Sometimes it feels like it’s the only post I’ve ever written, over and over again. But remember that a blog has no beginning: it’s like a loose manuscript sitting on a desk to which new pages keep being added, and the one on top is always the first one you read. The rest, what came before, is like a past-future, or a thread you unravel backwards.
The only post I’ve ever written begins, as it always does, with this picture.
I saw it for the first time when we emptied my grandparents’ house, twenty years ago. Some time later I scanned it, then my mother misplaced it: she lost it in her apartment, like so many other things she tried to keep safe by putting them away and then forgot where. Thus for well over a decade the picture was accessible to us only as the digital file I created. It was in that form that I included it in my dissertation. The dissertation was submitted in printed form, and so a physical reproduction of the picture has since existed in the library of Victoria University, or more accurately in its offsite stacks, as well as on one of my bookshelves.
Last year we found the original again, this time when emptying Mum’s apartment, and in May of this year – the last time we saw each other – she gave it to me for safekeeping. The frame was valuable, and she was afraid someone might steal it. I took it with me back to New Zealand. So now they have been reunited: the original print, the digital copy, the printout in my dissertation.
(The negative was never in our possession. It may survive somewhere but I doubt it.)
I scan the picture again at a higher resolution, create another layer of its existence. The first time I did, it wasn’t in order to preserve it: it was because someone had lent me a scanner, and I heard you could use the technology to restore old photographs. What I didn’t understand then is that the damage – those tiny cracks on the surface of the paper which formed over time as it was being handled – was integral to the picture.
This is the part where I tell you again that the old photograph is a portrait of my grandmother aged sixteen, taken shortly before she got married so that my grandfather could have something to remember her by when he was called into the army for his compulsory service. That is why the print is so worn. Each of those cracks means something, and the restored digital version I never bothered to create would have erased those meanings in order to produce a visually enhanced fake.
Culture and memory exist precisely there, through those cracks, in the space between the material and the symbolic. Over the years, this single picture has become for me a shorthand to that relationship. Although that’s not the point I used it to illustrate in my dissertation: what concerned me then were issues of technology, class and memorability. Around 1922, it was only very wealthy people who had their lives documented in the way that has become commonplace for nearly all of us. Of my grandmother, except for purposes of legal identification, no other photo was taken for several decades. The lives of the poor may be a subject for the census or ethnographers, but had no individual significance worthy of a personal archive.
Which may go some way towards explaining the pose. Nonna lost her mother when she was six years old. Her father, a farm labourer, was left to raise six children under the age of 12. She left school at the age of nine or ten. It’s fair to say that reading wouldn’t have been her primary activity or concern. Yet there she was, her right hand clasping the pages of a book as if she had been immersed in study – the preserve of women well above her station.
I would like to know what the book was, and did it belong to the photographer? There is no level of magnification, no scanning technique that will yield any more detail.
Either way, my grandfather took the picture with him all the way to Milan, where he served under the 68th infantry regiment. When his year was up, they issued him with his discharge papers, which looked like this:
until he was called up again, at the age of 39, to serve in World War II for one year, this time in Trent with the 231st infantry regiment. He saw no action, and the next, badly torn set of papers marked his final discharge:
These documents and many others are with me now, along with my share of the photographs I divvied up with my sister. They are with me because someone made the effort to keep them, then shift them from house to house. They include less innocent mementoes, like the citation for the Cross of Merit awarded to my mother by the Federal Command of the Fascist Regime in April of 1940. She was nine years old.
All these are points of departure for family stories that intersect with history, as the personal always does with the social and the collective. As in the case of my parents' lost wedding album, their existence as analogue material objects is what places them properly in time. It's the layer of metadata, the context absent which the text alone couldn't speak.
But that's not enough to explain, to justify the archive. What are these documents for, and why do they mean so much to me? I store them in old biscuit tins that used to hold postcards and buttons and sewing kits. To dip into them allows me to prove to myself that my past exists, that my family existed, at those occasional, brief times when living on the other side of the planet – a distance that would have been unfathomable to the young woman in the picture, and to every generation before hers – makes me uncertain.
Writing is another way for me to remember and to fix in time and space events that occurred before I was born, yet are a part of me. And so I’ll keep drafting this post for as long as I need to, or until I run out of time.
A little announcement: Jacinda Woodhead, incoming editor of Overland, will be in Wellington next week, and for the occasion Sport and Overland are hosting a reception and a discussion on literary magazine publishing.
This will take place at the Stout Research Centre, 12 Waiteata Road, Victoria University of Wellington, on Tuesday 25 November at 3.30pm. Places are limited, so if you’re interested in taking part please send me an email to let me know that you’re coming.