Jul 21, 2019

I have eight photos of my beautiful Swedish grandmother Marie, my father’s mother. In a blurry one, she’s sitting cross-legged in a field, bundled in a light jacket, her long skirt wrapped around her feet. Her hands are resting in her lap, a jaunty straw hat with a large bowl shading her eyes. Her head is cocked charmingly, the slanting sun lighting up the hat, casting the shadow of her nose across her cheek and catching the full breadth of her engaging smile.

My half-aunt Margret, who’s my age and like a cousin to me, recently sent me a ninth—a photograph of my grandparents she’d found in a chest in her attic. They’re sitting in the grass in a park. Without her hat, you can see my grandmother’s hair is fair, and I’ve always wondered if she was a strawberry blond like me. Her collar has a tassel, her dress a cummerbund, and her shoulders look thin and angular, like mine. The brown oval mat that frames the two of them is crumbling with age. I’m torn: out of reverence, I want to keep the photo just as it is; out of aesthetic compunction, I want to strip away the moldering mat. With a razor I slit open the paper backing, only to find the photo fixed in place with a battery of tiny rusted nails. Using pliers and a screwdriver, I carefully bend and jiggle them free.

When I finally pry the oval mat from the photo, I see, in a corner that was hidden, three women in broad-brimmed hats strolling on a path beyond the shrubbery—in another second they would have passed beyond view. And suddenly, I’m jolted—shocked—into an apprehension of the moment: that one instant of that one day, when my grandparents were in love and thought they had all the time in the world.