There are people in my grandmother’s photo album I have never met. The album from my father’s mother, the grandmother who is now dead. Tucked among Polaroids from birthdays, family gatherings and holidays, in between images of my grandfather as a child, my father as a child, me. Men and women with leathered skin whose names I do not know, yet here they are, staring back. I examine their faces, their half-hearted smiles, their wrinkled skin. I look for the tell-tale signs of genetics — grandma’s crooked nose, papaw’s bony cheeks. I wonder who they are, where they’ve come from, why they’ve been memorialized behind thin sheets of smooth cellophane. Family albums are sacred, meant to hold those tied by blood, those who’ve made a life’s impact. I point to a photo, ask Dad, who is this? His failing memory can not recall. Another photo. I point again. Mom, who is this? She searches deep within herself, tries to remember. Your mamaw told me once, but I can’t now think who she said. Another failed memory.
On the back of some photographs, there are stamps. Ellis Studio, Weston, W.Va. reads one. Goff Studio, Weston, W.Va. reads another. Some have names etched in neat handwriting, the ink fading. Some with one name, some with two, some with ages scribbled beside them. Lelia. Florence Kittle. Danny, age 3. Still others are blank, no written clues to the photographer or occupants. I hold each photo delicately, as if the flaky paper were about to turn to dust, read the names and examine each scene. When I’m done, I return the black and white images to sepia pages once white, but now yellowed, faded, time slowly transforming their memory.
My niece just turned ten-months-old. Though she’s only an infant, barely able to walk or speak full sentences, she seems wise for her age. Sometimes we play this game. We’ll sit together on the couch, take out the old family album. She likes to look at the photos — the babies, especially — as though she recognizes the importance behind each image. She’ll point to a photo, look to me with bright and curious eyes, wait for me to name the person. Mama, I’ll say. Pappy. Great-great grandmama. Each time she’ll smile, touch another, look at me, await the answer.
Today, she points to a photograph of someone I don’t immediately recognize. I just sit silent for a bit, search my mind, try to recall who it is. After a moment, acknowledging I can’t remember, I say, simply, Someone special. At first she looks confused, as though she knows that someone special surely has a name, a history, a life story. Still, she accepts the answer, smiles, points to another face.
Yeah, I think. Someone special.
Finally I recognize who they are.