In the basement of my parents’ house, there’s an old wooden cabinet whose red paint has all flaked off. A look inside reveals all kinds of odds and ends stowed in its various compartments. Cans of paint, a toolbox, a stack of tiles that don’t match any of the rooms upstairs. And a wide box that used to contain a clothes iron. This box now contains two photo albums, several letters, a wristwatch, and an address book. It’s all that remains of my great-grandmother’s life.
At some point during the first or second lockdown—they’ve become near-indistinguishable by now—I chanced to hold this box in my hands and was gripped by a sudden urge to know more about my great-grandmother than the yellowed photos alone could tell me. So I started doing research. And I wasn’t the only one. Since the beginning of the pandemic, online church and newspaper archives have been logging more page impressions than ever before. One reads that genealogy is booming. And that’s no wonder: limitations on contact, shuttered cultural institutions, and the decimation of social life leaves individuals with only themselves for companionship. Existential questions emerge as to one’s own origins and the lives of one’s forebears. As does the hope of being able to answer at least a few such questions through research.
As I began paging through virtual registers of births, entire women’s lives suddenly unfolded before me like some gripping new TV series.
Her birth, marriage, change of residence, the birth of her children, the death of her children, the death of her husband, her own death: all of these supposedly dusty volumes with handwritten entries told of personal fates.
Of who was allowed to belong where and who wasn’t. And all at once, it became clear to me that archives are more than just amassments of numbers and data. They bear witness to our memories. They tell our stories. Which need only to be discovered between the lines.