momento mori

My grandfather collected stamps. I didn't know this until a few years after his death, after digging through his and Grandma's drawers of television-recorded VHS tapes. I found a stack of letters sandwiched between Singing in the Rain and Big Jake. They were his World War II letters.

After spending an hour and a half on the carpet of his old office, reading these dated letters he wrote to his guy friends at home and his sister, Sarah, I was moved. There is such a poignancy to these letters-- I could see what my grandfather (John T or Popsi, as we called him) aspired for and dreamed of when he was my age, serving in the Marines overseas. My mind became an old Super 8 projector, thinking of images of him dancing in the forties, having red hair... He wasn't much for smoking or drinking, so I could feel that these letters were one of the only ways to pass time and get through the hard months of war. I wondered what it was like for him to be a part of tactics, targets, and kills. Had he ever killed anyone? I never heard him talk about it. I would never know except through these letters.

I love the handwritten cursive that's so outdated and almost illegible to my 70-years-later eyes. Some were written with a typewriter, scrunched in a tiny V-mail. Postcards of stereotypes to the natives of the land. A page of jokes typed out from a fellow back home. One of the jokes reads: "Did you hear about the little moron who took a clock to bed because he heard it was fast?" This fellow's attached letter writes of women he wants to date, that he "goes with Doris every now and then" and that "we have two girl clerks now and the other one is a cute little brunette and weighs about one hundred and twenty pounds and isn't half bad." He asks about the little girl "you were telling me about like? I bet she was all right and so-so or you would not have gone with her..." I think of my grandma, Iva Heart. She and John T barely knew each other before the war, except that they were neighbors of Midland farms. My grandma describes Popsi as an annoying little brother when they first met. Then he went off to war, and they began writing letters. Through these letters, they fell in love. Once he got back, they got married immediately. They were one of the happiest couples I've ever met.

Later, after reading these letters, I ask my grandma where their letters are. The conversation went a bit like this:

ME: Grandma, where are your letters with Popsi?
IVA: Our what?
ME: Your letters, from when he was in the war.
IVA: Oh! (lightly) We burned them.
ME: What?
IVA: Oh yes. All the boys would promise their girls the moon through those letters and then when they got home they couldn't keep them. We decided to start over.
ME: And you burned all of them? The letters?
IVA: Oh yes!

Cute as my grandma is, and as honest as her reply was, I was disappointed that there weren't the tangible letters that showed the timeline of their awkward, brother-and-sister-ish friendship to full-on hot and heavy soulmate status. Still, I set out on a journey throughout their house, thinking I'd find just one of their letters that got stuck in another drawer. This is when I found Popsi's stamp collection. The stamped envelopes are ripped at the top right corner to show the postmark, stamp, and price. The postmarked years span from the late thirties to the early nineties. All of these corners of stamped envelopes have something about them; either it's the design on the stamp that tells of the era, or perhaps the price or location it was sent from or, to me, the accidental design of how Popsi ripped off the excess envelope. Some of the compositions of the stamp, the ripped paper, the postmark and negative space of the envelope are stunning. There are also some loose stamps he kept, probably thinking they'd be worth something later but more so because they have a history to them. I took this stamp collection home with me, knowing I wanted to use them for collage. I wanted to preserve them somehow. I wanted to showcase the dying era of letter-correspondence, envelope-and-stamp buying, and cursive & handwritten or typewritten text.

There's a certain death to these stamps and letters. The paper is beginning to yellow. The typefaces tell a history of evolution of mid-forties slick sans serifs to late eighties not-so-comical Comic Sans (and on a stamp? Preposterous!) Even the envelopes were made better the older I see them, with rad designs in the inside to create a mid-century, curious privacy. I began to make collages as postcards to recycle their historical material back into the mail again. As I collaged, I thought of the latin term, Momento mori. It literally translates to "Remember you must die." A Momento mori is particularly famous through the invention of photography when exposures had to be minutes long. A photographer would take a daguerreotype of someone who recently died to remember them well; the photo would turn out crisp and sharp for once because the long exposure didn't have a fidgeting, alive person as its subject. There's an eerie stillness... an image frozen in time... to remember, yet to easily forget, to yearn for, to ache, to regret, to mourn.

Here, I have frozen the recycled letters and stamps of my grandfather into zeros and ones in the blogosphere. Made with love and sent to all my ladies and gents in the SMAC / Snail Mail Art Collective!!



This is to John T, rest in peace my love.