Ephemera Addict

Sillybean showed me the way to Lileks. James Lileks, who writes for the Minneapolis StarTribune, has been working on these pages of his for a while, it seems. I wish I had found them sooner. I look at a lot of websites, admire a few, and go back very rarely. This website really struck me, for a number of reasons.

James Lilek and I are of an age, both born in the midwest, with some similarities in our backgrounds. I haven’t read his published work (although I will), but we are both professional writers. The similarities end there, with maybe one exception. He’s got a soft spot for graphic ephemera. Postcards of old motels (and I highly recommend having a look; the captions alone are worth some time, and his commentary is priceless), advertisements, a collection of odds and ends that add up to a very effective whole. He also has what I would call a photo essay about some snapshots taken by his grandmother many years ago. These are tucked away in the about section, but for me personally they were the most moving part of the site, because (maybe you saw this coming) of the stories in them.

I love old candid photos. A handful of old photos can occupy me the way a symphony can occupy other people, I am completely drawn in. When I teach creative writing I often have people write paragraphs about photos they’ve never seen before, construct character sketches, assign motives and conflicts. It’s a really good way to get yourself writing. Or at least, it works for me.

I have a lot of old photos of my own family, but I’m always begging for more. I have an uncle in California who is constantly teasing me with promised photos. What! he shouts into the phone. You’ve never seen a picture of great grandfather Oscar! I’ll have to send you a copy! To which I always say (because we’ve had this conversation many times) yes! yes! please!

My father and three of his sisters, ca 1929

The photo you see here is one of my favorites. Circa 1931, my father (who was born in 1911) looking very dapper, with some of his sisters. Fifty years later Aunt Fran would pick up her own photo album and systematically scratch Aunt Dorothy’s face out of every picture. When she was done with that, she got out paper and tape, and put tiny tags on everything in her apartment. On tarnished spoons, on flower vases: not Dorothy. It was her own way of writing a will, or a non-will, if you please. And they look so innocent, don’t they? Like they’re having a good time. The kid and the dog are an especially nice touch, though none of my relatives can figure out who they are.

The moral of this story is: don’t overlook boxes of old photos, not if you write, or want to write. Such goodness, waiting to be appreciated. And go visit Lileks, too.PS I am feeling better, and many thanks for the good wishes.