There was a photo of me I never knew about that hung in my father’s house outside of Bonn for nearly thirty years. He lived in this house with his wife and seven children, filling it with memories, laughter, and love each day. The photo was taken during my father’s only visit to New York when I was a child. I am eight years old, in pigtails and a sailor’s dress, sitting on a Central Park bench.
Growing up, I’d had my own pictures of my dad, tucked away in an album my mother had carried with us across the ocean when we left. These were relics of someone else’s life, not mine; clues pointing toward the mystery of a man I’d never known.
Years later, a mother myself, I’d visit my father for the first time, as he descended toward his death. Brothers I’d never met before would serve me tea in delicate glasses; in upstairs rooms, sisters would reveal the beautiful hair under their head scarves. I’d sit on the sofa with my father, whose fading breath struggled among three languages to bridge the decades of silence between us.
It was the first time I remember hearing my own name pronounced perfectly. The intimacy of its sound jarred me, the same way the sight of my own image on the wall felt foreign in its place among the others. Who would guess that a single word could soothe like a lullaby? A framed image on a wall could tell the story of a father’s irreplaceable love?