Monday, September 28, 2015
Memory, Materiality, And An Autographed Photo Of Bert And Ernie
When I was twelve or thirteen years old, my father sent a letter and some paper clips to Bert -- you know, of "Bert and Ernie" -- and got back a signed 8 by 10 inch glossy photo of the two of them, and scrawled across it it said, "Dear Pat, Thanks for the paperclips. They were really keen. Love, Bert."
Even though he was born in 1935 and was thus outside the target demographic, my father loved Sesame Street. He especially loved certain muppets, and especially Oscar the Grouch and Bert. At his University office, where he was Dean of Engineering, he had Oscar and Bert finger puppets out on the desk.
The reasons for my father's love were probably complex. He'd grown up very poor in a family of Italian immigrants, with all kinds of associated miseries, instabilities, and frightening things, and so in one way he loved anything that suggested safety, predictability, warmth, and cleanliness. When he got home from work he'd turn on Mister Rogers. For a time we made yearly pilgrimages to Disney World -- a place where American capitalism enabled us to meet seemingly disparate entertainment goals: my goal of kid-fun, and his goal of seeing the trains run on time. Of course he'd love Sesame Street.
But I'd guess that my father's love for Bert and Oscar was also very specific. He appreciated Oscar's deep contrariness -- the need to be mad and sour when everyone was saying what a sunny day it was. My father was, after all, a man who rooted for The Yankees the whole time we lived near Boston -- just to be a pain in the ass.
With Bert, I'm sure my father admired Bert's nerdiness, way before nerdiness was a self-identification. My father liked to collect color charts for car options, and he kept them in three-ring binders that he'd take down and carefully peruse every so often. He liked to do his taxes, and once caused a ruckus by bringing them to an afternoon family affair to work on.
My father was a fanatic for office stationary of all kinds, and the paperclips were special ones from Germany. They were plastic and colorful and shaped in a funny surprising way. Maybe you don't remember that Bert had a paperclip collection, but he did, so my father put some in an envelope with a letter for Bert saying these were for his collection and he put his work return address: "Dean of Engineering, such-and-so College."
That he got back a signed and personalized photo with reference to the actual paperclips just killed me, I thought it was so awesome and funny. I loved imagining some Sesame Street personnel taking the time to consider the gift and think about the recipient. I loved that they thought a signed glossy with a message scrawled across it was just the thing. I loved that the writing was made to look childlike.
I was thinking about this signed glossy photo of Ernie and Bert this week because Frank Oz was the guest on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me and he's the guy who voices Bert and they all got talking about Bert's personality. And I remembered with sharp pang that the photo doesn't exist any more. It was lost in a fire in 1994, when I was in my twenties and a fire that started in the middle of the night ended up burning our entire apartment building down to the ground.
My father died when I was fifteen, which meant it had already been years since he'd died. I carried that photo around with me, and I talked about it all the time, and I told everyone I knew about how my father had sent paperclips to Bert for his collection.
Especially since the fire, I am usually the kind of person who doesn't care much about things and stuff. I can't deal with clutter. I like to throw things away. I don't keep memorabilia.
But the memory of this photo gave me pause. I feel like I would really, really like to have this photo -- to have it materially and not have just the memory of it.
Normally for me, the memory is enough. But now I think about this photo and there are things I feel I need to see again. Did Bert really say "keen" or might have been "neat"? Did Bert have his eyebrows in his characteristic frowny expression, or were they raised in his characteristic "surprised" mode? Am I remember the block-like childish writing correctly?
As a committed anti-disposophobe, I hate to think that it's the actual material object -- the object, which so cluttery, so easily lost, so fragile, so prone to decomposition, and so ephemeral -- that matters. But I think it might be true.