I like to go to secondhand stores–places like Goodwill, Mel Trotters, Changing Thymes–this gives me a chance to browse other people’s discarded treasures.
I sometimes post my finds to Facebook–things I find especially funny or ugly or both. But I recently went to a Goodwill depot to dumpster dive and I found something I have never seen before–another woman’s life up for sale. As I write this, I am uncertain of how much I will be allowed to tell you. So, this may turn out to be a bit like the hugely disappointing reveal of Al Capone’s Vault by Geraldo Rivera–a whole lot of nothing wrapped with a pretty bow.
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I wasn’t hunting for anything in particular. The Goodwill depot near me is a functional rather than attractive, open-floor warehouse with giant blue rolling bins that are rotated frequently and not organized in the least. You pay by the pound in pennies. I once bought a wedding dress for $2.00 that I later tie-dyed and then donated back to Goodwill. I’d like to think some lucky bride found it and was excited to be wed decked out in pastel pink, blue, purple, and yellow.
I found a really nice body pillow and some office supplies, skimming rapidly past bins in a hurry to get to my next errand, when I found something out of the ordinary. Shiny faces staring up at me–discarded family photos with one woman smiling up in most of them.
At first I found a few loose images…and then some more. Overturning piles of old clothes, kitchen items and lots of miscellaneous junk, I unearthed what looked like several years of one woman’s life. On impulse, I grabbed every picture I could lay my hands on. Some were neatly packed in old Kodak film envelopes. Others were scattered and had to be retrieved one-by-one. Some were bent by circumstances, but others looked like they’d just been printed. I was still snagging all the photos I could find, when one of the employees came and dragged the blue bin back into the warehouse beyond. I grabbed what photos I could before it disappeared from sight.
I brought my treasure home…and then life got busy. I only recently started trying to track down the mystery woman who graced most of the pictures.
I have always liked photos; they capture time in a way nothing else can. A moment, frozen and often posed to show us at our best–perhaps there are lies involved in the telling–but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the stories we tell about ourselves.
First, I browse through the photos in no particular order, and as I do, I begin to know another woman’s life captured in time.
March 18, 1994 two young women hunker down next to a Northwestern College 1882 entrance sign. It is only after searching for a matching college that I discover there’s more than one by that name. I can’t find a match to this entrance sign. If you recognize it, let me know!
The college years?
I found a few Saran-Wrap based photos that I can only assume relate to college life hijinks. Perhaps someone was being hazed for a fraternity? Or it was just good old fashioned pranksters running around with hundreds of yards of cling wrap?
It starts off innocently enough–with one roommate super sealing the upper bunkmate’s bed!
No piece of furniture is safe from predatory cling wrap attack.
SIDEBAR–What I really like about the above photo is that the woman is wearing pearls. She got dressed up for this. It’s as if June Cleaver went to college and got a little bit tipsy and was photographed being naughty. If only Ward Cleaver knew what June got up to! (If you don’t know this reference, Google: Leave it to Beaver. If you expect it to be a porno, you will be disappointed!)
Everything is innocent fun, at first. But later on…things get a bit more interesting…
The confusing part about sorting someone else’s life is that you don’t have any certainty about what you are looking at. The above ‘college years’ seemingly take place in 1994. This predates many of the photos which fall in the 2000’s and later. Some of the photos have dates stamped by the printer–but that only means that is when the print was made–and not necessarily a good measure of when the image was taken.
Is the young woman pictured on the left wrapping a man around a light pole the same person throughout the series? I can’t be sure. I’m not good with faces. The dates suggest they are not. Maybe you will be able to tell?
I can tell you that the Saran Wrapping and the college campus sign photo are all stamped March 18, 1994 and the woman in question is wearing the same outfit throughout her campus intrigues. Not all pictures are so helpful.
Sidebar: In 1994, I was 27. I was living in sin with my boyfriend in Chicago whom I would later marry. If this was the same Northwestern as the one in Evanston, IL, I was only a short drive away from these events.
On to gather details to paint a picture of a woman without a name.
2001 – Music Lover
I know that in 2001 she attended a concert by a band called “Skillet”–it was one of the few photos with any notation. The band performed in Spring Lake and it was their Alien Youth Tour. I use Google to find a video but I can’t be certain they are one-and-the-same Skillet–an American Christian rock band formed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1996–but, really, how many could there be by the same name?
Also in 2001 (based on date of printing) we meet Flip-Phone Guy with a Don Johnson/Miami Vice kind of vibe. He has cheekbones so sharp you could cut cheese with them and an interesting way of posing for photos.
I have so many questions…
There is one photo I just love–but not of my mystery woman. I think this must be a friend. She is crouched in a garage, kneeling on a tarp next to paint cans. She is singing into a paintbrush with her eyes locked on the camera.
She is wearing a Myrtle Beach t-shirt, so she is probably singing an appropriate Jimmy Buffet song. She looks like a lot of fun to hang around with.
Then come the post college years–where the mystery woman appears to have fallen in love with a Beach Boy.
The woman in the pictures is young, blond, with a vivacious smile–the kind most people can’t fake when a photographer prompts them to say “Cheese” on command. She is posed in front of a beautifully decked Christmas tree with an equally attractive young man beside her. He is wearing a blue dress shirt and a chunky coral necklace and has his arms around her waist. They are a picture of young love.
2004 – Love cont.
When next we see them, he at least has been somewhere warm as he has a vibrant tan that makes his coral necklace and very white smile equally blinding. Nearby there is a bouquet of flowers.
Perhaps they are celebrating a birthday? Or maybe, they are just celebrating love? They are positively aglow with it.
According to the back of the photo, it is February 2004. At this time, I am 7 months pregnant with my son–and I only look ‘glowing’ because I sweat whenever I move. Though I would argue my glow was equally loving in nature, I wasn’t nearly this photogenic.
If you are particularly eagle-eyed, you may spot something interesting in the background of the next photo–a very oddly familiar plant/sculpture in an image from June 6, 2001:
1994 Once More
I discover another college photo only when I realize that I’ve been looking at it upside down and finally noticed the date hidden in the third girl’s hair.
It is a picture of the upper bunk of a dorm room with three blondes squashed together–shoed feet on the ceiling–with their hair draping over the edge of the mattress. It’s almost as hard to describe as it was to figure out how they were posed. From the other direction, it looks like they are crouched under the weight of a mattress atop their backs and their hair standing straight on end.
I try to do some math. If the blonde on the left in these photos was in college in 1994…gets calculator, assumed minimum age of 18…she was born likely between 1972 and 1976. She is almost a decade younger than I am. So she would be in her forties now.
Most of the pictures I have come from her early twenties then. When life holds so much promise–before you know how hard life can get. And I wonder as I look at her images: Is she as happy now as she looked then?
If you take her beaming smile as as evidence, she seems to be a happy person. She has lots of friends. She attends concerts and goes to restaurants. (Obviously these are pre-Covid days.)
She seems to enjoy travel–there are postcards from Myrtle Beach and Sugar Beach in Traverse City, bought but never sent. Probably souvenirs that were stuffed in a drawer and forgotten.
There is a third postcard. It is from Tortilla Flats, Arizona.
I had this collection for weeks before I looked at the postcards. And I’m embarrassed to admit, I never looked at the back of this postcard after seeing that the first two were blank…but we’ll come back to that in a minute.
The collection is intriguing–some of the photos have names embossed on front, or written on back–they are the small wallet-sized photos that friends exchange in school.
Sara from the class of 2000–sits on a white box in front of a white studio backdrop. She is lanky, tall, and wears black shoes with so many straps and a thick, wedged heel, they probably have a fancy name like Espadrilles.
She is dressed in tidy, monochrome colors–beige, black, and white. She could be a model in a Christopher Banks ad.
Another photo shows a bespectacled young lady who is identified on the back of the photo as Katy B., 13 years old, 8th grade, 2002-03. She was probably born in 1989. So, not a friend of my mystery blonde, but maybe a younger sister?
Though, I can’t imagine a sister would write out all of the name, rank, serial number information she has on the photo. Perhaps Katy is just that precise!
She appears in a few of the subsequent photos–about five years younger than the owner of the pictures. I file this possibility away and keep searching for clues.
After searching all the photos for a name to identify my heroine, I look at a photo sleeve I had ignored–the kind to hold negatives–and get my first big clue. Handwritten on the sleeve on the customer name line is a last name. I’m omitting it for privacy sake, but let’s call them Family B.
I feel like Nancy Drew–or maybe Velma from the Scooby Gang. I’m drawn to wondering and picking my way through scraps of someone else’s history. I haven’t looked this much at my own boxes of pictures probably since I carted them home. Does anyone ever care to examine their past too thoroughly? To compare yourself to who you once were, back when you had potential to become someone other than who you came to be?
As fascinating as all the smiling blonde beauties are, it’s the pictures that hint of places traveled that are more telling.
Based on the date – March 17, 1994 – I think she and her friends went to Florida for Spring Break.
A family photo showing older adults on a small water craft suggests the family really enjoys the sun and sea for recreation purposes.
One of the oddest pictures doesn’t have anybody in it. It is a random photo of what looks like a grain silo with a green logo and the words “Where the Farm-to-Food System Begins” painted on it.
It is so random a shot, that I immediately start searching online for the swooping green logo and the phrase “Farm-to-Food.”
I go down a Google rabbit hole for about an hour–discovering exactly how many styles of grain silo there are. It’s absolutely incredible how little I know about farming, but I now have an appreciation for the existence of these:
Someone out there loves grain elevators so much, they built tiny models of them. Either that, or they were created by whoever builds grain elevators to show off to potential clients?
This photo was unlike any of the others, so I assumed it was significant. It was to be the smoking gun/grain silo that would break this case wide open! I got busy hunting the Google wastelands for clues.
I found a close match in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.
After finding the above photo, I learn that the phrase “Farm-to-Food” was coined by Land O’ Lakes as part of an ad campaign.
They even had merchandising:
You might laugh at people collecting this stuff, but the toy semi trailer sold for $42.00 on an Aumann Auction website.
I have no idea how much the jacket sold for. Ebay keeps its secrets close to the vest, or jacket in this case.
And then I find this gem on YouTube. I never saw this ad when it came out in 2016. I couldn’t believe an ad would have over 200,000 viewers…until I watched it myself.
I got shivers listening to the reading of the poem: The Farmer by Amelia E. Barr
I bet everyone will now go out and buy Land O’Lakes after watching this. It is absolutely haunting! If anybody recognizes the actor who read it, please let me know. I’m certain I’ve heard her voice, I just can’t name the actor.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled mystery….
After about an hour of hunting for clues to the mysterious cooperative logo, I couldn’t find anything that would definitively link it to a specific area–especially not in Michigan. Land O’ Lakes companies are located in Minnesota, so maybe my new friend went to college there? Maybe she just saw the grain elevator and took a random photo just to mess with my head 30 years later? Who knows?
I’ve got to confess something. It wasn’t until I started writing this blog post and I was scanning the several pictures that I decided to include alongside my text, that I noticed a pretty obvious clue on the back of the third postcard. It had been mailed! There was a name and address for a woman living less than 10 miles from where I searched a Goodwill dumpster a few weeks before. Well, she did live there back in 1997.
I practically slapped my forehead while saying, “Doh!”
This brought my writing to a screeching halt. I was afraid to continue in case the person I contacted wouldn’t give me permission to tell her story. An evil impulse urged me to accidentally ‘lose’ the postcard and continue as planned–post this to Facebook and hope someone recognized the person pictured.
But, I thought about how I’d feel if I was plastered across a stranger’s social media page. I considered the question of why these pictures were thrown out. Maybe the people pictured were no longer friends? Maybe the early pictures of the boyfriend irked a current spouse? Maybe a good friendship had ended. Or, worse, maybe someone died and a clean sweep of materials accidentally dumped these memories in a communal bin where I stumbled across them. It wouldn’t be right to post this without at least trying to find the owner.
So you may never see this post–not in its entirety. Unless I get lucky and the people on the postcard moved since 1997–without leaving a forwarding address–and into the Witness Protection Program.
We can only hope.
Footnote: I have found our mystery lady with the help of a local name-based doppleganger. I have approval to publish. I am in the process of finding out how many things I missed in detecting her life.