The other day I saw a photo on Facebook. The name in the caption caught my attention. It was familiar to me.
The photo was black and white, taken in Bucharest, 25 years ago: a middle-aged mother and father, a teenage daughter, an older woman, and a dog. The gray wall of a stone house, and steps with a metal railing provided the background. I assumed the older lady was the grandmother, the mother of one of the parents. The expression on their faces was neither happy nor sad. They seemed indifferent, caught in the moment, a little nostalgic perhaps. The only animated participant was the dog. He stood on his hind paws, and rested his front paws on grandma’s hip. He was slender, and playful — a beautiful dog.
I clicked on the photo and enlarged it, focusing first on the middle-aged man, then the woman. Their facial features filled a void from the past. Yep, I’ve met them before.
I remembered him walking around Bucharest with a camera and taking pictures of people and things. We were the same age. I am sure we talked about the future, perhaps with some trepidation, and the future had seemed to us so full of possibilities and so far away. In the pictures he took of me I had a beard. It was more than forty years ago. Having a beard in those times in Bucharest was unusual — almost daring, a provocation of sorts. It was a wink to the West. I wasn’t the only one, but there weren’t many of us, and it gave us the illusion that we belonged together. My father was well connected. To a large degree, I could risk to wear a beard, because of who he was. I still have those pictures in an album downstairs. They are very good.
I met her on a skiing trip. That happened in the United States, when my children were little. We went to the Poconos, in Pennsylvania. She came from the Midwest. We might have shared a house with other Romanian friends, or she might have stayed in the area and visited for the evening. I don’t know. I am sure we talked, but I don’t remember much.
It is possible our skiing trip took place before the photo they posted on Facebook was taken, in which case she would have been skiing with her daughter, but I have no recollection of that. They must have taken the picture while on a visit to Romania (after the regime change in 1989) perhaps to see the older lady — their mother, whoever she was. That would explain the expression on their faces — jet lag mixed with melancholy and apprehension. I heard that the Romanian Secret Police had harassed members of their family. Going back for a visit, no matter the circumstances, had to be extremely difficult for them.
I saw this photograph on Facebook, and my heart sunk. I wouldn’t have thought of these people, but here they were, a black and white image from the past, as ephemeral as everything else, and yet, so symbolic of what life represents. We originated from the same place, and followed a similar path — there were thousands of us in Romania, hundreds of thousands, millions perhaps — raised and educated there during a communist regime, escaped to the West (France, Germany, US, or Canada, mostly), facing the challenges and the rewards of a new world, each and every one of us with our own drama, separation, pain, each eventually reaching some sort of balance in the never ending process of resettling.
The trajectory of my life and that of the people in the picture intersected several times, decades apart. We are not friends, but we understand each other and share a heritage. This continuum that represents our destiny appears suddenly too short. Where did everything go? When? In their faces of twenty-five years ago, I recognize features that I remember from much earlier, but even more time had passed since the picture was taken, and today they are older yet. The grandmother in the picture might not be around anymore. Our children have children of their own.
Everything has gone in a flash. Will our lives cross again? Does it matter? Like a river, it all flows downhill — photographs, snowflakes, tears, ambition, parents, and dogs.
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