March 28, 2012: Quelle Coincidence

            Seven years ago today, I received in the mail an old photograph album I’d purchased on ebay.

            That wasn’t so unusual. I often buy old photo albums from Niles, Ohio—my hometown, where Tevye and I maintain a residence—that I find in online auctions. I annotate the albums, sometimes with the help of people I track down who know or are related to the people in the old photographs, and then donate them to the Niles Historical Society for safekeeping.

            All I knew about the album that arrived on March 28, 2005 was that it was from Niles, and had been dated 1936 by the former owner. The seller had purchased the album at an estate sale but knew nothing much about it. The first thing I noticed about the photo book was that the former owner had written her name and address on the book’s inside cover: “Mrs. Armando Rich,1022 Fenton Street”—an address just up the street from611 Fenton Street, my and Tevye’s home in Niles, where my great-grandparents and several subsequent generations of my family had lived.

Weird. But Niles is a small enough city that I wasn’t all that surprised to discover that these people—Armando “Hermie” Rich and Martha LaPalla Rich—had lived up the road from my family. While I was flipping through the photo album—which featured the usual black-and-white snapshots of babies and automobiles and dour immigrants—a scrap of paper fell out of the book and fluttered to the floor. It was Armando and Martha Rich’s marriage certificate from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Niles, and it was dated March 28, 1935—70 years to the day that this photo album arrived at my home in Phoenix.


I thought about how sad it was that there was no one around to remember these people—almost certainly deceased—or to acknowledge their wedding anniversary. I set the book aside and went upstairs to return to my writing deadline. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the Riches.

Seventy years, to the day.

A few hours later, I called my parents and told them I was bringing dinner over. I picked up some Chinese takeout and drove to their house, where I announced that we were celebrating the wedding anniversary of some people I’d never met before. My parents, accustomed to this sort of behavior from me, didn’t ask any questions.

My dad opened the Rich’s photo album to the first page and said, “Look, here’s a photograph of Coonie Comparato.” Again, I wasn’t surprised—it’s Niles, a town small enough that pretty much everyone knows everyone else. Dad knew many of the people in most of the photos.

“I didn’t know the Riches,” Dad told me. “But my Aunt Rose worked for Hermie Rich’s parents, at their store. They used to be the Rizzis, but they changed their name from Rizzi to Rich sometime in the Twenties.”

Dad pointed to a yellowed photo of a smirking, dark-haired boy. “This is Arthur Rich,” he told me. “He married Mary Chance, and they rented your house, 611 Fenton Street, for awhile.”

Wow. Okay. But, again: not so bizarre a coincidence in so small a town.

We toasted the Riches and looked at the photo album and ate moo goo gai pan, and I felt a little better for the former Rizzis, now the gone-for-good Riches, formerly of Fenton Street. Driving home from my parents’ that night, I tried not to think too much about how I’d received this photo album on this couple’s 70th wedding anniversary, and how the brother of the guy who used to own the picture book had once rented the house that I now own.

Sometimes, though, the word “coincidence” seems inadequate.

Thing I Hate Today: Relentless sunshine


3 Responses

  1. For a guy who hates everything, that was a pretty touching story 🙂

  2. I remember so clearly coming over for one of our occasional Saturday morning coffees and your showing me this album soon after you got it. We talked about how I had done a story for the Times a million years ago on a store that repurposed people’s orphaned family photos into greeting cards, and how that got me wondering how people’s family photos end up on ebay or in antique stores. Anyway, I still think we should collaborate on a radio piece about this.

  3. That was fantastic.

    Thank you.

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