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Family History, Uncovered in Quarantine


Every Wednesday night at 8:15, 16 of my wife’s family members gather around computer screens in their homes in Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; New York City; and Chapel Hill, N.C., to look into their collective past.

On a Zoom screen, we watch grainy Super-8 images of my mother-in-law, who died long before I met her daughter, as a young girl, a sassy teenager, a new mother dipping my wife’s tiny baby toes in the lake at Mohonk Mountain House in the early 1980s. We see my wife’s cousins, now middle-aged, as young girls, running through the sprinkler and mugging for the lens on the lawn of their childhood home in West Philly, the cars of the mid-’70s lining the street behind them. We see their grandparents in middle age, watching their teenage daughters splash in the ocean off Cape Cod sometime in the 1960s.

We listen to audiotapes of my wife’s aunt as a newlywed in Indiana, recounting the mundane details of a cross-country move for her own mother, as mailing a reel-to-reel came at significantly less cost than a regular long-distance call back then.

Several years ago, my wife’s cousin, Julie Rottenberg, a screenwriter, and her husband, Ben Rubin, an artist, were unloading an old family storage unit outside of Philadelphia when they uncovered four boxes brimming with Super-8 reels, audiotapes and thousands upon thousands of slides. They moved the boxes to their own storage unit in their Brooklyn building, promising to go through them soon. But as most relics often do, the boxes again sat unattended for years.

It wasn’t until last year, as Ms. Rottenberg and Mr. Rubin, parents of two preteenagers, were cleaning out their own storage unit, that they revisited the boxes.

Mr. Rubin sent their contents away to be digitized. Conveniently, the images returned right before lockdown. Now every week he searches for material, from five to 30 minutes, to broadcast to the extended family every Wednesday.

“This is the most time I’ve spent with my family in years,” my wife said recently, teary eyed after a particularly emotional viewing.

And we’re not alone — even though many of us are, now, technically, alone. As Thanksgiving approaches, people everywhere are looking for new ways to connect with their families beyond just waving hello on videoconference. Some are turning into amateur archivists, sifting through records they never would have had the time to examine otherwise.

Samneang Chheng, 39, is Cambodian-American but lives in London and works as a commerce sales partner lead at Google. Every week, she and her fiancé, John Burtt, join Ms. Chheng’s mother, Chuon Chin, on a Zoom call during which Ms. Chin teaches a traditional Cambodian recipe.

From her home in Fort Worth, where Ms. Chheng was raised after her family escaped a Taiwanese refugee camp shortly after her birth, Ms. Chin explains the ingredients and methods behind the dishes Ms. Chheng grew up eating, along with stories of her youth in Cambodia.

“I was never interested in learning these recipes,” Ms. Chheng said. But the combination of her mother’s advanced age and the current difficulty of international travel led Ms. Chheng and Mr. Burtt to start scheduling regular Zoom calls, each covering a different recipe.

Ms. Chheng and Mr. Burtt are hoping to turn these recipes into a cookbook that their children may someday read. “It’s meant to preserve our history,” she said. “But it’s meant to preserve her story, too.”

In Los Angeles, Johnny North, 44, who owns a production company, recently confirmed a suspicion that he’s held since he was a teenager: that he was adopted.

Drawn to film, art and music, Mr. North always felt different from his more conventional family, growing up in Long Island. “I wasn’t unloved or uncared for,” he said. “I was just different.”

He was in high school when he noticed a picture of his mother dated shortly before his birth — glaringly not pregnant. He had also long wondered why he, their first child, was born 15 years after their marriage. “But there were just things we never talked about,” Mr. North said.

A year and a half ago, his wife gave him a DNA test kit, and the results were perplexing. Mr. North took another test in December 2019, administered by a different company, that revealed even more discrepancies.

Shortly afterward, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York signed a bill into law that made it easier for adoptees to obtain their birth certificates. Mr. North’s arrived in mid-March. It revealed that he had been born Jason Patrick Bouchard to a 16-year-old single mother who lived not far from where his parents raised him.

Mr. North’s emotions have since been running that gamut that could be expected with such a revelation. Restless days and sleepless nights were alleviated after he talked to his parents. It was a confrontation made easier by the fact that Mr. North is locked down at home in Los Angeles.

“It might have been harder if I actually had to go and sit face-to-face with my parents, to look them in the eye,” Mr. North said. “And the minute I did, I felt a thousand pounds lighter.”

Raymond Mantovani is a 66-year-old retired physician in Chapel Hill. He’s also my father.

And for as long as I can remember, he’s had a pair of government-issue duffel bags sitting in a closet corner, full of dusty letters from a bygone era.

Mere weeks after my grandparents were married, my grandfather, Ricalmo Mantovani, shipped to Chicago for basic training. From there, he sailed to the West African nation of Ghana, where, for two and a half years, he served as an airplane mechanic, fixing combat-wounded bombers after their runs over Africa and Southern Europe.

While he was deployed, Ricalmo and his wife, Anita, sent what my father describes as “at least a thousand letters” back and forth between Ghana and New York. As they had been married only weeks before being torn apart by a global conflict, much of the foundation of their early relationship was built through these regular letters.

Currently, my father is going through these duffel bags, undertaking a project he’s long dreamed of: to stitch together a narrative of the first few years of his parents’ marriage through their only means of correspondence.

My father is cataloging the correspondence by month and year, in hope that a story may coalesce over the more than a thousand letters. He’s been able to read only a handful of randomly selected letters here and there, which have revealed little more than the love for each other he saw growing up as their son.

Perhaps as my family takes to our own Zoom for a virtual Thanksgiving celebration this week, like so many others around the country, my father will have a better idea of the scope and direction of his project.

“So far, they’re basically love letters,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me. My parents had a very loving marriage.”

Nonetheless, the pain of two people in their early 20s being pulled an ocean apart is apparent in the back and forth between my grandparents.

“They were very young,” he said. “They missed each other terribly and were concerned whether he would survive.”

One of the first things we were robbed of at the onset of the pandemic was human connection. Suddenly, and without warning, we became universal shut-ins, solitary citizens of our own little islands, stuck indefinitely with whomever was in our immediate orbits; spouses, children, roommates, pets.

But as social creatures, no sooner were we told to stay at home did we figure out how to reach out, how to virtually be with one another, how to raise a glass together (or, in the case of my wife’s family, to bond over the shared memories of the past as they skittered by on a grainy Super-8 reel).

We were forced to take to Zoom, FaceTime and the examination of old letters sent across the ocean nearly a hundred years ago in an effort to replicate those little interpersonal synapses that make us human, to make us feel normal in a time that is anything but. And in that process, at least a few of us have tapped into something that dwarfs the monolith of a world-halting pandemic. That is, our own personal histories.

Because as we sit virtually beside our family, watching my wife’s long-dead mother as a young woman, dancing in the surf off Cape Cod, long before marriage and children, multiple sclerosis and brain cancer, it’s clear that, while mandated space may exist between us, we’re holding it together.


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