When my father retired as a federal investigator, we all chipped in to buy him a kayak. We assumed he’d spend his autumnal years at the center of a lake, fishing line rippling the water. But the kayak has been moored in the backyard, and unless you count the rain, it’s never touched water. Instead, my father set up an office in our unfinished basement and dedicated himself to a new case: tracing our family tree.
Most of our ancestors were scattered by the Irish diaspora, making them nearly impossible to track, but my father attacked the cold case with the same tenacity that made him a successful agent. It was not uncommon for us to find him awake at 3 a.m., poring over baptismal records or highlighting 19th-century ship manifests. He haunted archives and cemeteries, somehow managing to locate the unmarked grave of my great-great-grandfather, who died while laboring on America’s first subway in Boston.
When my father launched his probe into our roots, the immediate family had mixed reactions. I was hopeful (“Maybe he’ll dig up a deed to an ancestral castle”), my brother was cynical (“After a few generations, the trail will run cold”), and my mother was dismissive (“It’s just a phase — he’ll be onto something else in a week”). We were all wrong. After more than a decade on the beat, my father is more engrossed than ever. The basement is crammed with boxes of documents, each dedicated to a different familial branch. Sheehans, Spillanes, Mutries, McIntyres, Whites — so many Celtic clans, and not a single castle among them.
Occasionally, I visit my father while he’s hard at work. I’ll rummage through a box, hold up a black-and-white photograph, and ask, Who’s this guy? With great familiarity, my father will start chatting about my great-uncle, a farmer on Prince Edward Island who, according to family lore, was strong enough to break a wild horse by holding the animal’s head firmly in his grasp until it stopped bucking. I’ve seen my father use the same technique — with less success — on his jammed printer. But his encyclopedic knowledge of our forebears never fails to amaze me. If his ancestors form a welcoming party to the afterlife, he won’t require name tags.
Sometimes, we worry my father is spending too much time buried in the past. Yet whenever my mother urges him to put down the death certificates and rejoin the living, he protests: “But I’m almost done.” It’s an insane claim. Unless he’s about to get his hands on Adam and Eve’s deportation documents from Eden’s immigration office, he is not almost done. Tracing our lineage will never end. I think that’s why the project appeals to him. My workaholic father found the perfect remedy for his retirement blues: assigning himself an infinite case.
One consequence of my father’s sleuthing has been the exponential growth of his side of the family. Each time he unearths a more ancient ancestor, his circle of living relatives widens. He is now connected with distant cousins from across the globe, many of whom serve in law enforcement (it must be genetic). In recent years, our Massachusetts home has become a way station for international kinfolk traveling across America.
As it turns out, my father was never chasing the dead; he was chasing the living. And now, after 12 long years, the most complex case of his life is about to reach its resolution. Our newfound relations will soon fly into Boston for a grand family reunion. While my mother and I toil on shamrock centerpieces, my father is busy turning yellowed maps and photographs into foam posters that he’ll present like evidence to a jury. His research will prove that everyone gathered in the function hall is linked by blood. We may be strangers to each other, but his research will show beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are family. His family.
Guilty as charged.
Will Dowd is a poet, essayist, and artist in the Boston area. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.