I've loved to make collages since I was in about 7th grade and it was the only project in art class where I truly felt that I deserved/earned the grade I got. There was something about the composition of words with images and the contrast of light and dark, the combining of fanciful with real and then putting it all together. We made copies on an old copy machine and then colored some of them in. I think the original collages were 11X17, or at least bigger than 8.5X11, so we were able to make a copy that only showed part of our image, and I saw that, too, as an opportunity to crop something out that I didn't particularly like, or make a decision about only showing half of the picture of my family. Not sure what to do with these copies, I wrote letters to friends on the other side, and I'd be surprised if any of them remain.
But through that assignment, the practice of making something new out of pieces of something else was kindled for me. Like quilting, but not as useful.
Grandma died (I've written about this before) and we made the trek to the farmhouse when the ground was still cold and the rhubarb was just beginning to emerge, bulbous and deep red, from the rich black dirt-turned-grey. We kicked through leaves and hid our tears and stood gazing off into the distance over acres and acres of soil, of dirt, of land that has been in our family since they staked the claim and said, "Here." And then we turned the key and budged open the door with our shoulder, with our hip, stumbling a bit into the entryway with its cracked linoleum and little sink -- where for generations people "washed up" before sitting down at the table.
We poked around and pulled books off the shelves and sometimes someone would sigh loudly and a hand would reach out to the shoulder, rub-rub-pat. And I opened the door to the basement, the damp smell of earth greeting me, sharp and a little offensive. I pulled the chain for the light bare light bulb and inhaled that earthy smell quickly. In the years that it had been since I'd ever opened that door, and for the first time probably ever, I noticed that all of the walls and the ceiling in the space heading downstairs were covered with pages from magazines.
I pulled my mom over and simply pointed, my eyes asking questions and my body finding comfort in this collaged room. "Oh yeah, I remember when she did that," Mom said. "Your Great Aunt came out one weekend and they spent the whole time tearing pages out and pasting them on the walls, and the ceiling." She paused and looked around, shaking her head. "Making do with what they had," she said. "Pretty amazing, isn't it?" And then she closed the door.
I went back to that land of history last week, to do the final sort through what hadn't been burned onsite last summer. There were a lot of memories wrapped up in newspaper -- fragile plates that had hung on the walls, a lamp, a dish and jar that used to water chickens and now resides with me in the suburbs. "For when we start raising chickens," I told my husband when he raised his eyebrows at me.
And there were five boxes full of old magazines, mostly from the 1930s -- Woman's World, Life, Hampshire Herdsman, Successful Farmer -- all addressed to my grandfather, who has been dead for almost 50 years. I took a few of them -- interesting ads, things I could frame, stories of communism.
My mother has saved stacks of magazines. I have saved stacks of magazines. Covering the walls with the magazines was my grandmother's and her sister's way of doing something with what they had already read, piecing together bits of history to bring color and protection to the walls.