Columns

2008.01.03 Who are these strangers?

on . Posted in By The Way

By DAVID GREEN

My Aunt Lois came for a visit recently and she brought with her a DVD called Photos from the Past. It was produced by her son and my cousin whose name is Fatty “Butterfingers” Skylark. Aunt Lois just calls him Steven.

I no longer remember why we gave him that long name. It was probably bestowed while walking on the path along Bean Creek, on our way to Beanie Beach for a picnic of sorts.

Butterfingers was a big city boy, first from Detroit and later from the suburbs. He always enjoyed our hikes along the Bean and I’m sure they were an important part of his formative years.

So Aunt Lois came to town and we popped in the DVD and waited for the first photo.

It opened up with a picnic scene from a park in Detroit. I remember we had family gatherings there several times with my mother’s side of the family. There are four sisters and they produced 12 kids among the four of them.

The photo shows several people eating at a picnic table. Apparently the Greens were just arriving. My father is carrying the old green laundry basket packed with food. My mother has her arms full of clothing. It looks like everyone is drinking mustard.

The next photo comes into view—a scene from my sister’s wedding. Then comes a photo of five cousins playing with blocks of wood outdoors on a sheet of cardboard.

In the background the band U2 is singing. “You say you want your story to remain untold...,” but that’s not how it’s working out. Segments of the past are coming to light.

Next is a food lineup with cousins holding paper plates. This marks my first appearance, in photo #4. I have on a rather bright blue sweater that I wore in high school, but it’s the college years now—I can tell by the beard.

Two photos show cousins seated and eating. It’s probably a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner in someone’s basement. We look at the photos and try to guess whose basement.

Next comes Aunt Lois in our Cawley Road kitchen. I don’t recognize it. I think it was from the 1950s. I can’t remember that odd diamond-shaped pattern of the wallpaper.

I can’t remember the big yellow bread box or the sugar/flour canisters. The transparent cake storage container is vaguely familiar, but for some reason the electric egg beater hanging on the wall looks just right.

In the next photo, I can no longer recall the kitchen cabinets, but the can opener on the wall looks right in place. The pumpkin pie on the counter—I wish I had a piece of that.

More meals, more clothing from the past, more guessing of locations. We need a trained dog.

A brief side-step here. In an Austrian lab, dogs were trained to classify photographs. Now how did that ever come about? They used a paw-operated touch screen computer, of course.

They were taught to distinguish between a landscape scene and a photo of a dog. They were rewarded when they pawed the dog.

Eventually things got tricky and the photo showed a dog standing in one of the landscape photos. Touch the dog, another treat arrives. Pumpkin pie, perhaps.

Friederike Range, the lead scientist in this study at the University of Vienna, thinks his work should elevate the status of the dog in your home.

“We are starting to see that dogs have some good reasoning abilities,” he said. “I hope this might impact how we treat them at home.”

Let your dog have a say in family decision-making. I know we would treat a dog like that with respect. My wife is out in the other room right now sorting through photos. Hundreds of photos. She’s looking for a particular member of Maddie’s class from a birthday party long ago. We’re late with a couple of graduation presents, apparently.

We could get a dog to sort through this family collection from Aunt Lois. Look at the table lamps to pick out all the photos from the 1950s; use hair length for the 1970s, classify wedding dresses by decade, etc.

We would name that dog Fatty Skylark in honor of a cousin who took us on a wonderful journey through the past.

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