Sunday, 23 January 2011

Memento mori

My Dad’s heart is in his stamps.

He’s been collecting since he was five years old. I remember boxes in our attic stacked three and four feet high – all filled with various types and amounts of postage.

His main profession was teaching, but stamp dealing was his weekend gig, and seemed to bring him the most pleasure. He sold his miniature treasures in Moncton, Halifax and parts of Maine, and people drove from miles around to claim them for their own collection.

Since his retirement from teaching just over 10 years ago, he’s been able to devote more time and energy to his business. His shows now take him to Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, so I get to see him every few months when he’s in town. My husband and I attend the show on Sundays, helping him behind the booth until closing.

I’m not a stamp fan myself. I’ve never really understood the beauty or value of them, but there’s something about watching my Dad in this role that I cherish. It tells me more about who he really is by seeing him at what he does best.

People from all nationalities flock to his booth in search of small reminders of home. Although my Dad has never travelled outside North America, his collection spans the world. He has a special way with his customers and knows how to find that particular stamp that someone is searching for. People often leave his booth a little happier than when they arrived.

Although I’m no expert, I can see that it’s not about selling a piece of postage for the mail. He’s in the business of peddling memories - miniature mementos of art, culture, politics, and history that are snapshots in time.

The sad reality, though, is that stamp dealing is a dying business. Both the dealers and collectors are aging, and the next generations are largely indifferent to a world that is becoming more of an eccentric hobby than a niche business market. But even though this community is shrinking, you can see how people look out for each other and care about each other.

A few years ago, my Dad had a triple bypass and missed about six months of stamp shows. When he returned, dealers and collectors alike flocked to his booth to inquire about his health and what they could do to help. Many are the same age or older, and I wondered if it reminded them of how fragile life really is.

My Dad was in Toronto for a show last weekend, and as usual, my husband and I arrived on Sunday afternoon with tea and snacks in hand. Not long into our visit, we noticed a peculiar vacancy over at “Nunes’ Nook”, which is the business of Dr. John Nunes. His sign was there, but gone were the hundreds of long rectangular red boxes, usually stacked high on his tables and shelves, individually labeled with the names of countries representing the origin of the stamps within.

My Dad leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “Nunes had a heart attack and died this morning.” As I stared at his empty booth in shock, my Dad explained that he was at the show on Friday and Saturday, and then didn’t arrive on Sunday morning as usual. One of his staff eventually came around and broke the news.

I felt sad for this man who I never even formally met, and for the family and community he’s leaving behind.

As we left the building that night, I was reminded of something I had forgotten until then. My husband is a photographer and while helping my Dad at a show about a year ago, he was inspired to take a picture of Dr. Nunes with his vintage Yashica Mat camera. I thought his interest in Dr. Nunes was a bit strange at the time, but now it somehow makes sense. We’ll be submitting the photo to the Canadian Stamp Dealers’ Association and sending a copy to his family.

His spirit was captured in that moment in time, doing what he loved most.


  1. What a loving tribute to your Dad's life passion, Kristen. Beautiful!

  2. How interesting that I came to your blog and this post via ZenDotStudio. I was putting away my mum's stamp collecction last weekend. Hundreds of stamps. It was originally mine but she took it over when I lost interest. I remember the afternoons she spent organizing them. Good memories.

  3. Genju - what an interesting coincidence, I'm so glad you stopped by. There is something beautiful about our parents hobbies, even if they're not our own.

  4. What a lovely tribute to your father and how wonderful that your husband had snapped a photo of Dr. Nunes. I am sure his family will appreciate it.

  5. Thank you Kelly. Yes, I hope my Dad will like the piece, which I think he will.

    I read online that Dr. Nunes and his wife were married for 46 years - amazing.

  6. What a lovely post about your father and Dr. Nunes. I felt like a really had a sense for the shows and the atmosphere there.

    Thanks for your beautiful comment on my blog this evening.

  7. Thank you for your comments Kristin - and great to have you here.

  8. Life and death rotate around one another as do the sun and moon, the heavens and the earth, the light and dark...

  9. That's a lovely way to put it, thank you Cathy.