It’s summer and I’m trying to make a portrait of two little boys on the back steps of an apartment building in South Providence. Nothing is really working. Suddenly a man and a girl rush out of the building. The man is holding his car keys, and I can tell they are in a hurry, but I ask if I can make their portrait. They say yes. So, quickly, against the ochre walls of the Spanish market behind me, I take four frames. I ask the man for his phone number, so I can get back in touch, and then they leave.
Later, when I get home and edit the whole day’s work, the only picture that strikes me is the first one of the man and the girl. The way she’s looking at him, her extended pinkie, and the sweetness of her hands all grab me somehow, and I call them.
They invite me to their apartment, and the girl meets me at the building’s front door. We walk upstairs to the second floor and into their living room, past colorful paintings – “Those are from the Dominican Republic,” she says – and sit at the kitchen table.
His name is José; she is Albanery, and she is his granddaughter. The two sit close together, and while we talk the girl looks at her grandfather, playing with a bracelet he’s wearing. When I give them a print of their portrait she says, “That’s the only photo that I’ve seen him smiling a little bit.” She calls him Papi.
“Prácticamente she’s my daughter,” says José, whose actual daughter is Albanery’s mother. He has lived in Providence for twenty-two years. His daughter and granddaughter joined him, from the Dominican Republic, only five years ago, when his daughter finished medical school. Until then, he kept tabs on them from afar. Every few months, says Albanery, a box from Providence would arrive at their home, containing mac-and-cheese, rice, cooking oil, clothes. “Once he sent us a laptop,” she says. When Albanery’s mother was about to start college, he even built them a house to live in.
Through the years, every so often, José would send Albanerys a plane ticket, to come and visit him here. After her mother finished school, they both moved to Providence, where they now live with José in this apartment, on Broad Street.
Albanery is in the sixth grade. “I don’t know how to explain it,” she says, looking at her grandfather. “He made my life better. I just love him.”