Wandering through an antique/vintage store, soaking up the sights and smells. Tattered books, yellowed inky pages. Posters, sea shells, baubles, china cupboard, coffee table. Someone held that, someone sat there, someone wore this, read that. A long time ago. Were things so different then? Probably not. But so they’re most likely dead, considering the age of this stuff. What’s left of them? Fingerprints? A hasty scribble on the back of a faded polaroid? In what room did this picture hang, back in the ’40s? Was the woman that wore this dress the mother of a child, someone’s ex-wife, accountant, lover, maid? Who took this picture? Who’s that glum fellow in the back row of the graduating class of some academy in 1922? Did he go on to do anything special in his life? Did he have a rapturous love? A stunning success? Or did he carry that gloomy visage with him ’til the end of his days – days lived with indifference and ended with relief?
I’m awash in the melancholy of the past, swimming in seas of nostalgia, unmoored from my firmly modern foothold in the present day. So many moments in time, some presented with reverence, some as kitsch, some indifferently stacked in a corner. The world is filling up with stuff, in thrift shops and landfills. Stuff going back decades, centuries. The detritus of civilization.
I find a black and white group photo, must be 50 people, jammed into a stairwell, posing for the camera, elbow to elbow. Looks like a college crowd, people between 20’s and 60’s, all happy to be there. What have they been up to? A graduate class? The Theater Department? Cafeteria employees? A research group that just discovered something amazing? I will never know.
I contemplate taking it home, framing it. But I don’t know anyone in the picture. I’d be engaging in a sort of cultural appropriation. Social appropriation, stealing a moment in time. I’d be looking into the faces of complete strangers, dead or moved on. Weird, it makes me feel weird. There are people in this photo who still have a copy of it and treasure the memories, remember that day fondly. Is it dishonoring their legacy?
Why is this such a big deal? It’s a thrift shop find, not old pictures of my kid as a baby. I have absolutely nothing invested in these people or their photo.
I ache with nostalgia, contemplating it. The whole pile of stuff in the whole store. All this stuff. All the people alive and dead (mostly dead) associated with this place of commerce. Collected treasures and garage sale junk. I’m wading in the memories, the past washing over me. It’s too much, and this moment of my life – right now – is enough. Let the past be the past. Let it chase after us, but not catch us. We can look back and enjoy the view, hold pieces of it in our hands. But it’s dust, as we will be. Perhaps some day someone will find a relic of my existence, some framed picture of me outside in winter, grinning at the camera. Wonder who I was and what I was up to. Just life.