Nana's Photograph

My nana’s house feels like fine china and lace.
The walls are white, the furniture floral, every decoration a refined antique. The house is delicate and apart from everything I know—like I’ve stepped into another world; one of rosebushes and porcelain dolls and classical piano.
I’m eight years old and sitting at the piano to play for Nana. Edelweiss. I learned it for a recital last month, and my parents asked me to play it today since my nana was born in Germany. My fingers stumble through the notes in the absence of sheet music, but the beautiful tune still dances around us. Nana asks me to play it again, and she sings the words.
Time seems frozen. All of us are listening and still, letting the music wash over us like a butterfly’s fluttering wing. The spell breaks as the final note fades into silence. My family applauds and turns to go do dinner.
When I finish eating, I go exploring. The rugs are scratchy beneath my feet, but the air is light and smells like the mints Nana keeps in little dishes. I can still hear the adults laughing in the dining room, but it grows quiet as I wander.
On the wall in the hallway hang dozens of picture frames, all different sizes and styles like a kaleidoscope. Some of the pictures are old, black and white and worn, and I don’t recognize the people in them. Others are new, crisp and colored. There’s the portrait we did in the park last year, everyone smiling and dressed in black shirts and jeans.
My gaze glides over the other photographs. I see my dad as a boy in a yellow raincoat standing on a wooden porch. The photograph blurs the grass underneath the porch, and it looks like a stormy sea. I see my nana and grandma, both much younger, standing in front of a Christmas tree with lights and ornaments glinting behind them. I see groups of people standing together, arms slung around shoulders and smiles frozen mid-laugh.
The photograph I like the most was near the center of the wall. It’s a black and white portrait of a couple standing side by side. Their faces are serious, their posture regal. The woman has a tiara nestled in her hair. Her embroidered gown swishes down to the floor. The man wears a formal military uniform, medals and ribbons hanging on his chest, a sword strapped to his side. His hair is short and he’s got a mustache but not a bad one.
Maybe they were attending an extravagant ball held at a grand palace. I can almost hear the scuff his boots would make as they danced, see her jewelry glinting in the lights from dozens of chandeliers above them. They must have lead a magnificently romantic life, like something from a fairytale.
“Oh there you are.” I turn to see my mom. “I was wondering where you had snuck off to. Aren’t these photos lovely?”
“Yeah, they’re really cool. Some of them look so old!”
Mom chuckles and looks over the photographs, tracing the same path I had.
I point at the picture of the couple. “Who are they?”
Mom comes over and hums. “I don’t know. No one does, really. Nana says they’re family, but she’s forgotten who they are.”
I look at the faces of the couple, still nameless. “That’s sad. I bet they are family though. She looks a lot like Nana.”
“I think so, too.” She grins down at me. “Maybe they’re having tea with the Queen.”
I laugh. “Or about to meet the President.”
Mom ruffles my hair. “Maybe so. Come on, I think they’re about to start dessert. We’d better hurry before your dad eats it all.”
We glance once more at the portrait. “I’m sure we’ll find out who they are someday,” Mom says, and we go back to the family.
I’m nine years old and my parents have sat me down for a Talk. Nana has passed away, they tell me. I don’t know if I know what that means.
I’m twelve years old and asking my dad what happened to Nana’s old photograph. I want to do some research on who the couple was. My dad explains that it’s really hard to do.
There are no names on the photograph, and we can’t find an exact match anywhere online. My dad had found other photos of a couple that looks like the one in ours, a Duke and Duchess from Germany. The only problem was, there isn’t a connection between our family and theirs.
Nana’s past is hard to untangle, Dad tells me. She didn’t talk about her childhood very much, and she had a lot of tragedy in her life during World War II. She lost a lot of loved ones—her entire family—her mother died of tuberculosis, her father was shot by Nazis, her brothers went missing. We still don’t know who they were. Nana survived the war, but her journey was harrowing. She was pulled out of university in Hungary by the Nazis, and had to escape from a concentration camp.
My eyes widen. I hadn’t heard about that before.
I’m twenty-two now and still don’t know why Nana had that photo, or why she thought the couple was family. Maybe they are, somehow, maybe they aren’t. But they were important to her, and their portrait brought my family closer to each other and to our history.
The mystery of my nana’s photograph leaves me with a lot of questions. But it’s also taught me a lot about what being part of a family means. How the histories of those that came before us can ground us and inspire us. That family reminds us that we can accomplish hard things, and that we will always be loved.
Sometimes love doesn’t have a name. And that’s okay. What matters is that it’s there; always there, waiting for us.