The Washerwoman’s Genes

May 22, 2006

Holes in the record

Filed under: Story,Uncategorized — by WWG @ 6:59 pm

Children often died young, we hear, in the old days. As far as ancestry is concerned, dead children are invisible holes in the record. If they lived through a census, and then disappear from future ones, we know of their existence but then their continuance comes into question. If they are born and die between headcounts, they are difficult to discover. That’s where graves come in. The best way to certify a life is to find a grave.

The mid-century censuses show Cornelius and Janette had nine children between 1837 and 1856; only George, the second born, is missing from the 1860 census, and by that time, if he still lived, he had left home. I have not yet found a grave for him.

Lost child found

Edgar was a name that was never passed on. It was so unfamiliar, so unlike the other family names–Benjamin, George, William, Elisha James–that when I came across it among the Ulster County grave transcriptions, I doubted it. At the time I saw it, I was so much a novice at cemetery research I thought the date given was his birth, and it had him born, impossibly, seven months after great-grandmother Josephine. Of course, it was his death date, and the mysterious numerals that followed represented the span of his life: 0-6-26, numbers like a locker combination, when spun this way and that and back, gave him a life of zero years, six months, twenty-six days.

One plus one is one

Josephine knew she had been born a twin. But she didn’t remember him: Edgar. His was a companion body to hers in the womb; he was half of the pair of them. Born, they separated; before she acquired memory, he died. To her, he was a name that had no form, no body at all. When she grew old enough to understand the meaning of graveyard, he was someone under the stone that bore his name: Edgar, son of Cornelius H. and Janette. He was gone in the Terpenning Family Ground.

For four years Josephine was the baby. Then Willie came along, and she became the sister to another boy. She and Willie stayed home the longest, when all the other seven had grown and gone. They both went to Brooklyn, she first, following older siblings Elisha James and Josiah, and he, last, after their mother Janette had died. Willie married, but by 1910 he and his children were living in Josephine’s house on 17th Street. In 1917, he died there.

By then, Josephine’s daughter, also Josephine, had married and begun her own family in the house. Young Josephine and her husband John had twins in 1917: John, Jr., and a second whose name is still lost. John died after three months, the other at an unknown time.

The matriarch in a household of three generations of descendents, Josephine lived within a nexus of family all her life. Did she sometimes sense the shadow of her dead twin, a white shadow of vacancy, that travels like a ghostly outrigger beside the survivor day by day? She kept close her younger brother, as if he somewhat replaced the half she had lost.

The tenth of nine

But now I have seen his grave myself: a small stone, just to the left of the stones of Zachariah Burger, d. 1836, and Elizabeth Burger, d. 1847. He tells me, by nestling at their side, that these are indeed his father’s parents. I had gleaned Cornelius descended from Zach and Liz from a family tree in the LDS files on the Internet, but had lacked other corroboration. Edgar has tightened the connection.

Like that of all the others, all who are bones under stones, his existence has shrunk to a name and a relation: a nearly empty vessel. I will never know more of him. The story of his first smile, his favorite toy, his last breath, cannot be told. Edgar, who had no namesakes, whose unfamiliar name stalled in 1852, incised on stone, a surviving emptiness.


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