You pull down the cord that opens the entrance to the attic in your grandparent's house. The uneasy ladder thumps down to the ground and you make your way up, each step ageing the home with the sound of a creak. A stream of light peaks through a small circular window giving away the dust floating around the room. A pull string for the light is at the back of the attic and you stumble your way past various unknown objects and boxes. One pull of the light and all of a sudden you are surrounded by an alternate universe filled with hidden treasures, mysteries and memories, from those who came before you, and little items you remember from each time you came to visit grandma and grandpa. Now you’re older, and then, what seemed to be, just objects at the time, have turned into delicate items found in a treasure chest. Where do you begin in all of this? Maybe you start with the nearest box, or maybe something catches your eye and you step over and shuffle your way past everything else just to reach for it.
The smell of the room can only be described as old dust. Air has not replenished this space and your senses are grateful for the nostalgia. You notice a pile of old family albums sitting in the far corner of the attic, you don’t remember seeing them before… You sit down next to them, reach for the one sitting atop of the pile and within it, already, you are taken back to when your grandparents first met; so youthful. Black and white photographs, each taped on the corners with small blurbs highlighting the times; ‘Jack and Carol at the beach!’, ‘A day with the girls’, ‘Our first date’. Somehow you feel close to those memories, even though you weren’t there, you weren’t alive yet. But, instinctively you know that these memories are the small stepping stones to where your life is now. Every single one of their actions somehow brought you into this world. They run through your veins, their memories are your memories. You float through the pages placing yourself in ideas of who you thought they were back then. At this point you’ve lost track of time and the only thing that returns you back to the present is your stomach growling. You head back out of the attic, you put back the ladder, and close off the past
Beneficiary has been that and much more for me. Waves of emotions handling my own mourning process with unexpected outbursts of anger and sadness. I’ve been digging through bins full of family history. Flat pieces of paper with faces that I don’t recognize or remember. They float around like lost memories and I am the guest of honour who gets to fill in the blanks.
There is an overwhelming sense of responsibility that I must do something with what I have received after my Fathers passing. I am the last of that side of the family, it is in my hands to decide if I carry it forward with grace or let it slip through my finger tips to only be forgotten for all of eternity. Of course, how could I forgive myself if I let something as valuable as the evidence that sums up my existence and heritage go completely unnoticed?
The truth of the experience is that when I received my entire family line of archives, they were a mess of loose photographs. There were only a small amount of neat and tidy albums, otherwise it was all just layers and layers of unknown. I knew that if I wanted to feel less burdened I would have to organize them and put them in places they seemed they belonged. Gathering the bins and bringing them up into my living room to start the process of sorting, I realized I would have to see them all together, all at once, in order to have any idea on where to being at all. This is when I began building The Wall. It took me 6 days, 2 bottles of wine, several hours of procrastinating, playing Rufus Wainwright’s Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk on repeat, sorting through every individual photograph at a time, and pinning them to my wall, one by one, until the wall was covered from ceiling to floor, edge to edge. Once the wall was complete I documented it with my medium format camera on 120 Portra colour film. With limited space, it took 36 composite shots in order to fit every part of the wall into the frame.
Building The Wall has only been a small fracture in the process of Beneficiary. It wasn’t just loose photographs, but, to my surprise, I found small little objects that my father, or maybe even my grandmother too, were keeping for their own benefit. There were things that were just cool to find and things that he kept from when I was there visiting. Things that I didn’t think held any memorial merit at all until re-discovering them for myself. I found myself documenting these delicate things, and I call them things because that is exactly all that they are, but still, these things that I needed to have in a digital log, felt personal. I scanned each and every single one of those objects on a high resolution scanner bed. It took me a total of 3 days. I titled them, I edited the dust off them, and I logged them: A digital footprint. And I thought, ‘there, now I don’t have to actually carry them around’. But have I tossed these things out or donated them? No, they sit stagnant in a box for a rainy day when I can touch them, inspect them, smell them, and be transported back to a time to when my father was still alive.
Of course it is easy to romanticize the past. And for the most part I’ve enjoyed doing just that. But Beneficiary has been largely a way for me to learn to cope with mourning my father’s death. There have been times during the process of this project that I have found myself angry beyond belief. At first, not knowing how to handle or cope with the anger, or knowing why it was arising in me at all, I quickly became destructive to things that were within my reach in those moments. After breaking, smashing, kicking, or hitting objects in my home, I turned to writing. Writing to my Dad: Small letters or poems informing him how I feel. This coping skill has seemed to help heal the wound, and I believe it is because I am giving myself the chance to say the things I wanted to say to him before and after he died. It’s a way for me to communicate to the other side. I like to believe he hears me.
I am not entirely sure if Beneficiary is at its final end and I don’t think I am ready to say goodbye just yet. It’s all a matter of letting go and discovering; and balancing the two is a delicate and complicated matter. So until then, I will continue to pour out my mourning in ways I can only hope will be healing.