The Washerwoman’s Genes

April 30, 2007

Time Signatures

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:21 am

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Josiah A Burger: his actual signature.

I have E. J.’s and William’s, too:

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All similar: the names of brothers, written with hands built of the same bones, yet each individual in its way. I remember how an aging family member signed her name—instead of the dashed-off, bumps-and-lumps scrawl of those who charge a dozen times a week, she etched it carefully, slowly, an inscription, clear and even, as if for the ages.

And it was. Almost 125 years have passed. The Burger signatures remain, extant, yet hidden on an obscure document in the Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court Records Room: They authorize the “administration” of the estate of Jennet Burger, dead and “intestate” in 1884.

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In death as in life, Jennet remains voiceless: her wishes never conveyed, her selfhood dissolved by time.

I don’t have the actual document, only a poor photocopy. The Records Room is in transition: original documents are undergoing digitization, and I only got a hold of the photocopy because of the kindness of the supervisor. He sent a clerk to the scanning room to find and copy Jennet’s letters of administration for me.

Many original records are accessible, though, either as hand-transcribed wills in the hundreds of moldering ledgers lying in open shelves or as original legal papers folded into packets and stored in the stacks.

I requested a few documents relating to some familiarly named Burgers, none of whom turned out to be my family. Nevertheless, I was astonished to unfold in my hands, for example, the actual guardianship papers of children who lived a century ago. Those children are orphaned again, the documents that determined their fate forgotten and abandoned in a government storage room.

Each quest I go on discovers tidbits of information, and also relics like these: signatures, once ink, then toner, now pixels on a screen. Signatures, wavy lines, once signifying men: they are abstractions now, several names for non-existence.

Note: The crosses after E. J.’s and William’s signatures are not “marks.” The members of this family were literate, according to census records. All the signatures are distinct, and different as well from the hand that filled in the forms. I believe the crosses were placed there by the clerk to indicate where the men should sign, since there were no printed “dotted lines.”

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