I grew up hoping that objects would connect me to the
world. As a child, I spent many weekends at my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn. Space there was limited, and all of the family keepsakes—including my aunt’s and my mother’s books, trinkets, souvenirs, and photographs—were stored in a kitchen closet, set high, just below the ceiling. I could reach this cache only by standing on the kitchen table that I moved in front of the closet. This I had been given permission to do, and this is what I did, from age six to age thirteen or fourteen, over and over, weekend after weekend. I would climb onto the table in the kitchen and take down every book, every box. The rules were that I was allowed to look at anything in the closet, but I was always to put it back. The closet seemed to me of inﬁnite dimensions, inﬁnite depth. Each object I found in the closet—every keychain, postcard, unpaired earring, high school textbook with its marginalia, some of it my mother’s, some of it my aunt’s—signaled a new understanding of who they were and what they might be interested in; every photograph of my mother on a date or at a dance became a clue to my possible identity. My biological father had been an absent ﬁgure since I was two. My mother had left him. We never spoke about him. It was taboo to raise the subject. I did not feel permitted to even think about the subject. My aunt shared the small apartment with my grandmother and grandfather, and sometimes one of them would come into the kitchen to watch me at my investigations. At the time I didn’t know what I was looking for. I think they did. I was looking, without awareness,
for the one who was missing. I was looking for a trace of my father. But they had been there before me and gotten rid of any bits and pieces he might have left—an address book, a business card, a random note. Once I found a photograph of a man standing on a boardwalk with his face cut out of the picture. I never asked whose face it was; I knew. And I knew enough never to mention the photograph, for fear that it too would disappear. It was precious to me. The image had been attacked, but it contained so many missing puzzle pieces. What his hands looked like. That he wore lace-up shoes. That his pants were tweed. If being attentive to the details of people’s lives might be considered a vocation, mine was born in the smell and feel of the memory closet and its objects. That is where I found the musty books, photographs, corsages, and gloves that made me feel connected. That is where I determined that I would solve mysteries and that I would use objects as my clues. Years from then, in the late 1960s, I studied in Paris, immersed in the intellectual world of French structuralism. While I was away, my grandparents moved out of their apartment, where the contents of the memory closet had been so safely contained. Much of the closet’s contents were dispersed, sent to an organization that collected books to be read to the blind. Far away from home, I was distressed at the loss of the objects but somewhat comforted to realize that I now had a set of ideas for thinking about them. In Paris, I read the work of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who described bricolage as a way of combining and recombining a closed set of materials to come up with new ideas.1 Material things, for Lévi-Strauss, were goods-to-think-with and, following the pun in French, they were good-to-think-with as well. While in France, I realized that during my many hours with the memory closet I had done more than daydream ideas into old photographs. When I ﬁrst met the notion of bricolage, it already seemed like a childhood friend.
Ideas about bricolage were presented to me in the cool, cognitive light of French intellectual life. But the objects I tried to combine and recombine as a child had been clues for tracing my lost father, an experience of bricolage with a...