I could smell her morning breath in one corner of the master bedroom and I swear she was standing two inches from my left shoulder. I am sure of it. I was looking at a tribal mask hanging on the wall and then out of nowhere, breath and perfume and soup on the stove simmering. Dentures in a glass on the nightstand. The radio playing, and someone messing with the antenna. All at once none of it was dead. Even though all of it was. Collecting flies like spoiled fruit left out and forgotten after an incredible summer picnic.
I sort of think this estate sale was so much more profound than all of the others I have been to because of the house itself. I can say with certainty I have never been in such a giant, and expensive, house in my entire life. These were the kinds of homes I watched passing outside car windows as a child, dreaming of the princess children living inside, their ponies wearing matching tiaras. These were the homes where the moms made muffins while wearing aprons that had been ironed by the maid a few hours before. The children with manicured lawns were never forced to spend their weekends in church basements listening to AA meetings, cigarette smoke so thick and hot their nostrils burning with each inhale, even the next day. In these homes promises were kept and nobody wore hand-me-downs and there were no real problems like the ones I had inherited. I longed to be part of that club; some nights I can still feel the ache rise up in my chest.
Certainly millionaires, and their families don't die. And if they do, they don't leave the door open for strangers to just come stomping through without first removing their shoes.
This whole experience baffled me. How this mansion, this massive symbol of success and wealth and power, was now completely deflated. Like that time I was an intern at Walt Disney World and I saw Mickey Mouse with his head off for the first time; a sweaty, pimply man with adult braces on his teeth, huffing and puffing on his way to lunch break. As I wandered through this sale today, I wanted so badly to have the illusion of safety and perfection back. I swear to God I kept looking for the pony stable in the backyard.
Instead I found a bottle of half used shampoo sitting on the bathroom sink, on sale for .25. It was just too much to comprehend. The vulnerable bones of a once mighty warrior, left to be plucked clean by the shivering beaks of curious, peasant birds.
I sat on the floor of their library and spent an hour flipping through the husband’s personal photo albums. He was a world traveler and chronicled every single trip meticulously. Every image was captured so beautifully on film, and each book was only .50 each. At first I started to pile them all, claiming them as my own: India, China, Alaska, The Caribbean… My heart sang and in my mind I had a library some day filled top to bottom with other people’s vacation albums. It was so real. But then Thomas made a comment alluding to how ridiculous this calling was, and all at once I felt like one of those people on the hoarder’s TV show. Hugging stranger’s memories to my chest, gripping and clinging with all of my might while the garbage truck beep, beep, beeps it's reverse warning, backing in to take it all away.
I didn’t buy a single one. And I regret it profoundly. But I don’t think it’s the vision of my curated collection that is truly wrecking me. I think it’s because I want to buy them all, and then find his, now adult, children, and bang on their doors at the most inappropriate hours (rain pouring down my hair and face would make it so much better) and scream at them:
“WHY WOULD YOU SELL THESE FOR TWO QUARTERS? HOW COULD YOU HAVE NO ATTACHMENT TO THESE STORIES AND THESE WORDS? HOW COULD YOU JUST GIVE THEM AWAY? I need to understand why. I need to understand how.”
Then his children would hug me so tight, and rip the books from my hands and declare, “Oh my God! Thank you! I didn’t realize these were left behind!”
It would all just be a silly misunderstanding.
And then I begin to think about how, if this one house had all of these one-of-a-kind gorgeous film images destined for the garbage pile, how many other homes have the same? And now, as I sit here, I am feverishly trying to figure out a way to be the rescuer of forgotten photos. I want to preserve it all, somehow, someway, so that none of it ever has to say goodbye.
You stood there, and you captured that, and that matters. And I don't want that to ever not matter.
Because being forgotten is not my biggest fear; it’s my most distinct memory. It's my everyday reality. And while I have mountains of gratitude for the adoption papers that saved me, I think part of me will never ever get over how it feels to, all at once, no longer matter. I remember my Father, and I remember missing him while knowing I was not really missed at all. And I want with all of my might to make sure that never happens to anyone else, ever.
I am not a photographer because I love pictures. I am a photographer because I am completely terrified of loss. And witnessing these images about to get thrown into an incinerator has to be the worst fucking reality ever. You can't go backwards. Once something is gone, it can't be ungone.
He spent so much time writing out, in his very best handwriting, the dates, locations, people, feelings beside each capture. And when there wasn’t enough space in the margins, he'd fill journal pages and staple them to the backs. Nobody does that for fun. He didn't want to be forgotten, either.
I didn’t buy one single album. I didn’t even steal one print and tuck it in my bag. But tonight I wish so hard that I bought them all so that I could write so many books all based on his marvelous adventures. Penguins sliding down icebergs on their fat white bellies, Mongolian children with wind burned foreheads; all of it, one page at a time. And people would see his images and fall in love, too, because they really are just that remarkable. And the family that forgot him would feel guilty and wish they’d known what they had when they had it. And then I’d go to his grave and tell him about how he doesn’t need to worry anymore, all of it wasn’t wasted. I’d read him paragraphs and pause after the parts about him being unconditionally beloved. I’d place my cheek close to the grass near his stone, and promise him that simply by writing about something, by having it digested by even just one single person, it then becomes immortal.
Words, once read, never die.
(I’m going back tomorrow to get the photo albums.)