I visited my grandparents the other day, and when the coffee had been served in decades-old flowered teacups and the pastries set out in a ring around the coffee table, Oma shuffled over with a photo album. She settled next to me on the couch and turned to the first page.
"This is my oldest sister," she said happily, a bejeweled finger resting on a wedding picture. And in the same contented tone: "She died of a heart problem." Her finger slid down to the next photo. "And that is my oldest brother. He died of pneumonia."
My grandmother had sixteen siblings, a corresponding massive extended family and a slew of friends, and their images were tucked into the book in black and white, in faded vintage tones, on thick matte paper and on Polaroid squares. She paged through the album, briefly remarking on each picture. Every observation included the cause of death.
"Her husband died in the doctor's office when he was thirty-nine," she said of her niece. "She had five children." Flip. "My brother was in a sanatorium for TB. He was there for a year. He got better but then he died in a boating accident." Flip. "That is the husband of my sister. He died of a heart attack in 1981."
Half-way through the album, and not one person in the photos was still living. And the strange thing was, Oma kept recounting their relationship to her and how they died in a cheerful, matter-of-fact way. I could smell her sweet old-person breath as she leaned closer to identify a blurred face, and I could tell she was enjoying herself immensely.
I recognized almost no one in the pictures, save my grandparents and some of their siblings, marked by family resemblances: the small, pretty vandenHoven nose and chin; the full Byl cheeks and red hair.
She closed the album and gave it to me. I took the book, heavy and oblong with a faded blue fabric cover, and realized that she had just paged through it for the last time.
"You can throw out the pictures of the people you don't know," she suggested. "You can just keep the pictures that you like."
And so there is an album of dead strangers, of Oma's treasured people, on my desk. One day I'll probably sort and rearrange it, but for now I haven't the heart to disturb those photos' resting place.