At the bottom of the box I found a small photograph of a young Hispanic man. He looked maybe seventeen or eighteen years old, dark-haired, dark-eyed and lonely.
Piercingly sad eyes stared at me from the faded, scarred photograph. There was no note, no name. The upper left-hand corner of the photo was torn.
At first I was just going to throw it away, but then I looked at it again. He looked so desperately alone. I flipped it over once more, thinking maybe his name and identity would have magically appeared on the back.
I asked around. None of my other relatives knew who he was or why my grandmother had kept the picture.
Why is he so sad? I wondered. What was he thinking? Who is he? And why did Grandma keep this picture and then pass it on to me?
I ended up hanging on to that photograph.
I don’t know exactly why, maybe just to remind myself that he was someone’s son. Someone’s friend. Maybe someone’s lover. And that somewhere along the line his story had intersected with my grandmother’s story, and then it had entered mine.
That torn photo is the only connection I have to the story of that boy.
A photo with no context.
Most of the stuff that’s really important to me is only important because of the stories that surround it—the ceramic water pitcher my great, great aunt daintily used to pour me icy water on sweaty summer days, the rubber snake that served as the waterfront mascot when I was a counselor at a YMCA camp, the photograph of my wife and me on a nameless peak in Alaska on our honeymoon.
These things only become valuable because I know their stories.
They could be sold for loose change at a yard sale, but I would go back into a fire to get them.
We are storytelling creatures, enraptured by the tales told around campfires, or on a page, or a stage, or a movie screen.
The best stories touch us in a deep place.
Yeah, I think I’ll keep that photograph.
To remind me of my grandma’s story and all of the mysteries and heartache and laughter it contained.
Just like mine.
And just like that young man with the sad eyes.
And the story I never heard.