In the Country of the Dead

The Dead smell of musty files and fading ink. The Dead are wary, and hide among crumbling papers and three ring folders, and they are coy, and leave little breadcrumb trails through the forests of the past, that you follow eagerly only to find yourself with a handful of dust and the sound of mocking laughter.

It’s called genealogy but there is nothing genial about it. Those elusive ghosts have all sorts of tricks up their ectoplasmic sleeves. They change their names, forge their papers and lie about everything. Born in Buffalo sounds better than born in Bermondsey, and even census takers have a weird sense of humor, writing down New Yorkshire for New York.

But every now and then one of these timid ghosts steps out from the shadows and shakes off the dusty cloak of the past. Not timid at all, they look you in the eye with a knowing smile, and you can’t hide, or look away, not while you are looking into your own eyes, and she is smiling at you with your daughter’s mouth. She seems amused that you have found her while you were stumbling about the Internet in search of your great great grandmother. That is not who she is, this perky little lady – she is great great grandmother’s sister, and she is me.

She died so long ago that it would have been impossible to know her. I can only meet her ghost on a cabinet card from 1884, and wonder. She lives in the country of the dead and their musty boxes of files but she doesn’t belong there. She belongs here with me, sharing reminiscences of our past, my little sister who never was, my blood sister from long ago.

I’m missing someone I never knew, yet she is somewhere here inside me, in my genetic memory. I strayed too far into the country of the dead. I want her here now, I want to hug her and hear her speak, I want the sepia complexion to be flushed and shining as it was in life. I want her to be alive – and I look at her, so young and fresh, I know I looked like that once, and my daughter looks like that now. It is not all sadness and a sense of loss. I know now why I went looking for the past – to find her, to find myself.