My Mom always gets a little sad when we find old black & whites at the flea market. Sometimes, I find them quite creepy because they’re not smiling. Does anyone know what’s up with that? I wonder if there’s some historical precedent of looking demure, quiet, or moral. She also doesn’t like to find knit, sewn, quilted, or crocheted coverings. We both believe some grandmother has spent hard worn hours, pricking fingers or using a tight lip to pull out slip knots and excess yarn. Let’s be honest, I know nothing about these crafty art forms, even though I do believe that pirates wore them best.
At one point in my college writing life I thought that if I collected enough of these old pictures – in their lockets and out – I would be able to write the stories of the people in them. The art of “judging a book by its cover.” I think Ransom Riggs kind of stole that dream, at least in the strange fiction young adult way. Even though I only read the first in that series, I’ve found two of my favorite, favorite authors created (dare I say it) an upscale form of the flea market photo a la a book series with MoMA.
Maira Kalamn, Daniel Handler, and MoMA have created a “unique collaboration” as the blurb says. I found the first one, Girls Standing On Lawns, in Parker & Otis, carried it around for thirty minutes, placed it next to my feet like man’s best friend while I ate lunch, and then promptly went back to the stationary aisle where I found the second in the series collaboration, Hurry Up and Wait. Both of these texts are fascinating just in their basic forms.
As a twentieth century woman, Girls Standing on Lawns is my favorite, but as a teacher and a person who lives by a to-do list, Hurry Up and Wait is just as good. Girls Standing on Lawns, as a woman, is a quintessential read. What of us have not stood on a doorstep for a prom photo, or a first day of school montage? Which of us did not leap through sprinklers on the lawn, or practice dance moves for the boy across the street before we knew those things were called “a crush,” and would be the burden of our entire existence? Which of us aren’t in a scrapbook somewhere in a lace dress? I’m not sure how many lawn photos my mother and I have taken together, and she’s taken of me, but I’d guarantee it’s more than a thousand.
The book is an odd mix of MoMA photos, Maira Kalman’s paintings, and Daniel Handler’s quaint but effective prose. In a photo of a young girl, hesitant on the bricks just before shrubs, Handler writes, “Because I didn’t want to ruin my shoes, is why.” And I can just hear her little high-pitch whine to her mother, or her sweetheart who wants her in front of the brush rather than next to it. My mother always posed me, which is exactly why I also want her to read this one. My favorite lines, “A painting, a photograph, a sentence, a pose. Keep track of this. You will not remember every place you have stood. A picture will last longer. There will come a time when you can’t believe it’s you standing on that lawn.” This was my favorite line because I love having pictures of my relatives everywhere. I am my mother’s daughter in this way. I like my grandmother’s small cursive dating the photo of her holding a line of caught fish across her elbow. I love that my mother wore jumpsuits with big hair back in the day and the only way I have to own these moments is through the photographs.
I wonder now who will look at my photos on the lawn. What daughter of my tribe will want to know why I was all dressed up? Especially in this world of social media where we only take photos for other people’s “likes.” I can’t tell you the last time I stood in a photo with my mother. Oh wait, yes I can, we were climbing a very unshapely log, and she climbed higher because she’s a bold woman and sometimes I am sheepish.
Maira Kalman’s paintings in each book are as wonderful as ever. I have a small collection of all of her books on my end table in the living room and it makes me happy just to look through them. They’re always vibrant, and they don’t ever deny the human spirit that was captured in the inspiration. I adore that about her. She’s also quite witty, much like Handler, and so the words in her books can make her reader laugh out loud.
Hurry Up and Wait is the story of the American Dream to me. Here we are, rushing around, checking off our experiences, calling them “bucket lists,” when only really half the time we are waiting for the next thing, the next adventure, the bus line, the coffee at Starbucks, the television show that comes on just past our bed time. There are blurred bikers, women walking with scowls (I’m a mean face walker so I get that), girls jumping into pools. Alongside children get puckered on popsicles, women hailing a cab, couples sleeping on the train. This idea that our lives are made of waiting, then standing, then rushing is so true. Handler says things like, “I’m just standing still, and then suddenly I think I am waiting for something. Once I’ve decided I’m waiting it’s like I’m not standing still anymore.” Somehow, this becomes this hyper-philosophical idea in my head.
My favorite image comes on a page with a photo of a man hauling bags (of feed, maybe) on a cart down a street. Handler writes, “If you had to leave right this minute forever, what would you take with you? / Just this. Just this.”
Both books are just sixty-four pages and can be read in one sitting. Just know, you will be coming back to these. They are forever books. They are designed beautifully (as MoMA would of course complete) and they are brilliant in both their words and small ideas, as well as the art and times held within. These books make me look new at flea market photos. They may be next to cheaply strung pearls, or someone’s rusted iron work, but they are important to someone too. They have meaning and putting them with concise, simple words makes them true art, a new form, innovative and reactionary.