|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.