The Crystallized Moment

Time travel, roast chickens and the U.S. Census.

The other night at work, I was searching for an article from one of our back issues. I pulled the heavy, bound copies off the shelf, opened the cover, releasing that comforting, musty smell of tropical, well-seasoned paper, and then I stepped into 1948. Phone numbers are short–93223. People are signing up for samba lessons. They are eating hot biscuits at Gam’s Kitchen. They are renting a "fresh, clean room" at the Maui Grand Hotel for $4. There’s a just-past-tangible feel to these people, places and things, because when a moment is well enough documented, it is still happening.

I had a similar sensation when doing some genealogical research on the Internet. The U.S. Census, from 1790 to 1930, is accessible via library Web sites. The cool thing is it’s not just the data–it’s a scan of the actual documents. I entered my great-grandfather’s name (it’s done by head of household), and climbed through the glass to 1920. There, in elegant handwriting, is a record of the moment that a Census taker stood on the Beechwood’s doorstep and recorded six children and two adults living in that Philadelphia home.

The Beechwood family, circa 1906, included the author’s grandmother, Catherine (seated in small chair at bottom right). The author’s great-grandmother, also a Catherine, is just above her.

From the vantage point of the Census taker’s wooden clipboard, I strain to see into the foyer. My grandmother, Catherine, is 13, and I can hear her practicing piano. A giant, white bow sits on top of her dark hair, cut into a bob, and she’s swinging her feet under the piano bench. It’s late afternoon; what is cooking for dinner? My great-grandmother, all of four-feet-eleven, closes the door after the Census taker, and goes back inside to check the status of the meal: a roasted chicken, potatoes and beets.

In another search, I looked up my father’s father, and found him, age 3, in a checkered wool coat, running around in the backyard behind a little brick house in Rochester, N.Y. His mother answers the door–her name is my middle name, I want to tell her, but she won’t find out until 1972–and, in a British accent, gives the census taker her hometown. She spells the names of her two sons, gives the occupation of her husband and then closes the door to check on dinner.

Think about the blur in a daguerreotype, where a restless man turned his head just a bit to the left, and how that tiny motion is still visible on film. Or how the wasp, trapped in amber, lives on, while his insect companions from that same day–was it a Tuesday or a Wednesday?–have been gone 50 million years. We can watch two dinosaurs, bony jaws locked into each others’ empty flanks, their fatal tussle still happening, but in a museum now, not in the mud. The airman in the glacier, the mother in Pompeii clinging to her baby, the Zapruder film–these moments are as real as when they started.

Even these words will live on in this magazine’s archives. Long after I’m gone, they will still be speaking for me. Just as my grandmother is practicing the piano, and somewhere, a chicken is roasting.