I inherited the statuette from my mother. Sort of. She didn’t will it to me; I plucked it from the detritus of her house after she died. Not quite five inches tall, all grey except for an orange fun- fur ruff of hair glued from ear to ear, a protruding Day-Glo pink tongue, and the yellow and pink flower she holds. Her loopy smile and bulbous head make her look like a toddler, but she wears an apron. The statuette’s probably dirty, but it’s hard to tell. Etched into the pedestal is this title: “World’s Greatest Mother.”
Where had she come from? Well, most recently, from me. I’d found her in a junk store in Saskatoon called “Indefinite Articles,” twenty-five years ago or so. I gave her to my mother, who’d laughed, as I’d hoped she would. “It was so ugly I just had to have it”: her rationale for so many purchases. Of a pair of second-hand, psychedelic shoes: “I had to get them; they’ll clash with everything!” I’d never have dreamt she’d keep the statuette.
When I tried to go through her house after her death in 2010, the statuette was a few ounces out of what was close to a ton of stuff I kept, including an oak sideboard. Most of it—including the sideboard—I discarded, incrementally. Most of it. For the last seven years, each yearly trip to my hometown in Saskatchewan has involved my spending hours in my in-laws’ basement, where they’ve kindly allowed me to say goodbye to my mother and her things, over and over and over. Each trip, fewer of those things made it into my outsize suitcases or into shipping boxes and more of them over to the Mennonite Community Closet, as I got better at recognizing and culling those things that had been special and even beloved to her, but not to me. All that’s left there now is a small pine cupboard from her grandparents’ farm in Finland that I’m going to ship to my own home in upstate New York next month, to use as my bedside table.
Last spring, when I came across the statuette again in a box in my garage, I gave her a home on a shelf near my desk and did a little research. I can’t tell if she’s a mass-produced ceramic figurine of the mid-60s to early 70s—contemporary with troll dolls and the nude yet nearly androgynous “Love is. . . ” comic-strip lovers—or if she’s a parody of one of those. The ceramic figurines go on eBay now for a few bucks, skyrocketing to as much as $15 in the case of exceptional rarity. Although I have not found one identical to my own, I believe that, if I were to take WGM to the Antiques Roadshow, I would not discover that I’m a millionaire. I’d say, “Oh, I only paid a couple of dollars for it. Five at the most.” And a tactful appraiser would say to me, “Well, I think you’ll find it’s kept its value nicely.” And then we’d both laugh. Our brief exchange would not be recorded.
The World’s Greatest Mother is dead, long live the World’s Greatest Mother! When my daughter was little, she told me once that I should have bought her a Mother’s Day present because she was the reason I was getting any presents at all that day anyway. The child is the mother of the woman. If repossessing the trophy meant that I’d ever pretended to the title of World’s Greatest Mother, I have since renounced that specious claim.
My mother died in a hoarder’s house, but she hadn’t always lived in one. While I was growing up, our house was sparsely furnished and even, arguably, kind of chic, though it would be years before minimalism, Ikea, and the tiny house movement would make that modest war-time home desirable to any but the most discerning eye. The only objects I remember existing in notable masses were books, houseplants, and canning jars, full or awaiting filling. She never liked housework, but even after my father’s death, she did okay; my brother and I helped a little. During the short northern summertime, she would be in her garden every hour she wasn’t working rotating shifts, as a psychiatric nurse, or sleeping. Late summer and fall meant canning. Winter was for reading—novels and poetry and seed catalogues—and catching up on house stuff. Come the spring she’d be back in the garden, long before the last frost: coaxing, tilling, assessing the soil, and—her favorite pre-planting task—shoveling manure. No more time for the interior of the house again until winter.
But then she retired from her career of more than thirty years (of “shoveling shit,” as she called it). A few weeks later, I moved halfway across the country for grad school. She began to fill her house with the spoils of frequent shopping at regular stores, but also with others’ discards, acquired at yard sales, rummage sales, and thrift stores, some of them the same ones we’d donate so much of her stuff back to. I remember pointing out one Christmas that she lived alone, yet had seating for seventeen. But there was nothing wrong with any of those chairs, so why should they go? I tried to help, when I was home, by furtively pitching excess, not knowing then that that’s the worst thing you can do to someone whose relationship with their stuff is complex: that is, a living person. By the time I gave her the statuette, it probably carried, as so many gifts do, the giver’s judgment of the receiver’s taste.
She missed me; I missed her. Once I called to ask if she still had a drawstring cotton laundry bag I remembered from when I was little. On one side, screenprinted on a white ground in turquoise, orange, navy, and brown, a smiling woman and a cat wash clothes in a laundry tub; on the other side, they hang the wet clothes to dry. She’d laughed. “Why would I keep that old thing?” A few days later, it came in the mail. I wish I could see both sides of it at once, but I can’t unpick the seams.
On our last trip home before she died, she wouldn’t let me and my husband and daughter into the house. She would meet us on the front steps every day that week, as though that was just the way families arranged their annual visits. We’d spend the day together, then we’d drop her off, see that she got into the house. She’d turn the light on and poke one hand out from between the closed curtains to wave.
Following her death, my brother and his wife and I did our best put her house in order and to unearth our family’s modest treasures. After weeks of digging, trashing, sorting, cleaning, donating, lugging all that stuff I couldn’t part with over to my in-laws’ house, and after a massive tag sale, we gave up and called in the house-clearers. Maybe they found her wedding ring and wallet. We couldn’t.
I don’t deny that I’m often opaque to myself—though my seven-year sorting effort has helped a bit with that—but I sometimes think that, in some ways, I’m her opposite. I don’t like to garden. What had been her joy is now my chore, even though, throughout our childhoods, she’d reserve small plots for my brother and me to plant in any way we wanted. I had little interest in gardening, but I liked being close to her. Sometimes we’d take breaks in the maple’s shade and have tea and raspberries or gooseberries, still warm from the sun.
Before we put the house up for sale, relatives, friends, and neighbors took many of her plants. Her magnificent garden is now a stranger’s junkyard. A garden isn’t its plants: I get that. Still, my husband’s sister sends me pictures of my mother’s wild roses in bloom outside her own front door, and I like to see them.
Her ashes are buried on my brother’s riverfront land in Nova Scotia, roughly 2700 miles southeast of her home in Saskatchewan and 3700 miles southwest of her birthplace in Finland. Call it halfway. Some time after her memorial service, my brother sent me a kind, uncharacteristically formal email outlining his proposal to take her urn there with him by motorcycle on his annual trip the following spring. The reasons were outlined in bullet-point form. She would be in nature; she would always be with family, as that was to be his retirement home; she’d never wanted to be buried on what she called “the bald-headed prairie”; she’d always wanted to see his new place, and perhaps one day would have consented to live there with him and his wife in the “grandma-house” he’d promised to build her. But the clincher was this: “She always said she wanted to jump on the back of my Harley but she didn’t have the guts. Now she won’t have a choice!”
The next summer, I drove up with my own family from New York to Nova Scotia to help my brother and his wife lay Mum’s ashes to rest beneath three flowering shrubs, gifts from friends. We dug holes, mixed her ashes into the soil, then tucked in the roots of the fragile, pretty green plants around her. The World’s Greatest Daughter, then six, closed the ceremony by briskly dusting her palms together and announcing: “My hands are all dirty now from burying people!”
Sleeves, Boxes, Wrapping Papers, Elastic Bands: What We Never Think About When We Think About Photographs
Before mentioning who I am today, I should start from the beginning... Even though I am a 43 year-old woman, a mother and a self-employed worker who tries to catch up with the course of life, I think I have never completely broken up from my childhood.
As far as I can remember, I have always loved books, pictures, and old things. I used to spend a lot of time leafing through family photo albums and picture books. At my grandparents’, I liked to feel under my fingers the carved bas-relief of the waxed heavy Breton furniture; I also loved the enchanting atmosphere of their dusty attic full of old-world treasures. I had a blue box where I kept a shining pebble, some foreign coins, an earth beads necklace, and a very small dry branch that looked like a dog's paw. To me, those items were fascinating and potentially useful for something. I was a collector as a child, and I remained one.
I was an adolescent when I discovered photography and began to practice it. It became my means of apprehending the world. It was exciting: I was able to turn what I looked at into a tangible image. I was lucky enough to develop my practice and my knowledge through my studies, more specifically in the 1990’s at the National School of Photography in Arles (France). It was certainly the most intense period in my life. I produced a lot of images; many of them were of leftover things or places that invited you to daydream, where a little stone became a whole planet, a piece of motor a spaceship. I also made collages with the little pieces of photographic paper that is used for determining the exposure. It felt wrong to simply throw them away: incomplete images revealed such poetry!
I soon realised that my personal photographic production would not earn me a good living and I did not feel like becoming a professional photographer. At that time I was discovering with great interest the history of photography, and that is why I decided to study photography conservation. It would enable me to make a side step into patrimonial photography (heritage sites, objects, portraiture, albums, architecture, etc.) without leaving aside my personal photography work. I was, and am still fascinated by all this photographic material that was very often neglected until the end of the 20th century. Lots of it is in danger of disappearing, every day, because it’s too altered, or because few people really take care of old pictures. Taking care of them became for me like a mission. Photography conservation is about observing items and collections, making a diagnosis, finding the treatment, and putting it into practice. The treatment can be conservative or curative. All the interventions must be documented and justified, and above all, must not interfere with the authenticity of the object. So, even if I am in a way rescuer of photographic objects, I have to remain very humble towards them.
One day as I was doing photography conservation work in a museum, I opened a box full of negative rolls wrapped up in papers of various colors, exactly as the photographers had stored them many years ago. I felt an urge to take a picture of these rolls in the condition I found them. It was even more necessary since for purposes of long-term preservation, the rolls had to be taken out, cleaned, cut, and repacked according to contemporary standards. Most probably, the boxes and wrapping paper that came with the negatives would be disposed of. The conditions to take the pictures were not excellent (fluorescent light and cell phone), but this was the start of resuming my personal photography work. I kept on taking pictures of these "archaeological states," either of photographic materials I received for treatment at my workshop or ones that I found at flee-markets... or even in waste bins. I named them "Placentaires" (“placentars”) – let me explain why.
For some time, I have been thinking of some analogy with the photographic collections I am entrusted with for preservation work, which after treatment are sent back tightly wrapped up in white paper, neatly settled in their grey cardboard cradles. Usually, the rest of the stuff that originally comes with the rolls of negatives – sleeves, boxes, wrapping papers, elastic bands – is not considered important in any other way than a source of information for the inventory. Very little of it is materially preserved.
One day, it struck me that all of the original wrapping that served to envelop the life of these photographs closely resembles placenta. Placenta is a very odd organic material. Starting from the same material as the cells of the future human being, in some way it "denies itself" so that this one can develop and reach life. At the time of delivery this large piece of meat is severed from the baby when the umbilical cord is cut. It is then disposed of, unless it is used for research or medical purposes. In the end, who cares about this singular organ, which is obviously a part of the person to be? I have always been fascinated by this placentary poetry, its nearly nothingness that drives it to disposal. Beyond its image, the materiality surrounding old photography collections fires up my imagination.
For the past two years I gradually accumulated a corpus of work. This personal work is like a dotted line I keep drawing in the spare time. I have not officially presented any of it yet. I like things to settle, in order to see what will emerge. It gives some poetry – and motivation – to my conservation work. It evokes what excites me in my daily contact with patrimonial photography: its serendipity and materiality, the range of human emotion I find in the pictures and their packaging, their montage, their aging. It also evokes what is considered as patrimonial, what is noted as important by museum institutions and what is not.
~ Gwenola Furic (France)
More at https://gwenola-furic.jimdo.com/
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.