Every winter, my adopted hometown Dunedin holds a twenty-four-hour book sale to raise money for our century-old performing arts theatre. This event has long been a favourite on my calendar, not least for the occasional eighteenth- or nineteenth-century books I find among the hordes of Stephen Kings and Enid Blytons. I imagine these old books in their worn bindings, travelling with their British or Irish owners across oceans to their new lives on the other side of the world, beloved reminders of former homes or deceased family members.
In the past few years, I’ve found a new, more melancholy pleasure at the book sale: the wall of found photographs. The sale organisers set up a display area for photographs that have been discovered in the leaves of anonymously donated books. “Are these your people?” reads the wall caption. There they sit together, unrelated by any family tree (save the tree of forgetful book owners), a record of past lives and fashions, waiting to stop in her tracks the unsuspecting book buyer, who will recognise a face and reunite a lost emulsive impression with a flesh and blood descendant.
I rarely put pictures of people in books these days. When I’m tempted to do so, I anticipate the shock of unexpected memories that will strike when I unwittingly open the book in three or four years’ time. More practically, I worry about losing them (and finding myself or someone I care about on the wall of found photographs). But one needs a bookmark, preferably one with a blank side (for reading) and an interesting image side (for dreaming). So I understand the attraction of the personal photograph.
For many years, my preferred bookmark was a picture of the house in Omaha, Nebraska, where I grew up. Just before an extended journey, I’d photograph our house, get the picture developed, and pop it inside my planned reading. It became part of my customary travel pack, along with books to read, some postcards of favourite paintings, and a journal to record my not very deep thoughts. In fact, as I discovered while going through my belongings in 2015, as we prepared the house for sale, I had taken a dozen pictures of our house, almost always on the same kind of day: with a clear blue summer sky, bringing out the bright white paint and decorative brickwork; and almost always from the same perspective: from across the street, slightly to one side in order to include the whole building sand my father’s flawless carpet of Kentucky bluegrass. To an unwary viewer, the image probably represented the typical real estate photo. Or the suburban American dream come true: red, white, blue, and green. For me, I now realise, it was an idealised view, the way I liked to imagine and remember our home when I was far from it.
When I lived in other states or overseas, the photo acted as a reminder of the people and places I had left behind, of the need to call or write, but mostly I think it reminded me where I came from: that I was fortunate to have such a place and family in my life. It was a visual aide-mémoire that triggered recollections of everything else—the rose bushes and tomato plants along the house’s edge, the slightly too low basketball hoop in the back, the piano, and furniture, and all the people inside.
As I rediscovered these different images of the same building, where the main markers of time are the size of the trees in the yard, or the model of automobile in the driveway, I thought about how unusual this kind of domestic stability must seem in the twenty-first century. The house was able to stand for so much in my life because it was my home from age five, and only became someone else’s home forty-five years later. For many other people, such a marker of memory would have to be something evanescent: an old family photo, the smell of a favourite home-cooked meal, or perhaps a song that evokes a happier childhood moment.
I also reflected on how powerfully this house—really this picture of this house—had shaped my expectations of what a home should look like. In my mind, I sometimes likened our dwelling to the kind of houses one sees in a Grant Wood farmscape: friendly, isolated, usually painted white, and not far from fields of corn or wheat. But this was a literary historian’s romanticised view (or at least partly romanticised: the corn was nearby). A more honest parallel would be the suburban paradise encapsulated in the imaginary Brady Bunch house: the two-story ranch house that shaped a generation’s view of home weekdays from 4 to 4.30pm.It made me reflect too on the paper photograph as a marker of time. Just as those found photos at the book sale denote an identifiable era—the monochrome period of the 40s, 50s and 60s—my colour photographs mark an equally brief time when we snapped a picture on a compact camera, took a roll of finished film (when it was finally finished) to the pharmacy or photo shop, and waited for it to be developed and available to pick up. Today we take a picture on our phone or camera and immediately know if it’s satisfactory. Surely this is an improvement, but it also means that a little bit of the magic of photography has been lost.
I recently returned to Omaha, to see old friends and to put a dent in the small storage unit of memories and sentimental objects I still have there. I own my own house now, in New Zealand, though it is uncannily like the house I grew up in: timber boards painted white, brick trim. Today, when I travel, I do not carry a picture of it as a bookmark. Why? Perhaps because my computer is filled with digital images of it, but also because my new home is still a work in progress. It doesn’t feel fully mine; I still don’t know what it will be. And maybe, at my age, it will never be mine the way the house in Omaha once was.
I had packed one of my old photos for this visit. I thought it would help me reconnect with my former feelings, but I found it difficult to look at the image for long. I may be still finding my new home in New Zealand, but one thing was certain: the house in the photograph is no longer home.
But I still wanted to see it. It takes twenty minutes to drive my rental car from downtown Omaha to the old neighbourhood. The trees were new when we moved there in 1970; now they fill the streets, making this a mature housing area, half a century old. It’s a warm summer day: humid, but the sky is still mostly blue. I feel my heart rate rise just a bit as I turn on to our block and see the house. Little about the exterior has changed: the trees my father planted remain, though the tall hedge, always in need of trimming in front of the ground-floor windows, is gone. Perhaps the new owners tired of the constant care it required. I park across the road and stare at it, but I have trouble concentrating. I worry about the new owners appearing, the incongruity of seeing strangers emerge from what was once our home, and my having to explain what I’m doing there. I take a picture, of course; somehow I still have to. Now only the photographs are mine.