Ghosts of Tenants Past28 May 2018
I flew back to Melbourne on Boxing Day, predictably exhausted from the headwind landing and the month-long holiday season that preceded it. While I’d been gone, my housemates had been kind enough to move my things to our new house, and though everything sat disassembled and packed away, I was glad to be back.
It was a high-thirties week, one of many, and I was sprawled half-naked on the bare mattress when I noticed something: the bottom of the built-in wardrobe—raised about a foot from the floor—was not flat wood like I had assumed, but a set of three drawers, hidden completely from standing view.
From all our research into the property, it should have been empty. There was a new landlord, who’d bought it for just under a million the previous year; they’d refashioned the dining room into a fourth bedroom, and presumably cleaned the whole place from top to bottom.
In some childlike way I was hoping to find something astounding: a forgotten duffel bag stuffed with green and gold banknotes, the missing Tamam Shud pages, or the body of Harold Holt. The drawer on the right-hand side contained a bag of pantyhose and a few dozen plastic slip folders; the left- hand drawer was empty.
The middle drawer contained hundreds and hundreds of photographs (eight-millimetre negatives in orange Kodak envelopes and plastic albums), a Herald Sun from 1970 (‘Carlton cinches the Grand Final’), school reports, chequebooks, high-school netball scoresheets, one certificate of baptism, and a tiny love letter: “Thank you for Friday night. It is a memory that I will cherish forever. You will always be deep in my heart.”
Lena Vigilante was born on 31 December 1956, to Matteo Vigilante and Michangelina Pescatore, and was baptised in March 1957 at St Ambrose’s Church in Brunswick. In 1970, the family would move to Coburg North, to a house—then with three bedrooms—just off Merri Creek. Lena went on to graduate high school in 1972, scoring good marks in Italian and needlecraft. There’s a photo of her standing with a baby-blue Chrysler Valiant Galant; one of the family roughhousing; the netball team; a group of friends smoking and drinking in a living room I recognised as mine. There’s marriages, parties, children in the snow, old folks, young folks; it felt like I was holding Lena’s whole life story in my hands. I’d imagined finding treasure in those drawers, but this was someone else’s treasure—a lifetime of memories printed onto little squares. A Google search for her name showed me a death notice: a Lena Vigilante who had died in November, 1999. The name was right, and the age was plausible, but it didn’t feel fair, so I kept digging. A search of her last name turned up hundreds of Facebook profiles, and, with no record of any other family member’s names, finding the right family would be almost impossible.
It was her godfather, listed on her baptism certificate, who led me on the right path. Matteo Guerra was born in 1926 in San Marco in Lamis, in Apulia, the ancient region best known as Italy’s “heel”. Fleeing the imminent outbreak of war, the Guerra family arrived in Melbourne in 1937, abjectly poor, and did farm work in regional Victoria until they could afford to buy a 50-acre farm in 1945. Matteo was the sole provider for a family of eight by the time his goddaughter was born. He died at the age of 91, in September of last year.
Before he died, Matteo was a member of a social club, located just off Canning Street, in Carlton: the San Marco in Lamis Social Club, devoted to immigrants from the town. The organisation has a Facebook page, which led me to the Circolo Pensionati, a smaller club within the larger one, presided over by one Angelo Vigilante—who in turn, led me to a photograph of the red-haired Lena, smiling, and very much alive. I brought the photos to the social club the next day, hoping they would arrive in time for her birthday on New Years Eve—and they did. Her sister called me on the phone three weeks later, and dropped by the house with a bottle of wine for my trouble.
Photography embodies, in the words of André Bazin, a “mummy complex”: an act of resistance against the passage of time, an artificial means of preserving, storing, and displaying something which would otherwise be ephemeral, like some single moment, an object, or a life. I never spoke directly to Lena—even after she’d received the photos—but in all these photos of her adolescence, she really didn’t seem that different to myself. I’ve found lost wallets before, and flicked through their collections of cards and receipts, but this experience was incomparable. These photographs were a distilled and preserved version of a personal history, one in which lives happened and people loved and had kids and drove cars and drank together, and they doubtless meant more to her than they would ever mean to me. I didn’t go to lengths to return them out of charity or kindness: I returned them, because how could I not?