Once in a cycle the comet
Doubles its lonesome track.
Enriched with the tears of a thousand years,
Aeschylus wanders back.
—John G. Neihardt 
When my mother died in 1991, the director at the mortuary asked me how did she like to wear her hair and did she wear lipstick or eye shadow? Her remains were being prepared for burial, but he spoke of her as if she still existed, as if she still lived. In Mexico and among many Native American tribes, there is the belief that you experience death three times. The first death occurs when your spirit departs the body; the second, when your body returns to Mother earth. The final death occurs only when there is no one who still remembers your name. It is only after the third death that are you truly dead. My mother lives still.
Sometimes, in a quiet moment among microfilm and dusty records, I will sense ghostly encounters with ancestors. Something fleeting and formless will flutter from a page. A voice, whose tone and tenor is too effaced to be clearly heard, will echo across time. I wonder what the shamans would say about my endeavors as a family historian. By discovering the name of an unknown parent, can I resurrect those who have experienced that third death? I suspect that the answer is ‘no’ because my efforts are formed from fragments of a life, not memory of it. Still, there is this vague disquiet that comes with the prolonged study of a life long gone from human memory. I have never asked other genealogists if they, too, detect apparitions hovering at the periphery of their research. Perhaps to do so is to seem unscholarly, non-objective in one’s work.
Loren Eisley encountered a similar cadre of apparitions. He often wrote about them. As a paleontologist, he understood that the essence of being human is not contained in a solitary skull vault. He described it as shadows dancing on the walls of a cave, a word uttered by the fire. This essence eludes us and is gone when we come with spades upon the cold ashes of the campfire four hundred thousand years hence. Eisley also believed that it is the creation of the written word, giving birth to history, that has enabled us to survive as a species. Perhaps he is right. Through myth, then through written history, we have extended human memory beyond the individual lifetime. Perhaps, we can hold back that final death with our re-search for forgotten family memories.
Like the comet of Neihardt’s poem, my mother, indeed all my loved ones who have passed, returns periodically in memories of conversations, in photographs, in letters and documents. Each cycle of recalling those past events denotes an opportunity to discover something new. Sometimes about them; sometimes about me. Eisley believed that this was the real process of scientific research, seeing ourselves as part of the scientific question.
I began this blog in July 2007, a mere nine months ago, not sure that anyone would read it. But, apparently, some people have because, as of today, the stats at WordPress, report that people have stopped by more than 5,000 times since last year. Another statistic informs me that some of you have found what is posted here promising enough to add this blog to a reader list or a feed. Other than a few comments left here, none of these numbers tell me if you like what you read. Nor do they tell me who you are, but I thank you for visiting. I hope that you will come by again.
- Neihardt (1881-1973), whose quote appears above, may be unfamiliar to many of you. Although he is better known as a poet, he was, in fact, a historian who wrote about the American Midwest and its native inhabitants. He published his research in a variety of genres, including epic poetry.