An “Orphan’s Sense of History”

Today I plunder Divisadero again, for a personal note:

Those who have an orphan’s sense of history love history. And my voice has become that of an orphan. Perhaps it was the unknown life of my mother, her barely drawn portrait, that made me an archivist, a historian. Because if you do not plunder the past, the absence feeds on you.

Technically, despite my parents not being alive any more, I’m not an orphan, or even an adult orphan:

An orphan (from the Greek ὀρφανός orfanos) is a child whose parents are dead or have abandoned them permanently. In common usage, only a child who has lost both parents is called an orphan. When referring to animals, only the mother’s condition is usually relevant. If she has gone, the offspring is an orphan, regardless of the father’s condition.

Adults can also be referred to as orphans, or adult orphans. However, survivors who reached adulthood before their parents died are normally not called orphans. It is a term generally reserved for children whose parents have died while they are too young to support themselves. [citations removed]

But I do think I might have “an orphan’s sense of history.” I “love history”; I feel that if I “do not plunder the past” its “absence” will “feed” on me. It’s the presence of the “unknown lives” that does it: those of my parents and the imagined ones I ‘left behind’ when I immigrated. Lost parents plus immigration equals gaping gaps, waiting to be filled in, demanding it.

You get to work in any way you see fit. There are photos–digital and otherwise, scrapbooks, email archives, handwritten notes, post-its, letters, postcards, book inscriptions, New Years and Christmas greeting cards, wedding invitations, baby announcements; you save them all. You have boxes and albums of photos; you have hard drives. You have boxes of letters; you have hard drives. In these collections you are distinguished only by your predilection for the minor, the obscure. You see stories in all manners of things; I see a narrative envelop my correspondences, my photos, my writings.

You dig, you seek, you fish, you trawl; your need becomes visible. For many years, when I would meet someone who had known my father, I would be told stories about him without my asking. I did not need to ask; I might have hesitated, but my curiosity was plain for all to see. Even those that didn’t know him helped me fill out a picture of times and places I had had little access to.  Sometimes, I was bolder; I would be overt and inquire pointedly. Over time I tired; there was only so much I rely on the record of others. Over the years, I’ve been defeated by the task; I can’t find out any more about him, all the little snippets and nuggets don’t help any more, his friends have also passed away.

Perhaps I’ll have to rely on fantasy someday, write ‘The Autobiography of my Father’, a gigantic daydream put to paper. You fill the absence in any way that works.

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