I was walking down sunny Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn last weekend. It had been so long since I had hanged out in my favorite city in the world. I am a Brooklyn babe (like Lana Del Rey haha), and it felt even better that I was in town just for an impromptu courtesy visit.
Outside one out of the million antique shops of the street, I saw a sign: ‘Badass Vintage for your Badass life’. I love the word ‘badass’, so I got in. The store felt different from all the ones trying to sell you dusty yet soulless old stuff. It was clean and bright and every object was exhibited like in a museum.
My eyes were browsing aimlessly, curious but not caught. A French ashtray from the Galeries Lafayette, earrings, old cameras… I turned around and I am sure I let out a strange cry for I got moved in an unusual way. I got very close to the object of my curiosity. I am not good at visually describing things. Here is what I saw.
A label was hanging from the handmade old frame. ‘Memento Mori, circa 1900. $240.’ I contemplated the Dead Lady for a long time. The quaint charm of the photograph was truly captivating. Every detail of the arrangement had been thought about, like a silent movie scene. The profusion of flowers, the old piano, the portrait of the Lincoln looking guy above her coffin, her wedding gown, the position of her hands carefully crossed on her chest. Her pale face which looked about the same age as mine. I got overwhelmed by a stream of mixed feelings. I didn’t know which one was predominant. Empathy, for her prematured death which could have only been tragic and/or violent? Curiosity about the details of her life? What was her name? Identification, as she could be me? Inspiration, as everything about this scene was so loudly narrative? Morbidity, as I’ve never seen a dead body in real life?
I couldn’t put up with the flow of my bouncy feelings. I was tempted to purchase her immediately and leave with her under my arm, just to keep analyzing my virulent emotions. But I didn’t. I wanted to see if I would easily forget about her. I also didn’t want to spend $240 on an object, because I don’t own any. Only dresses and shoes. I am certainly not an antique collector. On the way out, I saw a 19th century obstetrician tool kit. One of the tools looked like a cork screw.
My Dead Lady was with me all afternoon and all night. I harrassed my friends telling what mysterious spell she had cast over me. I went back to the shop the following day. I stared at my romantically beautiful Dead Lady again. She was smaller than I remembered, but still magically seductive. The young burlesque looking shop owner recognised me. She said that the Dead Lady was waiting for the perfect person to buy her. I replied that it was me and that she was coming back with me to London. While the shop owner was putting green bubble wrap around the original wooden frame, I started asking her a million questions. She had bought the photograph from a lady in Vermont who stored it in her attic. She had inherited it from a grandmother or greatgrandmother, but she didn’t think the Dead Lady was a relative. She didn’t know who she was, no name nor the slightest clue about her existence apart from the approximate date of the picture, between 1890 and 1910. The question started spinning in my head. What was the nature of this woman’s existence? She was such an amazing starting point for a novel, an adventure, any kind of story hunting and story telling.
The burlesque looking shop owner started unfolding bits of her work as an antique dealer. She studied something like criminology (not quite, but similar, I am forgetting the exact subject) and wanted to be a US marshal. She then worked as a private hunter, looking for super specific objects throughout the country upon request from rich people. Her job now consisted in driving the East coast of the US in a van, stopping along the road in diners to talk to people and make connections in order to hear their life story, visit their home and buy unique objects.
The girl won me over for she had exactly the life style that I dream of. Hitting the road, meeting strangers and collecting life stories. This is what I do in my own way, but I haven’t found the trick to turn it into a career just yet. I want a human and itinerant job. Talking with that girl triggered something in my brain about all the possibilities out there to create the work you want if there is no job in the world that perfectly suits you. Just tailor your own. I told her that she should write down and exhibit in her shop the human story attached to each object she sells, so people would not only buy a frame or a piece of furniture, but they would buy a piece of a perfect stranger’s humanity.
On the train that was taking me back to Boston, I googled ‘Memento Mori’. I thought it meant ‘The moment of your death’ but my latin is poor. It literally means ‘Remember to die’ or ‘Remember that you must die’. It is a Christian thing and a whole artistic genre in itself. Puritan America was very big on it between the 17th and the 19th century. I probably purchased one of the last ones as the tradition started fading away.
The forests of New England were passing before my eyes as I was absorbing the events of the recent days on my Amtrak seat. Absorbing the eternal electricity of New York, all these new stories and encounters to integrate into my life. I realised there was a funny correlation in my obsession to find clues about the existence of my Dead Lady with the same passion as I put in trying to find clues about the true nature of my own existence. I think I got a couple clues more during my New York escape. I want my work to be human & itinerant.
I haven’t found a place for my Memento Mori yet. It deserves a very special spot. It is still trapped in its green bubble wrap. It intimidates me to look at it, to welcome it in my home. I am also somewhat afraid that it will haunt me or obsess me with its strong nostalgic presence. I am not going to take that photograph as a daily reminder that I must die. I am going to use it as a daily reminder that I must pursue the life I really want.
If by an extraordinary coincidence someone has any information about the lady on the picture, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org – Thanks!