At sixteen, I took a trip to Mexico. Like most people, I climbed the towering pyramid of Chichen-Itza, scaling the narrow, slick stone stairs three at a time while my parents crawled their way upwards warily. Across the dusty, bleak ruins I could see the tourists peppered below, peering into the darkest corridors and snapping pictures of the unusual stones that imposed themselves on the green snaking vegetation that had overrun the place in the time that the Mayans kicked the bucket and Mexico became a more impoverished version of Disney Land for history nerds and partiers alike.
I can’t boast at having any kind of epiphany while I was there. I was sixteen! Although I did get my first taste of Cerveza and got screamed at by a guard for sitting on some “off-limits” ruins, I happily absorbed the ruins as a strange and wonderful place. It was only later that I began to think more about artifacts as defining moments in history.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that if you are always stuck behind the camera, you’ll miss the moment as it happens. I agree with that to an extent. (How many pictures can you really have of that weird pantsless man on Waikiki beach, anyway?) But I’ve also thought about what it would be like for someone to find the artifacts of our culture long after we’re gone. What would it be like for them? What will they think of us?
I can remember the summer that we first bought our cottage; it was being lived in by raccoons (that’s another story), the roof was caving in and a tree had fallen into the living room. While we were gutting it, we found a tin box in the wall filled with old playing cards and small trinkets. On the old pine table was a yellowed newspaper, folded in half as if the family who had lived there before had simply got up and left never to return. I spent the summer making up stories about who the people were and why they had left, each artifact an intricate piece of the puzzle.
I never did find out their story and it always kind of bothered me that there were these strange pieces of another life. I wanted the full story and it felt like because they were gone, these weird old relics would never make sense.
While cleaning the other day, I found an old tape recorder at the bottom of a drawer. To my surprise, when I pushed the button, my grandmother’s voice crackled, filling the room. For a few moments, she was telling me ghost stories the way she had that day on the breezy porch with the water lapping softly at the edge of the lawn. I remembered what she had told me—the thing she had said after I had turned off the tape recorder: “She’s still out there, I think…singing in the trees…” She was talking about her friend Vera, who had died not too long ago. It’s funny to think that she wasn’t totally wrong. All these years later, even though my grandma was gone, her voice and her stories were still here. It was just a small artifact of her life–not the whole story, but it was a moment that I could preserve.
It doesn’t matter what stories the artifacts might tell. They don’t have to tell the absolute truth, because they are only small moments. What matters is that they—the stories—lived and you found them. That’s the power of artifacts and the stories live in the moment that they are found.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I only took one picture of the underwear guy on Waikiki Beach. I wonder what he was doing?