A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling groggy, I’ll jog up and down the stairwells of my office building. Each time I hit the bottom landing I’ll turn down into the little-used basement and lay on the floor for my jack knifes, squats, and pushups. I like that it’s cool and quiet down there, but mostly I want to spare my co-workers the mental image of me huffing and puffing while doing lunges.
The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s within earshot of the back door of the building. Many people take their cellphones to the bottom of those steps to make a call, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to work. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. A few of them have actually screamed when I’ve emerged from the basement and crossed between them mid-conversation. Since mine is not the only company in the building, these people don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that’s running away from whatever suspicious thing he’s got going on in the basement.
In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.
And sometimes, I must admit, I feel like a creeper when I’m researching my family: shining lights into dark corners, uncovering tawdry secrets, sniffing out facts about strangers to whom I happen to be related.
For instance, early on in my research I found the names and whereabouts of two relatives that had fallen away from the family. Exhilarated by my discovery, I immediately reached out to them on Facebook, but my enthusiasm was not reciprocated. They politely asked me not to contact them again. I was crushed. It hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t be equally enthusiastic, nor had it occurred to me that they’d associate me with the grudge they held against our common relative. I didn’t understand their immediate dismissal at first. I’m not to blame for what happened to them, I thought, and the past is past.
But it’s not.
Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there, and genealogists like me make a hobby out of rifling through it like the NSA at security checks. My relatives’ rejection helped me to understand that my research and my feelings of connection to familial strangers could be construed as intrusive and stalkerish.
Their rejection also reminded me that our past is directly tied to our present. For some people, like my two relatives, the consequences of past events can be so raw for so long that an enthusiastic Facebook message might make the pain of an entire childhood resurface. I realize that now.
Then it occurred to me that if researching my living family members can stir up bad feelings, maybe it’s ticking off my dead ones, too. What if my research is just bringing up long-forgotten resentments and shame in the afterlife? What if they’re sitting together in an all-white hotel conference room right now throwing fast food wrappers at my image on the afterlife’s version of a television?
Most of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet lives. They were solid, modest Midwesterners living as best they could in the capsules of their time. Maybe they weren’t the kind to like attention. I wonder if they find my stories about them ostentatious. I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. My devout Baptist and Methodist relatives probably wouldn’t agree with my life as a gay man. If they were living, they might have ignored me, disowned me, or sent me off to a ‘conversion therapy’ camp.
Obviously, I hope not. I hope they see my creeping as interest in their lives. I hope they appreciate that I’m trying to understand and learn from them. I hope they recognize that their lives are inspiring me to be grateful for every moment of my own quiet and solid Midwestern life.
(I pulled this from my archives and submitted it to two very gentle editors for their feedback and guidance in yeah write‘s Silver Lounge. Thank you, Christine of trudging through fog and Rowan from textwall, for helping me see this post in a different light. Click here to read the previous version.)