Where Logic Meets Love

A Lesson in Mortality

Saturday, July 3, 2010

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A Lesson in Mortality | Faith Permeating Life
If you want to comprehend mortality, study genealogy.

For the past few months, I've been building my family tree on Ancestry.com. (This project has superseded everything, including both blogging and sweeping -- though I plan to get back to both.) In some cases our records go back to the 1700s, and we may have had some ancestors immigrate to the first colonies.

What's so fascinating to me is this: Take a person who came over to the U.S. in say, the 1840s, as almost all of my Irish ancestors did during the potato famine. (I was actually in Ireland last week, so knowing this about my family made it so much more interesting to learn the history!) Through the census records every ten years, you see their family grow -- 2 kids, 5 kids, 8 kids -- then shrink as those kids move out and get married, until it's just the husband and wife left. Then the husband dies. Then the wife. You find their death records and confirm the dates.

Now go to one of their children, that one who was 2 years old when she first appears on a census record. You picture a little girl toddling around the house, maybe in a frilly dress with pigtails. Now she's 12. Now she's 22. Now she's 32, a different name, married with 4 kids. She's 42. She's 52. She's 62 and it's just her and her husband left. Her husband dies. On the next census she's moved in with her oldest son and his wife. Then she dies. That son is 27. Now he's 37. Now he's 47. Now he dies early when his youngest daughter's only 9. Now she's 19. Now she's 29 and has 3 kids. Now 7 kids. Now 4 kids. Now 1 kid. Now she's dead.

You can't do this kind of work and fail to see this circle of life, this inevitability of death. Some die young, some live til their 90s. Some have 12 kids, some have none. Some never get married, some get married 5 times. They all die.

A lot of people can quote to you the fact people used to have large families because you didn't know how many would live to adulthood, but it becomes a lot more real when you see names and dates. So many stillborn babies, so many babies living a month or two. After seeing my cousin go through the grieving process of having a stillborn baby, I can't imagine the woman who had three babies die and still went on to have eight more children. Nine months of pregnancy every time. That's incredible.

Some children, if they were born dead, don't even have names, at least not officially. Baby Girl. Infant Boy. Did people then not grieve as we do now? Or did they just understand that that was life, and you had to try again? Both my grandmother and Mike's grandmother had sisters who died young, and they don't speak of them with sadness, just memories. But then, all of my grandmother's other sisters are dead now too. I guess at some point you just absorb it as a fact of life. You reach a certain age, and a lot of people you knew and loved will be dead.

There's a final facet of studying genealogy that shines back mortality, and that's the information held by living relatives. For a year now I've been trying to get my cousins to sit down with my great-aunt, the only sister of my deceased grandmother, the only person in our family who still remembered personally so many long dead ancestors, and record her talking about her life and those memories. After one cousin promised twice and never delivered, I gave up and started looking up flights out to Seattle to do it myself. I was planning to go out there in August, but the flights were too expensive, and I had to aim for late September.

And then, two days ago, she died.

There are old family photographs we've been going through to post on the website, and when my mom couldn't identify someone, or couldn't figure out how two people were related, she would always say, "Dori will know," and she'd call up her sister and have her go over to the assisted living facility to ask my great-aunt. Now there's no one left who knows.

If you want to comprehend mortality, study genealogy.


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