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What will it be like to view your ancestors’ social media feeds?
The patchwork of photos we have of Great-Grandma Leigh becomes less patchy when she is twenty-five. Before that, she was a tow-headed kid at a birthday party, a young woman at her college graduation, with cavernous silences between life events. Starting in 2014, we see her every week. Then every day. Before long, every hour. Food is an obsession of hers. She takes a long train ride in search of a prized sandwich. We witness every meal she’s ever eaten.
Elsewhere, on another platform, she makes puns. She lambasts politicians. She is having a bad day. She is having a good day. Her whims rise like ordinary waves. One evening, she pours her heart out to a stranger whose name she’ll never know. Not to him, but to everyone in the world about him.
In 2017, she posts about Cork, Ireland, where Rose, her maternal grandmother, was born, where she never left. There’s a video of Leigh faux-sobbing over the ancient knowledge Rose could have imparted to her. This fascination departs a few months later. Her experience, or the visible portion of it, winnows to birdwatching and abstract art. Few captions are found in this era. Everything is visual. But we still hear from her every hour.
In 2020, she meets our great-grandfather. She doesn’t like him at first. But it’s January, and soon the pandemic starts, and their relationship takes on a vividness that neither of them foresaw. Leigh posts a photo of herself every day by the fire escape, in the dusk light, usually with a cocktail, sometimes with her boyfriend. “Will the world go on? Is it over?” She ages fast that year.
Eventually, Rose reappears. Leigh has only two photos of her, so what she posts are improvisations of Cork. Rose becomes a myth. “Every blade of grass was known to her,” Leigh writes. A scant ten minutes later, the timestamps reveal, Leigh eats a milanesa torta near Green-Wood Cemetery.
My father is born ten months after the wedding. Leigh disappears from photos. There are baby thighs and baby cheeks. When she writes, she complains. Each day is a slog. The baby is needy. There won’t be any other children. Yet two more follow. Their bodies appear at brunch, lunch, dinner. Life is a restaurant.
In the next decade, when Leigh is in her forties, her face enters the frame again, but usually in the background. She posts in long-form about abandoning all desire. On one occasion, she admits this is a concept from Eastern philosophy, but she claims that for her it’s a depressive posture, that she can’t think of how else to be. Some impulse drives her to keep posting anyway, every hour, for decades. If she has no desires, why do we see her constantly?
Today all of her great-grandchildren are sitting with Leigh in her retirement castle, feeling (the consensus is) icky. To replay her life in such granular resolution makes her seem simultaneously unknowable and useless. We have nothing to ask her, nothing to extract. There isn’t a droplet of mystique. When tea arrives, we say, “Tell us about Rose.” Smiling, she spins a yarn.