There are 300,000 people in St. Louis. Hundreds of thousands more in the suburbs surrounding it. And yet, I only seem to run into the same 500 people all the time.
My mother called. We talked about the 1940 census, which is free on Ancestry.com right now, searchable by name. She let me know that all states were available. I was excited because the last time I'd looked Missouri and Illinois weren't up yet--I could browse, essentially walking down the streets house by house, but not look up Mazie Broadhead or someone like that.
I wanted to look up my father's parents, because my grandfather's side is the one most mysterious. Now, there's nothing so mysterious about 1940, but I still like to look. It's a bit voyeuristic, I suppose, to snoop around in the lives of my predecessors this way, but for the most part, this is the only way I come to know them at all.
So I went onto the site and typed in his name. Up at the top, his name living with his parents Anna and Edward (yet another Edward Blake layered on top of so many Edward Blakes--there were 4 generations of them in a row that I know of). Three siblings, his grandmother, and a maiden aunt. He was a shade cleaner, at age 20, and currently out of work. His father was a chauffeur, which I already knew. His brother worked for a telegraph company. Rich had one year of high school but no further education. Nothing amazing or shocking here (and I have read some amazing and shocking things in this hobby--suicides, hidden marriages, abandoned children, lies upon lies hidden inside lies). I glanced at the address and realized how close it was to where I lived.
Six blocks south in fact. Now, I didn't get my hopes too far up right at first. In 1920 his family was living about 10 blocks north, and when I sped over there to see the house, see the place where not only he lived but also where his other grandmother, Jennie the self-proclaimed witch, the one who hounded and terrified her daughter-in-law to the brink of insanity, the house where she died. When I got to the place, it was the only missing house on the whole block. A gap between neatly smiling teeth. A missing finger on a model's hand. Of course it wasn't there. Jennie had lived there. Everything about her is gone.
But I glanced at the address again and thought I might have more luck. It was on a nice block. I went to google maps and typed in the address. It showed me the house on street view before I ever stepped out the door to go there. And I knew the house.
I knew who lived in the house.
It was Peggy's house, and her whole family. I taught two of her sons. She goes to my parish. I've played scrabble in her dining room. She was my cookie manager one year for my girl scout troop and I helped her sort cookies sitting in her living room. I brought a meal over one time last year with Annie, stood in their kitchen.
This may not seem amazing to the rest of you, but the fact that I was sitting in those rooms, standing in that kitchen, where my grandfather had been a teenager, without having any idea that I had a connection there, was like a bolt of lightning down my spine.
I drove over there on my way to pick up the kids at school. I stopped in front of the place and looked. Something was wrong. It was empty. What didn't I know? (I know, that's a big category). I didn't have time to get out and figure something out. I didn't even know what my plan had been--Peggy and her husband are gone during the day regardless. People have jobs.
She was at church this morning and stopped me afterward, downstairs with a donut and coffee in hand. She wants to start the quilters' group again. We've talked about this before but she said "I have the room now to do it--I don't have any expertise but I have the house."
"Speaking of house," I started. I told the story, leaving out driving by. She named an address: "Oh do you mean?" and I shook my head. "No, the other house, the one I thought you lived in."
"Ah, we moved into the house on the next block after we finished rehabbing," she explained. We went on talking and spoke of my grandparents and mutual friends--my grandmother's best friend's daughter is one of Peggy's closest friends. I thought about her big family living in that house, I thought about my grandfather's family, about whom I know scant little, I thought about facts and conjecture and how I was destined to know this woman before either of us was even born.