What do you take with you if you know you’re going to time-travel? I’m betting “sports bra” didn’t make your list, but you’d better believe it made mine. I knew what passed for underwear in the 19th century, and I knew I’d be clambering around ships for years. I wore the best sports bra I could buy, and hoped its elastic might hold up for the eight years I knew I’d want out of it.
There was so little I did feel in control of, you could say that bra was symbolic. I needed support, and there’s nowhere you can go to find what I really needed. I’d combed the internet for chat rooms or stories, anything that might look like a claim from someone who had actually Traveled, someone I could talk to. Instead, I found forums of fiction writers and science fiction aficionados, all kinds of wild theories of how to make time travel seem feasible, but nobody who seemed to be claiming it is feasible. And nobody, even on “fringe” sites, seeming to claim they’d done it. I have to believe that if one person does it, others have too…
But I hadn’t found a single one. After I’d Traveled back there—back then—I used to watch for people whose speech patterns or expressions didn’t fit, or people who seemed certain of futures. Obadiah no doubt thought I had an unhealthy obsession with fortune tellers and superstitions, especially after I insisted on interviewing “herb women” and self-proclaimed “seers” and kahunas at our various ports of call. Anyone who said they could foretell, I hoped to find was using a knowledge like that I carried. I don’t know what they could have told me—they might have arrived in the time with even less planning or intention than I had—but I longed to be able even just to talk about it.
I’m a list-maker. If Obadiah ever went back through his logs, he found plenty of lists in my handwriting. Lists of things to trade for at the next port, lists of funny things the girls did, lists of marine-life sightings, lists of scrimshaw projects I saw the crew working at… I just like lists, even when there’s not an obvious purpose for them. So you’d better believe I had a lot of lists going in the years after I came face to face with myself in the New Bedford whaling museum. Lists of facts I knew, lists of speculations.
Maybe that love of lists stemmed from my Tutu Ma, my grandmother. I used to listen in fascination when she recited my genealogy—in Hawaiian oral tradition she could take me back listing generations and generations on my mother’s side. It’s part of what sparked my interest in researching my father’s side—that and the urge to get to know my absent parents. One of the truths I could tell Obadiah was that I’d been orphaned. To him, it seemed to explain much of what was “strange” or nontraditional about me, not having had a solid basis in family upbringing, as he imagined. On the contrary, though, I’d been deeply rooted in extended family, even that family history extending backward over the years.
I started building the matching list of my father’s generations, researching my way back through the dentists and schoolteachers to the cabin boy and the whaler. My genealogy notebook took on the aspect of a scrapbook as I collected and incorporated photos and copies of documents. Even the simplest of finds—an estate sale from 1880—took on interest for me because it detailed the tools of a man’s trade and shone a light into the details of his life. So the whaling museum was a natural stop when I got back to James Harper and his father-in-law Obadiah Starbuck—captain of whaling ships, and husband of a woman who shared my name. Shared her daughter’s later surname, come to that, though Mallory would marry into it. I was curious about her more than her husband, just because of the name, but it was he who left more imprint on history, she being mentioned only in the marriage register, so far as I had found.
An avid genealogist finds rich hunting grounds in local archives, turning up documents and registries and sometimes even artifacts that have not made it into the cyberworld of online records. That’s why I’d taken the weekend trip to New Bedford, intending to look through libraries and churches and city hall records and whatever else might present itself. I never imagined myself standing in front of that photo, nearly two hundred years old, and seeing my own unmistakable face. I had no way to explain that face to myself, except the impossible. Gayla Harper Starbuck of 1841 couldn’t “possibly” be Gayla Harper of 2008—and that left only “impossible” explanations.
But there was no doubt. It wasn’t just a freak similarity of genetics, generations removed. And I knew because the “me” in that picture was signaling, as if she knew the me-of-now would see it, and need the proof. My best friend growing up was deaf, and with the linguistic alacrity of young children, I had picked up a great deal of her American Sign Language. The sign we used for my name—a finger position that combined my initials, GH—was not a natural resting position for a person’s hand sitting for a portrait… But it was exactly the position of the woman’s hand in this photo.
I have no memory of stepping over the thick ship-rope looped in front of displays to keep museum visitors at a respectful distance, but when the security guard grasped my elbow I had both hands on the picture frame and couldn’t catch my breath. His tone shifted from admonition to alarm when I turned my face to him, hardly comprehending his words, but within minutes he had me out a back exit and sitting on a concrete step in the fresh salt-tinged air.
I hadn’t smoked for years, but I asked him if he could spare a cigarette. This is where a non-smoker would ask “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” and a smoker (I had guessed right) understands that it really is. He handed me a Pall Mall and a flip-top lighter, which took me several flicks before I got a steady flame. Or probably it was my hands that were unsteady.
“I’ve got to go back in—you going to be okay?” he asked when I was halfway through the cig. I nodded, and he told me I could get back inside all day with my ticket stub if I wanted to. He paused uncertainly with keys in hand, but I managed a tight smile and he seemed reassured and stepped back to the unmarked door. “Just stay behind the ropes next time, okay?”
I didn’t go back in for a couple hours, walking instead to the wharf and making a call to my grandmother. She’s the most open-minded person I know, in the sense that she believes things most of us don’t. She’d tell you she’s seen the Night Marchers, and I’ve watched her leave offerings of flowers and fruit for the goddess on top of carefully constructed cairns of lava rocks at the volcano.
“Tutu, I’ve got something really strange here. Does Hawaiian tradition hold anything about traveling through time?” If there were, she would know it—but I got a puzzled negative, so I went ahead and described what I had just encountered. I trusted her enough to know her silence was one of consideration rather than disbelief. “Well, then,” she responded after the pause, “You’d better find out more.” Trust Tutu to see right to the heart of the matter. The call hadn’t enlightened me any, but it lightened me somewhat, and I fished out my ticket stub at the museum entrance with a less constricted chest than I had left with.
My shoulder bag already had the beginnings of a list (I told you I’m a list-maker!) of possible avenues for research. Not entirely different from some of the things I might search in the usual course of a genealogical digging-expedition, but this time I didn’t dare miss anything that might be available. An inevitable conclusion had already clunked into place in my mind. (I would usually say it had “fallen into place,” but this conclusion had all the weight of a “clunk.”)
When did she first appear in historical records? (I couldn’t yet bring myself to think in the first person; this person in the past was still “she” more than “me”…) Where did she marry the whaler? (What was his name again? I hadn’t even tracked, aside from the coffeehouse surname.) When did she have children? (I knew she had—she’s my own ancestress. And how does that work?) And when did she… exit? (Was I about to find out about my own death?)
I stood in front of the photo again, somewhat more collected this time, trying to focus on “practical” questions. Obadiah, that was Starbuck’s name. My husband. I tried out the phrase, unused for even longer than my lighter.
I stood as close as the ship-rope would allow, studying my own face. I didn’t appear appreciably older than now, so presumably I would be… transitioning… in the fairly near future, before I acquired much in the way of gray or wrinkles. “Circa 1840,” the picture was labeled, which gave me an approximate anchor for my search timeframe. I waved somewhat sheepishly at the same security guy who had helped me, hyperventilating, outside that morning, and he gestured back somewhat uncertainly. Probably worried I was going to fall apart again. Making up my mind to take this thing in my teeth, I stepped over to him.
“Hey, can I take a picture with my phone camera? Those are my great-great-great… Well, my several-greats grandparents.” He nodded, no doubt wondering why I’d been so worked up about them earlier—but I wasn’t going to bother myself about his opinion of me. Mentally counting the generations on the family tree I’d been filling in, I added six “greats” to the grandparent-equation. Above “Gayla Harper Starbuck” on my chart I had “?/?” for mother and “?/Harper” for father. Until this morning she’d been merely a dead end, and a curiosity for the fact of the name we shared. I could probably fill in that information now, but it would create a “loop” in the family tree that I couldn’t possibly explain to anyone besides my grandma.
“Here, go ahead and step up to it,” Security Guy offered as I turned back to the display wall. “Just—just don’t touch this time, okay?” I grinned my gratitude at him and stepped over the rope again, this time with exaggerated care to demonstrate my respectful intentions. I snapped a whole series of pictures of the photograph, and then several more of the sextant beside it, trying to get around the reflection of the museum lights on the covering glass. When its worn engraving caught my eye, I almost snorted. GPS? Well, properly used, it was as close as a 19th-century sailor could come to GPS, that much was true. It seemed like the kind of joke I would make—and it dawned on me in that moment that it might have been my own joke.
Would I tell this Obadiah-person what it meant, or where I’d come from? I studied his forbidding features, expressionless in the face of a long camera-exposure. Or rather, sternly expressioned. It stood to reason that he was accustomed to command, probably gruff command. It was a face that looked better suited to authority than to marriage. Though come to think of it, he was likely a person who wouldn’t separate those two. Even aside from the mechanics and the physical and metaphysical and philosophical implications of time travel (was that phrase really taking up residence in my mind?), this looked like a daunting project from every angle.
Yet I couldn’t ignore it. If she—I—didn’t have that child Mallory, my own family tree would fall apart from eighteen-forty-something on. I wouldn’t exist.
We’re accustomed to looking at family trees like a funnel, thirty-two great-great-grandparents (and exponentially increasing groups up the line) pairing off, with the end result of your own single self. But I was suddenly thinking of this Gayla Harper of the 1840s as the top of an inverted funnel. From her would come three children, two of whom would go on to have families of their own, and ever-increasing numbers of descendants down the generations. Literally hundreds of people in the world—not just myself—would not exist if I didn’t marry Obadiah Starbuck and have his daughters. If I didn’t marry Obadiah Starbuck. In 1841.
You could argue that I didn’t have a choice. Yet somewhere in that museum day, I made a choice. I would have to figure this thing out. I didn’t know how to make it happen—or whether it would just happen to me—but I was going to learn absolutely everything I could, and do this thing the best I could.
And I tackled this the way I support any project. One list at a time.