I have recently decided that the reason family records are kept in half-forgotten folders, or are written in dusty Bibles, rarely read, is because printed documents are much heavier than the actual paper the words rest upon. They are representative of all sorts of old baggage and family ghosts.
I’m in the process of being confirmed as a member of the Episcopalian church. In this process, I’ve realized that my grandmother’s Catholocism is more a part of me than I ever knew, and I’ve re-examined a lot of negative feelings about religion and faith.
But none of that – none of it – has been as jarring as the experience of reading my Baptism Certificate for the first time.
We are accustomed to dealing with legal records in the form of birth certificates, the legal document you must have to get any kind of ID – driver’s license, passport, social security card – and I am intimately familiar with mine. I know that my birth was formally registered about a month after I was actually born and that my mother chose not to name my biological father.
When I called St. Mary’s Church in New Monmouth, NJ, to ask for a copy of my Baptism certificate, I didn’t expect the information there to be at all new or weird, and yet, a week after making a simple request for paperwork, I’m having a minor identity crisis.
It began when I saw the envelope addressed using my birth (that’s maiden for the old fashioned among you) name, something I haven’t seen in print in ten years. As I told my mother, I had a weird moment when I felt like I didn’t know who that person was, that I was opening some other person’s mail.
And then there was the shock of seeing the box for “father’s name” filled in. It’s not that I didn’t KNOW his name, because I did. It’s that I was expecting to see “name withheld” or some such. But, as I told my aunt, while my mother often prefers to believe (or pretend to believe) that I sprung fully formed from her belly, like Athena from Zeus, intellectually, I have always been aware that there is a real person who contributed half my chromosomes.
Once, when I was at my grandmother’s house, I found a box of letters from this man to my mother, dated in the months before my conception, and ending with his reply to being told (though this last was unreadable, as it was torn to bits). My grandmother made it disappear however, and I’m sorry about that – it would have made a great novel.
So all I remember, now, is that he seemed to have a large vocabulary, and he wrote witty, slightly snarky, extremely affectionate letters.
Saturday night was a restless one for me, as I was mulling over whether to let his name stand on my confirmation records, and I finally decided that since I had to provide a copy of the baptism certificate to St. Andrew’s, it was fine to let it stand. After all, confirmation records are completely internal.
I had a long chat with my aunt about it though, commenting on the weirdness of seeing my certifiably insane godfather’s name, and mocking the form of her name that was used.
But I’m still a bit boggled.
And thinking a lot about family ghosts.