How objects and people interact through time.
Every time we visit my grandfather’s grave, my dad makes a joke.
The car rolls to a stop in the gravel parking lot of a small cemetery outside Eupora, Mississippi, right across the street from Sapa Baptist Church, where my grandfather last preached to a 40-person congregation.
“You know why they have fences around cemeteries? Because people are just dyin’ to get in!”
Dad belly-laughs. I let out a light giggle at his consistency.
Each year, the ritual occurs. But we change. I get a few inches taller until I don’t anymore. Mom and dad get a few more grey hairs.
Earl Ezell died in late 2000 when my mom was pregnant with me. I never met him, but his presence wasn’t lost.
Every Sunday, I would rush to grab a bible for church, always dodging a specific one. His. It was giant, overflowing with highlighter markings, old sticky notes, and sermon pages. I couldn’t be trusted to take it outside of the house.
There was also the decorative plate. It hung on the wall in the dining room. When I was young, I threw a football and accidentally hit the plate, causing it to break into two. I super glued it back together and put it on the wall. Didn’t tell mom. She noticed immediately.
It was a subtle change. But change, nevertheless. I wonder if the dining room notices us change as well. I wonder, would the window curtains remember me tripping on the steps and scraping my knee? Did the wooden angel on the window sill cry when I walked past her to throw away my Spiderman action figure on my tenth birthday? Did she cringe when she heard my brother tell my mom he was enlisting in the Marines?
The wooden angel watches me scan old photographs. They aren’t mine. Well, legally, I guess they are. I collect vernacular photographs. I mostly buy them from the back corners of antique shops and thrift stores. To save them from fading away, I scan and upload them.
50 cents a slide. One dollar per print. That’s the going rate of memory these days. So I pony up. But I can’t ever buy all of them. I dig through the boxes, muttering incredulities:
“How could they let this go? How does this photo ever end up here? That’s a good one.”
But am I not making the same judgment as whoever let them go in the first place? I sort through the images, rejecting the ones that don’t interest me. And I buy the ones that do. I’m no saint. Just another day trader in lost memories.
I usually pick photographs that have no information. No dates, no locations, no names. To me, choosing in this way allows the people in the photograph to keep their complexity.
These two photographs are different from each other. Each photo says something about the other. And it’s only in their juxtaposition that it becomes visible.
“The striped wallpaper came second!” mom shouted as I pulled up the scans side by side.
The photos are taken in the same kitchen. It has the same character, the same dining room chairs (do we ever change those?). But so much has changed. As my mother noticed, the wallpaper is different. Flowers in one, stripes in the other. The vase and the framed photograph on the windowsill have switched positions. The tablecloth changes color and design.
The photograph of the young woman is taken almost as if it is a fleeting memory. Take it fast, we might lose it. It’s slightly crooked, and the girl clearly wasn’t expecting a photograph. Yet she lets a sly grin escape from her eyes anyway. And the nose of another person barely slips into the right side of the frame.
The photograph of the young man is slower. The photographer sat down at the table with him as he flipped through photographs. I wonder if the photograph of the young woman was in that stack he is holding?
I started this essay hoping to write about two lost photographs from the same house. I wanted to talk about how the objects that surround us have voices of their own. That their location, appearance, and inclusion are meaningful to our lives and our representation.
But I think now I realize that it’s not about objects. It’s about people. It’s about how I won’t ever know why they changed that tablecloth or that wallpaper. And how I shouldn’t ever have the right to know.
Sure, I own the print. I put it in a fireproof box. But the people? They are long gone. I won’t ever know anything about them — I can only dissect the ink that “represents” them.
My mom always tells me that I remind her of my grandfather. I don’t remember ever hearing his voice. All I have are the pictures, the sticky notes in the bible, and a story about his grave. Objects. People. Objects. People.
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Today’s Guest Post was submitted by…
Lukas Flippo is a first-generation low-income student at Yale University from rural Mississippi. Lukas is a photojournalist, with work appearing in the New York Times, TIME, IndyStar, and the Sun Herald. Lukas’ work, including more found photos, can be seen at Lukas’ website.
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