually looked at my calendar and thought maybe I could travel to Louisiana and search in person for P’s father’s photograph. But even I am not compulsive enough to travel to Louisiana looking for a picture of a man I’d never recognize, a picture that probably didn’t even exist.

A certain personality type has a hard time accepting defeat on a quest like this. My personality type. Even after we’d finished her memoir, “P’s father’s photo” sat there in bold type on my to-do list. Occasionally I’d go back online and poke around. Time passed. Pearl had a debilitating stroke. One day earlier this year, with a pang, I crossed “P’s father’s photo”  off my list. P’s father’s picture doesn’t exist.

Sunday, I decided I was done with my family history research. I was never going to know why Abner and Cora and Orlan behaved as they did. Never. It was over. Yesterday, I was going to go to Mount Vernon and enjoy the end of my trip to Washington D.C. There was one last archive I hadn’t looked at, but it was a long shot. Some ladies who might have known something about the people I’m curious about had left behind diaries now held at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. But, really, such a long shot and such a long drive.

Big surprise, at the last minute I changed plans. No Mount Vernon. Instead, I drove almost three hours down a monotonous highway listening to agitating right-wing talk radio to William and Mary College. I bought a parking permit, found the library, found special collections, requested the diaries from a meticulous librarian, locked all my belongs in a locker. The librarian brought out diaries and put them on a shelf. She had me sit at a big table in view of her desk. Then, one by one, she brought me the diaries. She’d set each small, leather diary up on a foam platform and I had to use a little piece of string to weight down the yellowed pages as I read so the oils on my fingers would spend as little time as possible on the precious paper. When I was done, she’d take back the diary and bring me another.

My ladies had been admirably dutiful diarists. They had also been shockingly boring diarists. Every single day for years and years they noted that it was “terribly hot” or “cold and raw” and then listed who they had lunched with and whether they had embroidered or read in the evening. No emotion, no gossip, no commentary. Occasionally some major world event like an earthquake in Jamaica or the death of Grover Cleveland made it into these pages, reported as flatly as the latest garden party at Mrs. Lambert’s.

Thank God my people had also made it into the diaries! I hadn’t been completely delusional! They were right there in brown ink and the first time I saw that one of the diarists had gone to Mrs. S’s for tea (May 17, 1906), I gasped. But of course there was no record of what they talked about, let alone what kind of cookies they ate, what Mrs. S wore, whether she had put on weight, seemed happy or blue or worried. And so it went. Dinner with Mr. S. Travels with young S. Terribly hot. Rained all day. Father went on trip. Father returned from trip. Embroidered.

I’ve been surprised by just how much you can learn about the past, how many incredible secrets you can crack if you’re willing to spend the time. Strange chunks of the past really can be recaptured. 

But most of it is lost forever, really lost, like P’s father’s face. I had always known that the motivations and characters of the people I was researching were probably lost forever. I spent several hours hunched over those unilluminating diaries yesterday. I am glad I did. I shut the last diary, thanked the librarian, retrieved my belongings, drove three hours back to my airbnb, collapsed on the saggy little sofa, started a good book, slept well. The piece of the past that has preoccupied me for the last two months is not probably lost forever, it is lost forever. 


On to new quests.

36 comments:

  1. This resonated with me more than I think it would have a year ago. My mom passed away in December and daily, daily, there are things I wish I could ask her. She knew everything, from the name of every plant- wild or cultivated- that grew on her land to the story behind every piece of china in her house. As I spend time looking through her books and photographs I regret not asking her more questions and writing down the answers for my children, niece and nephews. Gone is indeed gone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm very sorry -- the death of a mother is a profound loss. It took me years to come out of the fog and I still want to ask her questions every day. I also want to tell her how things are going. Pearl, the woman whose story I helped put on paper (I know I slipped up and named her in the text) told me that you never get over the loss of a mother. She was 83 when said that.

      Delete
    2. Thank you.
      I just made the blackberry almond cake from Fika with black raspberries foraged from the edges of our fields. So thank you for recommending that sweet book. It smells pretty good in my kitchen right now! Wish I could share a piece with you and Pearl while we talked about our mothers.

      Delete
  2. What a tremendous adventure! There is one place where you mentioned the name of the woman you helped to memorialize (not trying to nitpick; just thought you had gone to a lot of trouble to keep her unnamed). I love old records and deep rabbit holes and reading this was very satisfying. Thanks for keeping us informed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know. Errr. I don't think anyone will figure out who she is, but what a stupid slip.

      Delete
  3. Excellent story. I'm sorry a photo didn't appear but thanks for your description of the feelings around the quest.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I know how hard you tried to find that photo; if anyone could have done it, I know it was you. Two posts in two days, lucky us! I read two books lately that really impressed me: The Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown, edited by Catherine Burns and Knockout, by John Jodzio, really different short stories, edgy. I've never listened to the Moth podcasts but one of the stories about a refugee family from Afganistan took my breath away!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the recommendations! I listened to a Moth podcast that made me cry once --I wish I could remember what it was about. Funny that I can remember where I was, how I felt, and crying, but I can't remember anything about the podcast.

      Delete
  5. Hey, my alma mater! Hope you enjoyed your time in Virginia and Williamsburg. The Cheese Shop two blocks off campus (down toward the colonial town) makes some fine sandwiches, should you ever return. I've tried to replicate their house dressing, which as far as I can tell is mayonnaise, mustard seeds, something reddish and delicious and ??? Quests on quests!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's my alma mater as well. For anyone who doesn't know, The College of William and Mary (a state university) is the 2nd oldest in the nation (after Harvard). It's a very good school, though I am of course biased.

      Mary, the missing ingredient in the house dressing is rumored to be a certain kind of steak sauce I forget the name of at the moment. You can buy house dressing online now, but I believe it is a slightly different recipe because it needs to be shelf-stable.

      Delete
    2. I worked at the Cheese Shop but can only make house dressing in 4 gallon batches. It's steak sauce. Highly recommend The Fat Canary owned by the same family.

      Delete
    3. That is so weird. Three of you? I asked the librarian where to go to lunch and she said she liked the Wawa. That's a supermarket chain, right? The campus was gorgeous and the library impressive.

      Delete
    4. Well, I'm glad the librarians were helpful with your research, given that lunch recommendation. Wawa is not even a supermarket chain, it's a gas station/convenience store chain, though its sandwiches and snacks aren't half bad. When I was a student, it had the distinction of being the only place in town open 24 hours.

      Delete
  6. I know the feeling. Sometimes I feel like I should have been a detective. I have trouble letting go of the unknowable.

    I'm so glad you're "back"!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My sister thinks she and I should become private investigators.

      Delete
  7. I used to work in the local history area of my local library, and so every day found me embroiled in a new pursuit like these two you describe. It's so hard to accept that the thing simply doesn't exist. Especially when, as I've found while researching my own family history over the past several years, there's new information being digitized and placed online every day. What doesn't exist today may surface five years from now.

    Ultimately, though, you're right--the most important things so often are the ones that were never written down, never photographed, never recorded. When the mind that holds them is gone, they're gone forever.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All the librarians I met were very, very helpful. I was stunned by their generosity. I suppose they chose the profession because they like quests? There is so much online. And when I would stop researching for a few days and then return to it with some new ideas, I'd always find more.

      Delete
  8. Quests are indeed a pleasure or a curse. I love a good quest, but as I have gotten older, I realize that, for me, it is the process that is more important than finding the answers. I love to chase knowledge for knowledge itself, and I enjoy doing research. It sounds as though you had fun, and I hope you did. Some things are unknowable, but you still remembered those people through your interest in them. I loved this post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're right, the excitement of the quest is the real thrill, not what you find -- at least not after the first few minutes of finding it.

      Delete
  9. I'm doing something sort of similar for a friend who is exhausted after 30 years of backbreaking farming {and now having a devil of a time finding workers, thanks to the Current Occupant}. She wants to turn her land into a retreat center. I've been meeting with her, talking through her ideas and writing them down, and helping her organize them into a GoFundMe and business plan. I didn't realize what a skill it is to be able to write in the other person's voice, but so far my early drafts don't sound anything like her spicy, funny conversation.

    Thank you for letting me know you're reading Winter Wheat! I hope you enjoy it. Don't bother tracking down her other novels. I read through quite a lot of them and they're generally utterly forgettable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I won't track down her other novels -- I loved Winter Wheat but I didn't feel like she had many (or any) more books in her.

      Delete
  10. Such a beautiful essay.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Just lovely. Very nice essay to wake up to! Fitting it was the morning an entire world of ice disappeared into the sea of Antarctica. Also fitting for me, in a dream last night, I accidentally hit a button on my cellphone and watched, horrified and in awe, as every photo from my life was quickly deleted one after the other. Thousands! I'd forgotten just so many episodes and, seeing my life "disappear" like that, I first felt lost and abandoned then oddly unburdened and seemingly ready to face what comes next. I sure hope so! Thank you for sharing your beautiful story here.Very special. You are one of the most gifted writers I know.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Robin! That's an awful dream.

      Delete
  12. Thrilled that you are back and in awe of such determination to help your partner. I cannot imagine going so far to find that picture. I'm with the earlier respondent who lamented not asking more questions.
    As for diaries and journals? I quit years ago when I realized I kept writing the same things about my vows to improve, not procrastinate, etc. What a bore. Also I didn't change! agh

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know. My early diaries are so boring and pathetic. I can't read them. The worst parts are the diet resolutions.

      Delete
  13. Have you ever considered writing a fictional version of your mysterious family story? Obviously that would be a lot of work, but you might be surprised how your imagination can fill in the gaps and make you feel like the story is complete, even if it isn't factually true.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm thinking about it, but I've never (successfully) written fiction. I think you either have the fiction gift or you don't and I suspect I might not. . .

      Delete
  14. Don't give up on your family story, all that needs to happen is one child of an older relative will have her memory jogged and the story will come out.. This recently happened to me, and I got most of a family story that happened in 1916. I totally believe this is the accurate version because only in my family would these details be true,,,,lots of strong women, Kansas/Oklahoma homesteading, lazy husbands who drank, and blizzards.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Really??? That gives me hope. In fact, there's a very easy step I could take (reach out to the other branch of the family) and on Monday I should really take it.

      Delete
  15. Agree with RobinReese that you are one of the most gifted writers I have read. Funny about having the fiction gift or not, I had never thought of it that way. Anyway, very glad you are back and two posts in two days is truly a gift to find. I am just ending a media "fast" of 18 days -- no radio, no TV, no newspapers, internet only to research restaurants and food. I was getting much too obsessed with the news. Very nice to see the new posts from you on my return! /Gretchen

    ReplyDelete
  16. Interesting discussion, I love to your reply admin, keeps on reading my stuff here Enthral under the canopy of Indian Rummy

    ReplyDelete
  17. I am from Louisiana. What parts/area/parishes are you looking for photos of? In particular Ms. P father ? Area of work place? date? home town? His hobby or his job? Photo of him taken for what occasion? What was he wearing in the photo? Outside or in a studio? The reason is that it sounds like Ms. P's father was looking ice and handsome in the photo and not in work clothes. His job? Funeral photo? There are several collectors of Black Americans photos in Louisiana. Many are on-line since so many were destroyed in floods and storms. A few more hints and lets see what shakes out of the photo search.Happy to lend a hand.

    ReplyDelete