By Dale O’Dell
When Grandma died somebody had to clear out her home, get rid of all her stuff, and sell the house. Nobody wanted the job, and every member of the extended family had some reason — or excuse — not to do it. So they dumped it on me. My Granny had always been very kind to me, so I was extra careful and respectful when I went through all her belongings to determine what needed to be saved, what would be sold by the estate sale company and what would be thrown out. As much as I wanted to get the job over and done with, I couldn’t just randomly toss things in the trash; no, I was sifting through a lifetime’s collection of what she’d saved as important. I was careful to examine everything.
The housecleaning started easily enough, mainly because during Granny’s extended illness someone or somebodies had already collected all the things of obvious value. The jewelry, fine china, silverware, and valuable antiques were already gone. What was left were the things that had been put away decades ago, unseen and forgotten ever since.
The last place to clear out was the attic, and I put it off as long as I could. It required the right mindset and a little courage to pull that old rope, hear the creak of rusty springs, and lower the trapdoor in the ceiling with its fold-out stairs and see that which had remained unseen for my entire lifetime.
When I poked my head into the dark and musty attic, I was surprised that I didn’t find a giant mess. Yes, there were a lot of old trunks and boxes, but they were organized and there was even enough room to walk around. No one had been up here in many, many years. The dust was thick and undisturbed save for a few mouse tracks and tiny turds. Most of the stuff in the attic was intact so, flashlight in hand, I started opening boxes.
Most of the boxes contained papers, once-important documents that had now been rendered meaningless by time and Grandma’s death. Tax forms, receipts, medical records, paperwork from companies that had been out of business for decades — all this was thrown away. It took more time to inspect the collection of newspaper clippings she’d saved: birth announcements, obituaries, and letters to the editor written by my grandfather all harkened back to a time when it was a Big Deal to get your name in the paper. I set these aside in case there was a historian in the family of whom I’m unaware.
Then I got to boxes of photographs. These were the things that were truly important. I never found Grandma’s marriage license, but I easily found her wedding album — something far more valuable than a document from the County Clerk. It’s funny that in almost a hundred years, wedding photography hasn’t really changed all that much.
I found a box of vintage color prints, 1960-70, that had faded so much you couldn’t make out the subjects anymore. And I found many old, sepia-toned black-and-white photos that had held up just fine despite the hot temperatures and high humidity of the attic. A box of Kodachrome slides were as bright and colorful as the day they were picked up at the photo lab, despite the mold growing on the emulsion. The boxes of slides labeled “AnscoChrome” looked like slide mounts with clear plastic inserts; the film had literally faded away to nothing. There was a wooden cigar box full of tintypes. I kept those for myself as historic record (both personal and photographic).
Underneath it all, buried in the back and nearly lost in the darkness, was a beat-up box. It was the final box to go through. In that box was a yellowed envelope labeled “Travel” in which I thought would be photos from vacations of long ago, but what I found was stranger than anything I expected. Inside that falling-apart envelope, in the very last box in the attic, was a collection of photographs so strange, so bizarre, so unusual and just plain weird that I had to take them downstairs into the light of the kitchen to get a good look at them.
Those photos were different than anything I’d found in Grandma’s attic. Totally different. While the other photos I’d found had been small, drugstore snapshot-sized prints about three by five inches, or tiny tintypes, plus a few camera-back sized Polaroids, these were all eight by ten inches. Large prints by the standards of the time – assuming the time was at least 50 years ago by the look of the prints. They had deteriorated somewhat, the emulsion side of the prints were cracked, there was a thin layer of mold covering the prints’ surface, and they’d yellowed. With the fading and yellowing of the prints, it was easy to assume they were sepia-toned black-and-white prints but, strangely, there was some color. The color was desaturated and muted, but there was no indication they were hand-tinted; they looked like very old color prints, except color printing really didn’t catch on at the consumer level until the 1960s and these prints were definitely older than 1960.
If looking at what I believed were color prints that predated color printing was weird, the subject matter was even weirder. All the pictures depicted rooms, old empty rooms that looked vaguely Western, but what was in those rooms — the actual subjects photographed — was the strangest of strange. These rooms were populated by giant dolls, a marionette, biplanes, zeppelins, keys, a dog, a rotten apple with a bite out of it, dice, jumping dolphins, a plastic Jesus on a spring, cowboys riding seahorses! What in the world was this? Why did it even exist?
Was this some long-lost art project? No one in the family was an artist, so perhaps this was someone else’s art? Or, maybe it was some form of early and forgotten Surrealist Art? But the prints were unsigned, and I could not determine provenance. I re-checked the attic hoping to find some sort of documentation, but there was nothing. Granddad was known to take pictures, and I’d hoped to maybe find a valuable vintage Leica, but I only found an ancient Bakelite Kodak. I couldn’t imagine my grandparents being creative at all – actually they were distinctly uncreative, this could not be their art. No, they didn’t have the imagination or photographic skills to have set these up. Even if Grandma or Grandpa had made these images, the scenes depicted would have had to have been photographed as-is. And this couldn’t be real. If this was someone else’s art, who was the artist?
These pictures were a real head-scratcher, and kind of spooky. I’d just gone through about a hundred years’ of family photography, and there was nothing remotely like these pictures in the attic. No, these pictures shouldn’t exist and shouldn’t be here. How did they get here? And how long had they been hidden and forgotten in Granny’s attic? Even the envelope I found them in was weird, labeled “Travel” in my Grandmother’s exquisite cursive handwriting. If these were travel pictures, my grandparents must have been time travelers!
Choosing my words carefully, I asked a few of the elderly neighbors if my grandparents had had any artistic proclivities, but they all said they weren’t aware of any art activities. I asked if they’d collected art and got more answers of, “No.” Cautiously, I asked if they’d traveled. “They never went anywhere.”
I contacted the few living family members who remained and gingerly inquired about the strange photos I’d found. They all claimed to know nothing — and that I should hurry up and put that house on the market.
So I put the house up for sale, but not after thoroughly going through it a few more times in search of clues. I never found any. I thought, possibly, I’d find some props, or an old enlarger or darkroom equipment that would have indicated they could have made the pictures, but there was nothing. Grandpa had been gone for years and now Grandma was gone, too. They couldn’t tell the story. The neighbors knew nothing. When I got home, I scanned one of the photos and emailed it to a few relatives but the only reply I got was, “WTF?” from a cousin.
I now have a collection of very odd, very old photographs with no provenance and no other information aside from an envelope marked “Travel” And it did cross my mind that the envelope may just be an envelope that had nothing to do with the pictures it contained.
I guess this is just one of those mysteries. I wish I had a more satisfying conclusion to this story … but I don’t. Now the photos have been scanned and reprinted on modern paper, reproduced here for your scrutiny. The originals along with the envelope they were found in have been archived and preserved and are now stored in a safe-deposit box. When I die this mystery will be passed down to my heirs. Maybe someone from my grandchildren’s generation can solve it?
Until that story can be told, enjoy the pictures.
See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.
Also, this piece is fiction. I think.
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