"Dear Mr. Carey," began an e-mail that arrived a few days before Christmas, "I am writing to you about a collection of photographs that were dropped off at the Fargo Public Library in Fargo, North Dakota. We do not know who owns the photographs or who dropped them off. (The box) did have an article written by you about your father. ..."
Gwen McCausland, a 31-year-old professional archivist at North Dakota State University, found me through the Internet and concluded I knew something about the photos.
Her e-mail created a holiday mystery.
How did my column wind up in a box in North Dakota? I don't know anybody in Fargo, was there last as a college student on a Greyhound bus bound for Seattle. I probably know as much about the city as the average viewer of the Coen brothers' movie "Fargo."
My grandparents and my Dad lived there in the late 1920s when my grandfather ran a car dealership. But the business faltered and they returned to Minneapolis.
Were these family photos of more than 80 years ago? Now, for me that would be a find. But who would have kept them? Who would have added my column to the box?
I called Gwen and learned someone -- nobody at the library remembered who -- dropped off the box, containing many old photos taken in Alaska but also more recent photos from other Western states and several sketches and paintings. The dropper thought the Friends of the Library bookstore might raise some money by selling the box's contents. A sale followed: No buyers appeared.
The Friends staff was ready to throw away the box when a staffer asked Gwen, a library volunteer, to examine the photos. Gwen suggested an effort should made to find their owner -- and took the mission upon herself.
Gwen and I talked several times, and as I listened to her description of the photos, I became convinced their owner had been Jerome Lardy, a friend of my Dad and, after Fabian died, my friend. When Gwen e-mailed me a photo with Jerome's handwriting along the edge, I was sure.
Jerome lived in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Barrow and Gustavus from the mid-1940s until the mid-'70s. He worked for the CAA (later the FAA) and was a collector of Alaskana, including artwork, as well as a skilled amateur photographer.
Jerome died in Aberdeen, S.D., less than 190 miles from Fargo, in August 2003 at 83. He had been born in a small farm town near Aberdeen he affectionately called "Punkin' Corners" -- his own Lake Woebegone.
Gwen told me many of the photos were of historical interest and said she would like to curate an exhibit of them. I liked the idea, and we agreed she could sometime after I looked over the box, which became four boxes after Gwen carefully repackaged the photo albums before sending them. She said I would get one box by UPS, the others by the U.S. Mail.
Late one afternoon, a brown truck arrived at the house and the driver struggled up to the door with an oversized box. I carried the box into the living room, where it sat for two days.
I couldn't muster the courage to face my dead friend.
When I did, I found photo albums and paintings that I had last seen in Jerome's apartment in Aberdeen. Jerome admired Lewis and Clark and some of the photos were of well-known sites associated with their trip from the Missouri River to Oregon.
I kept thinking, "You can't put a friendship in a box," as I visualized Jerome's apartment and remembered the hours we spent discussing history. Nevertheless, I was grateful to have the box -- and grateful to its savior, Gwen McCausland.
Jerome was unmarried, had no children and as he approached 80 began to give away cameras, paintings, books and many other prize possessions he wanted to find good homes. He warned me, "In case you haven't noticed, Michael, you will never see a luggage rack on a hearse."
The three other boxes Gwen sent contained album after album of Alaska photographs that had not found good homes. Some are from Beaver -- taken by Jerome's friend Charlie Mayse. Others are from Barrow, Rampart, Livengood and Fairbanks as well as the Yukon Territory.
You might say the photographs are orphans. And what's best for an orphan? Find him or her a good home.
This will take a while. For the moment, they are in an Anchorage orphanage -- my living room.
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com