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Two Births

By Daniel Hubbard | September 23, 2012

Last week I wrote about “the two deaths.” This week it has occurred to me that I could try to turn that on its head. If the concept of two deaths can make sense, what about the idea of two births? The first birth, like the first death, would be physical. The second death is “memory death,” a person is not just physically dead but becomes forgotten. It is a kind of death that, by definition, leaves no record behind.

Memory Birth and Death

One kind of second birth might parallel “memory birth.” When a person does something that makes them memorable, they would experience “memory birth.” I’m not sure the concept works. Everyone alive exists in someone’s memory, it is more a matter of degree, of how many minds contain a person in their memory. There is no equivalent to the sharp transition from remembered, if just barely, to totally forgotten.

An Immigrant’s Second Birth

If “memory birth” doesn’t really work, what might be a second birth in a genealogical sense? By chance, I’ve been researching many recent immigrants over the last few weeks. Ships, with their bellies full, slowly made their way across the ocean and delivered their newborns at Castle Garden, Ellis Island, Grosse Ile or one of the other maternity wards that dotted North America’s coasts. The immigrants arrived in a strange place that they could not, at first, comprehend. The people around them made sounds that they could not understand in a cacophony of mysterious language. Here is a genealogical second birth.

We almost talk this way already. Immigrants don’t start life but they do start a “new life.” An immigrant might say that they feel like a “new person” after entering a new land and they almost certainly are. Immigrating changes you. I’ve done it, without the trauma that often lies behind but with the equivalent of the infamous green card interview. Even after returning to America, where I am not an immigrant, I am certainly different.

A person might decide to emigrate and experience a second birth because the condition of their first birth made a second birth seem to be an attractive opportunity. Lately, I’ve been looking at people whose ethnic group made life difficult where they were. Another person faced the stigma of illegitimacy. When your first birth hands you problems, a second birth becomes necessary.

So, you boarded a ship, crossed the ocean and emerged in a new land, hoping to find a new life. You arrived in a strange place without having been prepared for what you would find by a world bound together by telecommunications and mass entertainment. Maybe a few letters from relatives or friends’ relatives helped to prepare you but probably not much more than that and your own hopes.

Some stayed where they arrived. Others spread out across the continent and ended up in places like the Chicago of the 1890s. Could anything prepare a poor farmer for a city that had gone from virtually uninhabited swamp, to smoldering ruin to the fifth largest city in the world in a single lifetime? Probably not. It was a new life in a new world. It must have been like experiencing a second birth.

The family historian tries to save their ancestors from the second death. The second birth is something that was a mixture of their choice and their conditions. We can only discover it and explore the before and the after.

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