Back in New York, looking at Mother’s photo albums, I lost myself in speculation. Some people appear only once or twice. Others show up repeatedly for years and then vanish. There is no explanation. Styles of clothing change. Faces and bodies alter. Holidays, birthdays, vacations repeat themselves with variations. But the images in those photographs are just “sightings,” like the images we capture of spouting whales or leaping dolphins whose real lives take place out of sight under the sea.
There are a lot of photographs of people I don’t know in her albums, especially in those that cover the years before I was born. But soon nobody will know any of us. And at some point in the future the person who inherits these albums will ask, “Who are these people?” and, being unable to answer, will ask, “Why keep them then?” But if he is anything like me, he will be irrationally reluctant to throw them away.
In the end he will no doubt do so, but not without reflecting that nobody’s story is the story of one person only and that his own story is entangled in ways he cannot grasp with the unknown stories of the unknown people in my mother’s photograph albums—people he never knew and so can neither remember nor forget.
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