2,841 and counting

I was straightening clutter in my front room the other day when, at the fluke edge of my eye, I saw a piece of cardboard wedged behind a cabinet. The color of the paper seemed vaguely familiar but I couldn’t quite determine what it was. Frustrated from trying to flatten my hand behind the back and the wall, I finally slid the cabinet and was horrified to find my bridal portrait, no frame, no glass, dusty and yellowing.

It is a formal 9X12 textured matte, retouched so that I look like a blemish free Snow White. I knew the wedding album had fallen apart but assumed we had kept the pages together in the broken binding. How this photo got behind a random piece of furniture in a room a flight of stairs away from the rest of the book was completely mysterious. Had I pulled it out? Had someone else? How long had it been there? It bugged me. I had no explanation. I stared at the impossible skin, awkwardly posed hands and overly dramatic headdress slipping into my eyes. What did this picture really mean to me? It captured a day in a fancy outfit and not even with much reality. There were candid snapshots that held more meaning. Yet I felt overwhelmed that this picture might have been damaged or that it had been missing and I had not even known.


I was reminded yet again how much I hoard the physical evidence of my life. Scraps of tickets and playbills, artifacts wrapped in newspaper, letters, cards, photos, carefully filed away in boxes with taped lids. What if one day it all blew away? An inverse of Dorothy’s adventure, the cyclone carrying away my Technicolor Land of OZ Moments and leaving behind the specter of a life never lived, just black and white emptiness. I think of the philosophical arguments as to why stuff is just stuff and past is just past and the present is the only certainty. But my heart isn’t in it. I am a hopeless archivist.

Last month violent storms ripped through Alabama leaving a tragic wake of loss and destruction. Amidst story after story of personal devastation, one woman has offered her time and inspiration to help restore a little of what has been lost. Patty Bullion discovered an ultrasound photo, family portraits and other memorabilia falling “like a paper rain” in her front yard. She said in an Associated Press interview, “As I was picking them up, I was thinking that I’m picking up people’s lives here, and I’ve got to find a way to get this back to them.” So she created a facebook page and posted what she found. She asked that others do the same and hundreds have responded: to share found items, indentify their own pictures or simply encourage the process. The page is called “Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes.”   

Ms. Bullion’s effort has resonated with me in many ways. It is powerful to put faces on the impact of the storms. Many of the photos have water and debris damage, a visual representation of what the actual person may have experienced. The images are mundane and yet stunningly beautiful in their depiction of the ordinary, day to day life we often take for granted until it is altered. I am touched by the comments, strangers reaching out to strangers with compliments and hopeful sentiments. They share clues to try and discern the origin of the owners. They comfort one another with productive resolve. They are collectively trying to set in order a world literally tossed to the wind.    

Are Ms. Bullion and I reading too much into a snapshot of a kid on bike? I look at my wedding photo, free of dust bunnies and leaning up on a bookshelf. I see the beading, the Shakespearean pleated sleeves, the crazy stand up flower petal collar. I remember my husband’s stricken face, the deep purple accents on the cake we forgot to cut, the hated marshmallow-shaped bridesmaid dresses, the endless receiving line; sights, smells, sounds and emotions all evoked by this flimsy physical prompt. My simple reverie of lost and found seems trivial. But I know if I found a portrait like this in my front yard, of another girl on another day, I would want her to have it. I would join this treasure hunt unfolding across states, across computers, across a grassroots belief that human narrative is worth documenting. Each photo is a gift, a singular moment in a singular person’s life. A life perhaps scattered and beginning again, one recovered memory at a time.


17 responses to “2,841 and counting”

  1. LP says:

    PB, this is a lovely essay, and I want to comment on it as I, too, have many boxes of “important” things from life stored in my garage. However, I am rushing out to an appointment, so I will say only this for now: You are a tease for describing that wedding photo in such detail and then not posting it for us!

  2. Tim says:

    I second LP’s accusation!

    I also second her praise. I am a hopeless saver of minutiae. Sadly, I’m not very systematic about it, however, so it just sprawls everywhere until I jam everything into a box or envelope and put it away in a closet to sort through some day. That day never comes. Or hasn’t yet, anyway.

  3. Tim says:

    P.S. That FB page is amazing! I love the photos.

  4. lane says:

    yeah, what LP said.

  5. PB says:

    OK OK – but I can’t do it until I get home from work and no one is allowed to link it into Awkward Family Photos. Keep in mind that I was married about the time Lady Di’s dress design was just hitting middle America. The billowing tulle coming out of the top of my head was sort of in style or had been. And no references to one of those Fergie daughter hats either. I guess if half of Mississippi and Alabama can have their life posted online so can I.

  6. LP says:

    This person is really happy and can’t wait to see it!

  7. TeeWag says:

    LP! Give fair warning of what lies at the other end of a link like that! I had food in my mouth when I clicked. Some chip fragments may have landed in my keyboard when I snorted with laughter.

  8. TeeWag says:

    Love the picture, PB! Thanks for sharing it.

  9. PB says:

    “Who me? Post my picture? Well I never!”

    Just for the record I have never naturally arranged my hands this way.

  10. LP says:



    PB, you are fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing this! And I am very glad your be-wedding-dressed self has been freed from being behind a cabinet.

  11. LP says:

    Have you seen Tina Fey’s book cover? I am imagining that those are not actually your hands at all, but those of some woman trying to show you how to “artfully” arrange them.

  12. Dave says:

    Amazing. Thanks for sharing that.

  13. lane says:

    it nice. wow, you look so young. it’s a really amazing picture the way it conforms to those conventions of “holding your hands just so” and stuff like that…. the stiff artificiality of it.

    the clothing, yeah wow. all that tule has the effect of some primitive head dress. while the sleeves and neck of the dress convey, “fancy” for sure with their abundant frillery. “wow” so “pretty” yeah, the legacy of princess diana.

    i can almost hear duran duran at the reception… (if we’d been raised by cool normal people THAT PLAYED DURAN DURAN at wedding receptions…) … but we wern’t

    cie la vie!

  14. PB says:

    #11 It is true my hands are not even the same color as the rest of me. (I always wondered why that woman was standing behind me).

    #13 Sadly Lane, we had an old lady on a portable organ and she was not even wearing eye make-up.

    New picture – from a balance standpoint it seemed right – maybe this is like the fb page – it is a more progressive project.

  15. Stella says:

    Love this love this love this. As we digitize, it’s great to have storage for digital images online etc. but the physical experience of photos is very particular. Not only do the images reflect the time they were taken but the physical quality of the photos, color, light reinforce it.

  16. Stella says:

    Photos always remind me of LP Hartley’s opening line of the The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

  17. LP says:

    Also, continuing the fabulous-knit-things thread, here is an ascot I wish I could knit for our own ScottyGee.