The Washerwoman’s Genes

June 25, 2007

Shelter for Our Own

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:37 am

Before me: a rich list of William R. Burgers in the Brooklyn 1920 census. Who would think there would be so many? Added to that, the plain Williams for this surname, and the William Ms and the William Bs, and on and on. Which one is mine?

My only clue: on his 1918 draft registration, he says his next of kin is Nora. It’s badly written, but that seems the best reading. But 1920 shows no Williams with a Nora, Eleanor, Alnora, Norma, or Lorna, and no widows with a name like that either. Perhaps the surname is more than misspelled—that is, thoroughly botched. It’s been known to happen. In 1900, his half-aunt’s surname registers with the indexer as “Bunce.” It’s a long long journey, extricating the broken bones of a name from the transcriptions. I might read the pages, some lonely night, the pages for the residents of Ward 22 in Brooklyn, looking for mine.

We say that, in doing family history: “mine,” as in “my William R.” People are either “mine” or they’re not, or they could be a “maybe.”

On the message boards, you read, “I have a so-and-so married in 1892 to Phoebe Such….” Said aloud, overhead, it could be a hand in cards, or a demented game of Clue.

But we’re talking real here, not Colonel Ravenport in candlelight or Auntie Gingham in the back seat of the Ford, but real. Not game cards, but cartes de visites: those little calling-card photos people once gave each other—except that I have none of those in my deck.

So, real, as in, what?

As in, names, dates, addresses, scraps, detritus I’ve found along some faint trail I think I see to follow?

As in, contributors of DNA to a twirling keychain dangling my quirky little ego?

Or real, as in figures, shadowy yet recognizable, moving about, talking, turning away to their own business, in small snippets from a drama, a tragedy, a soap opera, that’s having a very long run in my mind’s eye….

And walking on stage, is it him, or a supernumerary strolling through?

In the end, we genealogists give shelter only to our own. I’m entering my data in Family Reunion, and so far, no William Rogers from 1920 are invited.

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