That was the question I kept asking as I dug deeper into this stranger’s — Emmett’s — story. I couldn’t keep calling him a stranger, though.
For such an obscure guy who didn’t leave much of a mark while he lived, I was turning up dozens of tiny blurbs about his life almost daily from newspaper microfilm. I spent hours (courtesy of faculty privileges and InterLibrary Loan) at both the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library and The American University’s Bender Library, scrolling through hundreds of microfilmed pages from the past, newspapers searching for anything Emmett Wilson. The small pieces would have to come together to illustrate the coherent whole as best as possible, because I lacked true primary sources at this point. This was literally the needle-in-the-haystack approach, but it was the only approach available.
Over time, the small, often one-line items about Emmett’s life grew together into an extensive 4.8 megabyte chart. Essentially, I’d created Emmett’s Almost-Everyday Planner in reverse, a calendar overview of his life which included an incredibly detailed map of what the man did on a regular basis, folks he hung out with, where he went for entertainment, venues he visited regularly. Ad infinitum, or as close as I could get to it.
Good research, right? Except that I didn’t have an ‘off’ switch with regard to Emmett. I’d have to be asked to leave the microfilm readers at closing. I’d look up at the library clock one moment, 9:25 a.m. and the second time I’d look it was 3:45 p.m.
Pity the librarians and archive workers; pity the research assistants at nearby tables: I’d chat Emmett up with anyone who asked me what I was working on at the university, whether they were interested or not.
And that was when I noticed I’d embraced a whole other -ism.
As an alcoholic in recovery, I don’t have a desire to drink anymore, but the desire to escape whatever it is I need to focus on at the moment, to procrastinate from living in the current world, is always there. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to escape or to feel better about; I was doing research, and damn good progress too, I thought.
But my husband, who never complains or comments on my work unless something seems truly over the top or awry, actually spoke up: “This is taking over your life. What is it about? What is this to you?” he said.
I didn’t know, I said.
“Then what’s the point of doing the research? What do you hope to get out of it? If you figure that out, then your path in pulling all this information together will be clear,” he said, gesturing at the piles of files stacked on my desk, hundreds of pages of handwritten notes, transcribed notes.
There was one other thing I hadn’t checked — I’d purposely put it off. It was time to find out for sure. So, I typed his name into my Geni.com account — Geni.com is a genealogical research tool.
Lo and behold:
Now I knew who Emmett was to me. For sure, I couldn’t say he was a stranger anymore.
But I wasn’t sure if I wanted more than that.
Next: Acceptance is the key.