Apr 062008

[Originally published on Familiar Strangers blog]

Surprising, I can find a meditative place while endlessly searching Google and databases for the names of my ancestors. And in this place, I have thought a lot about the traces that we leave behind from our lives. The traces aren’t what you would expect and they aren’t something that we necessarily have control over, at least something that the normal mortals among us have control over.

Often, our families carve a stone in our honour when we are gone. But the stones get worn and eventually become illegible. Below is the stone of the infant son of Richard Metcalf who was born and died on the same day in 1885. Soon the carving on the stone will be gone and the one concrete trace of this little life will be erased.

Baby Metcalf’s headstone

(I should mention that getting to rest in your final place for eternity is a luxury afforded to North Americans. In Germany, for instance, you rent your grave for 50 years and after that your bones are disenterred and someone else gets your plot.)

Baby Metcalf didn’t encounter the other most likely place to leave a trace behind: in the thousands of vital statistics documents generated by the Canadian bureaucracy. As we became better at regulating ourselves and our lives we also became better at leaving traces behind. These traces are finding new life as records are digitized, indexed and made available on the web.

No such luck for Baby Metcalf though. He may have been too young to warrant bureaucratic attention or his parents simply didn’t feel that involvement of officials was necessary. I think that at that time the wilderness was still a stronger force in Canada than the bureaucracy.

Birth record for Baby Metcalf’s cousin

Baby Metcalf has a new chance, however, to leave a lasting trace on this world. Genealogy societies in Ontario have been busy transcribing cemeteries for years. Now these genealogists are photographing the headstones and posting the photos online. They are also creating elaborate family trees (hypertextuality reaches it full potential in a genealogist’s hands) and posting them online for other to find and copy. A photo of Baby Metcalf’s headstone, the small (and deteriorating) trace of his life, has been added to the collection of information readily findable with the help of a search engine. It will be copied and reproduced and recirculated. Baby Metcalf now even has a wiki web page all to his own. Baby Metcalf, it seems, got lucky and has been recorded and remembered.

I have to admit that I find this comforting. Why I don’t know. Mid-life, motherhood, natural inclination? Whatever it is, I take comfort in the fact that he somehow made it onto the list of things worth digitizing.

Incidentally, Baby Metcalf’s parents had no other children. However, they did raise two of Baby Metcalf’s cousins whose mother had died at the age of 34 after giving birth to her tenth child. (See the record of his birth below. His brother was required to formally claim witness to the dual events of his mother’s death and brother’s birth. “I have a distinct recollection of these facts,” he claims).

It’s hard not to appreciate both the powers of nature and the bureaucracy, isn’t it.

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