The Washerwoman’s Genes

August 24, 2009

Crying Man

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:47 am

 The repository is a place of safeguarding, where the records of past events endure, and where the few–the introverts, the studious, the historically obsessed—unobtrusively hunt this and that detail of forgotten events. Such a place is quiet. File drawers may glide, pages may rustle, microfilm motors briefly snap and buzz, keyboards softly click, but overall an orderly dullness prevails.

Recently, I was shuffling a fiche back and forth in my machine, when a voice broke through my concentration. I tried not to listen. But the voice blared, undeniable, but also kindly.

“It’s okay,” this woman was saying, “It happens to me. It happens to all of us, sometimes. You can’t help it, it just happens.”

I refocused harder on my work.

“That’s all right, you don’t have to apologize,” she said. “You know, you can’t help it, nobody can.”

There came the man’s soft voice in response, hard to make out, gravelly, quiet. “I don’t mean to  . . .  I’m ashamed … ”

“Don’t worry about it.” The conversation became unavoidable. “Sometimes I cry,” she told him “Sometimes, for no reason. Something happens in your brain, and tears come out. Tears come out, no one knows why. It’s no matter.”

The exchange went on and on. I had to look. Over my shoulder, at the bank of computers along the wall, a woman, an archive volunteer, I presumed, sat with an elderly man, his cane leaning against the edge of the desk. Her questions focused on the details of his immigration.

“What year did you come?” she asked.


“And do you remember the ship’s name?” she asked. He did. He cried.

“You left from what port? Naopli? Naples, that’s Naples.” I could hear the computer keys under her fingers. “Have you been back?” she asked him.

Yes, he had. More than once.

It was not Italy that he was weeping for.

“Did you come with family?” She continued her questions. No, he came alone.

“Did you have family already in America? Did they meet you?”  No, he was the first. They came later.

He sobbed quietly, briefly, at each question. His helper persisted, gentle, but also adamant that they would find him, they would definitely find him, and his sisters and his brother, in the passenger manifests.

But I didn’t think he was crying because he was lost in the records.  Rather he was crying at suddenly finding himself, deep inside his memories. Just the thought—of standing at the bottom of the off-ramp, his possessions in a suitcase, the steel and stone of New York above him, the chaotic streets of midtown unfurling at his feet—just a cue to think of it and the tears flowed.

He was not crying for no reason.

“How old were you?” she continued.


“You were a boy!”

He was, he told her, tearful again.

“What was your name, then? . . . Not Joseph? it wasn’t Joseph then?”

“Giuseppe,” he said, “I was Giuseppe.”

At his arrival, almost certainly, I thought, Giuseppe did not weep. He was manly, and he went about the business of getting settled. He became Joseph. Had he ever before released this pain? It seemed unlikely, so embarrassed was he at the emotions pouring out of him.

Whether the quest for his immigration records was a success, I do not know; the pair moved off to another room, and then I finished my work and left. But that morning in the archive, Joseph met Giuseppe.

It was as if nearly sixty years of—almost certainly—a pretty good American life collapsed, evaporated, and there was just then / now, 1951 / 2009, side by side.

An historical record and its subject were about to be present together in the same space, with Joseph becoming the genealogist of his own life. Did he cry to realize his entry into the United States was now a notation in history, in history with a capital H?

Really, who is to say why Joseph cried, who can make sense of his tears? All this is speculation: filling out the recorded public event with a possible inner experience.

Every day genealogists record the turning points of lives long past, moments when surely tears were shed, grief and fear and hope bodily expressed—or not, from stoicism or shame.

I wonder if we immerse ourselves in the past to avoid the tears we could shed about these same moments in our own lives. Maybe we are fascinated by births and marriages and deaths and the escaped, lost meaning of the lives of ancestors because it brings us to the precipice of real feelings about today, now, this. But then we can hang back, get on with the research; it’s an archive, after all; we must be quiet here.


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