Years ago when I was a kid, my mom so much wanted a handheld showerhead to control the flow of water to her body. The hard shower stream stung her eyes, she explained over and over again. My father finally installed one in the upstairs bathroom. I was by his side helping, handing him the needed tools, a pair of pliers, some plumbing tape. My mom’s immense happiness for that simple thing, that tiny concession to her need, was an infinitesimal bit of her longing satisfied. Perhaps, as a little boy, I was an old soul to have known that. But I fled from the responsibility and into stone-hard science. Maybe I simply wanted to believe in happy endings.
* * *
“Every single time I’d start working on a new one,” my great uncle was saying, “there I’d be again, cursing at the universe left and right.”
Before that day in the museum, I knew only that he was an artist, a painter, and that he enjoyed modest renown in Romania, his home country since the end of World War I. My mother hinted that he was also an energetic womanizer, at least in his younger years, exuberantly lazy in everything but his art, and an accomplished curmudgeon now in his old age. As a girl she had spent a good deal of time at her uncle’s home. His wife, a loving and vastly tolerant woman, was very dear to my mom. Their home, she remembered, was always full with writers, sculptors, and painters. They weren’t there just for the food, she insisted, I could learn something from him, she said.
My own inquiries into the Big Questions had just started that summer, right after my sophomore year in college. I was excited by my great uncle’s visit. Here, surely, was a wise man come to answer those questions, an elder to reveal and revel in the great Truths. That he was then in his mid-eighties and visiting the States primarily for cataract surgery was no impediment to my quest. He’d be with us for two months—plenty of time to plunder the very core of Things.
We picked him up from JFK. My father was obsequious with the usual questions, “Are you tired? Are you hungry?” and struggled to ask them in Armenian, our mother tongue. Like my grandparents on both sides, my great uncle had survived the Ottoman Empire and that ancient language forever traveled with them. Undoubtedly exhausted from the flight, he just looked out the window at New York as we drove home. When he walked through our front door, his eyes closed as in relief to see the walls covered with his work: landscapes, still-lifes, but mostly flowers.
Two days later I cornered him with the obvious as he was resting in a chair under a tree in the backyard: “What is the meaning of life?”
He shrugged that off with a flick of his cigarette and said, “That depends. What do you want it to be?”
Above my writing desk today I have a black-and-white photo of my great uncle with the writer William Saroyan. No one left in my family knows the circumstances of that meeting. There’s an impish soft smile on my great uncle’s face though Saroyan is fairly scowling.
The next obvious question: “Does God exist?”
After scratching his nose as if he’d never considered that one, my great uncle raised his index finger towards the ceiling. He looked like Plato in Raphael’s painting that hangs in the Vatican.
“God exists,” he said, wagging his extended finger to fuel his conviction.
I nodded expectantly.
“God exists,” he repeated. And then added, “But I don’t believe in him.”
I was charged with taking him to the Metropolitan Museum. From my parent’s house, the commute would involve a bus ride, a change of two subways, and a walk of several blocks. Though I hadn’t thought to ask, he assured me that the trip wouldn’t tax him in the least. I was, however, concerned how I’d look on the streets of Manhattan with an old man in tow. Nothing says “cool” as convincingly as a too-large NYU sweatshirt in 1980, after all.
We bought a couple of pretzels smeared with mustard from a street vendor. We sat on a bench in Central Park. We studied street artists at their work. We went into the Metropolitan and straight to the Impressionists since I knew nothing beyond them.
Dressed in July in a three-piece suit no longer in fashion even in the Old Country, my great uncle simply shuffled, hardly pausing, from one painting to the next while muttering the painter’s name. “These paintings,” he said with an encompassing sweep of his beefy hand, “I know them from books, pictures.”
He liked Asian art, I knew, so maybe he wanted to visit the Chinese and Japanese galleries?
He didn’t answer but pointed to a small nude by Emile Chambreau. “They were almost dead by then, but I knew a few of these guys from my studies in Paris,” he said, “Especially that anus-of-a-goat bastard there.”
His face suddenly brightened. “Can we see the icons?” he asked. “Are there any icons here? There must be. This is the Metropolitan Museum. Where are the icons?”
There were icons. Rooms full. Endless saints, the Madonna, and Christ after Christ after Christ: from birth, to crucifixion, to resurrection in eternal replay.
“Stop slumping your ass on that bench, you’re not an old man,” my great uncle called from across the room. Thankfully, Armenian isn’t widely understood. “Come see this one here,” he said, adjusting his glasses to it.
His hair wild like the dark animal skin he was wearing, John the Baptist’s bearded face emerged from a gold background.
“The gold is living, even after all these centuries. See?” My great uncle was air-tapping at the icon so vigorously, I thought we’d be thrown out.
“That’s the red foundation,” he explained, “under the gold foil. It’s that red that glows through.” He added, “Like the heart’s blood that makes you a good man, or not.”
Gold, the chemical symbol of it “Au.” I knew its exact position on the Periodic Table, that extraordinary tabulation of Nature’s elements showcasing an ordered and therefore comprehensible Universe. I remembered, correctly, the number of electrons around the nucleus. I knew that gold foil was only a few atoms thick at most.
“Pigments are mixed in egg yolk to make the paints. Imagine that,” he chuckled, “egg yolk.”
My mom has an icon at home. Its wood is worm-eaten and largely covered in a sheet of thin, tooled silver, the faces of Mother and Child peering through windows in the metal. I didn’t know until then that my great uncle had repaired the icon years ago and had presented it to my mom when she was born. And that, once upon a time, he was a maker of icons as well.
“But I had to stop making them,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, “Why’d you have to stop?”
“Let’s go eat something first,” he suggested, “then I’ll tell you. I’m hungry, aren’t you?”
I’m much the fan of pizza and suggested a nearby pizzeria on Lexington. We walked over and ordered a couple of slices each. “Because,” he finally answered while fiddling with the ring he wore on his pinkie, “I had to become a simple man.” Then he tapped his forehead twice with his index finger. “That’s why,” he said and shrugged his shoulders as if that were that.
I nodded as if I had understood what he meant.
My great uncle was large and his jowls hung low on either side of his chin. He had a way of resting his nose when he talked on the tips of his fingers, his hands held together in a semblance of prayer. As did so many others in Eastern Europe after the Second World War, he slept in a heavy woolen overcoat should he be escorted to Siberia. During the First World War in a much Older Country, his father died of cholera helping survivors of genocide as they staggered back from the desert. I’m here today in front of my laptop computer and second espresso because of my family’s sacrifices, struggles, tenacity, and hope. A favorite line in a favorite song from my college days was “Hope you’re proud of this, your son.”
“You know that after the War another hoard of monsters took Romania,” my great uncle continued.
I nodded again, knowing the history from my father.
“Well,” he explained, “they wanted propaganda posters from me.”
He removed his glasses to wipe them clean with a napkin. “I told them I painted flowers mostly, flowers and trees, fruit, that sort of thing.”
With his glasses back on, he continued, “And I lied. I wasn’t very good with the human form, I told them. I was a painter of flowers, that’s all.”
He looked away. “They believed me. The authorities hadn’t bothered,” he cleared his throat, “to familiarize themselves with my work.”
And he added, “So you see, I became a simple man. Not even madmen can find fault with flowers.”
Decades ago when his little sister, my grandmother, accepted a marriage proposal, my great uncle asked if her beau had promised her the moon and stars.
My grandmother answered, possibly disappointed, “Why, no.”
To which my great uncle said, “Then marry him.”
We split another slice of pizza down the middle, and my great uncle outlined the dimensions of his icons in the air. “The ones I made were never very large. They had to be portable, you understand. I’d chisel recesses in the back of the wood and set in crossbeams to protect against warping.” He pointed to the fluorescent lights. “That was between the Wars. Long ago, before those things. Next, I’d apply the gesso,” he continued, “a strong white base . . .”
“Were they hard to make, the icons?” I asked.
“Of course they were hard to make, what do you think?” he answered.
He considered his fingernails yellow with age. “The whole time making them . . . every single mongrel-abortion of a boss I ever had, donkey coworkers, lunatic girlfriends—I’d be cursing them all.” He arched his eyebrows with the momentum of his tale.
“There was this one bloated-dog-of-a-mediocrity,” he chuckled. “We were restoring an old painting. It was huge, that painting, and the boss put the two of us on it.” He pushed his half of the pizza slice my way. “How do you stomach this stuff?” he asked.
“I just like it,” I answered.
“Well. As we worked,” he continued, “the bastard would talk and talk and talk. What would take two sentences to say, he’d take a day at it. I wanted to stuff his testicles down his rodent throat.”
He started chuckling again, “For him especially I made up delightful scenarios. He’d be forced to kneel down to my genius because I won the Nobel Prize.”
“They don’t give the Nobel for painting,” I, the chemistry and biology double major with a good smacking of mathematics, pointed out.
My great uncle’s tongue pushed against the flesh of his cheek. “I know they don’t give the ‘Nobel’ for painting,” he said quietly.
“I just meant that . . .” I tried for an explanation.
But before I could find one, he rocked his head from side to side, “This world is already too full of men convinced they are right. Don’t become one of them.”
Had he not been certain that he was right, I wondered, how could Einstein have accomplished what he had? In those early days of my consciousness, I believed that glistening truth was to be found only through Science. I actually spray painted Schrödinger’s equation on a concrete wall late at night. Today, I simply believe that all human artifacts—whether equations, symphonies, novels, or religions—are only tentative working answers to life’s conundrums and mostly longings.
My great uncle touched my hand. “It is good to be young, yes?” he said and stretched to ruffle my hair. “This is the ring,” he said.
“What ring?” I asked.
“The one those mediocre-dung-heaps would be forced to kiss. Like they do the Pope’s.”
He held the ring in his palm, studied it for some time, and handed it to me. The old silver setting held a polished dark green stone. The stone was engraved with the figure of a female warrior with wings holding a chalice.
“Have you read Dostoyevsky?” my great uncle asked out of nowhere discernible.
“Uh, I study science at college.”
“All the more reason to read him,” he advised me. “If Dostoyevsky had discovered relativity, it would have been ‘Alyosha squared’ instead of the speed of light. Less horrific, don’t you think? Anyway,” he continued, “I painted my icons with those insane stories of revenge going around and around in my head.” His hand made circles in the air.
“I was terrified that it would seep into my work, all that hate,” he admitted. “That no matter how well crafted the icons were and how beautiful they might seem, they’d be destroyed things, vile and ugly in their spirit.”
He looked up at me and removed his glasses again. “The final burnishing of the gold leaf—I’d do that with a piece of polished agate. But when I finished an icon, when I finally finished burnishing it . . .”
With his arms sweeping in front of him, he indicated the air surrounding us. “That hate wasn’t going into my icons at all, you see,” he smiled a little, but his lips were pursed. “After many years I finally understood that it was,” and he swept at the air again, “just disappearing.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because of the gold foil. Because when I finally applied it to my icon, all the nonsense in my head stopped. I’d be working in absolute silence, in those last wonderful, dear hours.
“But don’t think the cursing wouldn’t start again with each new one,” he added. “Because it did—to no end. As soon as I chose the wood for it.”
I looked up from my lap to his face.
“But when one was finished . . .” He held his hands out to me, palms cupped as if for water.
“For a moment at least, I could look at what I held in my hands and know that I made something I loved.”
* * *
Death, when it comes for my mother, will find much more than a sack of used up flesh and bones. The greatest expanse of her longing remains unrequited, her soul never emptied of it. The dementia to which she’s fallen traps it there.
Just today she’s told me that small black stones now line the entrance to her parent’s home. For her, her mother still lives. As does her mother’s mother who read destinies in spent tea leaves at the bottom of cups. Whether it’s any consolation I don’t know, but my mother has sweetly escaped the confines of time.
Now, at my midlife, or most likely somewhat beyond, I have installed a handheld showerhead in my mom’s apartment minutes from where I live. I’m praying that her dementia is another bullet she’s taken for me. But there are moments of reprieve.
On a subway platform not too long ago, I saw a dark woman in a red coat blowing soap bubbles and laughing with delight as the grey tunnel, scurrying rats and all, turned into champagne. When the subway arrived, and its doors opened to let her in, she chose to stay with her bubbles. I stayed behind, too, my eyes closed lest the woman become candle flame.
Several months after my great uncle’s return to the Old Country, I received a letter from him. My mom read it to me, since I can’t read Armenian. After the usual greetings and well wishes, he’d written, simply, “Read Dostoyevsky.” And in the letter he’d included a tiny icon the size of a postage stamp. Painted on a piece of stiff cardboard and adorned with glowing gold, it was the John the Baptist we’d seen together.
Were he here now, I’m sure he’d remind me that my mother was never really longing for a new showerhead. Perhaps he’d suggest that a small inattentive breath or cough could send gold foil floating away. Maybe he’d smile to see his ring still on my finger after all these years.
He died at home, in his own bed, when he was ninety-five years old. I felt sadness appropriate to the passing of a relative I’d met only once since leaving Romania in my early childhood. But of late, the dead and dying of my family have become my pantheon. Their stories collide in me, and it’s good to know that I’ve been paying some attention, scant as it may have seemed to them. It takes a long time to understand your own origins.
When I’m in front of the classroom deriving the very same scientific equation for the hundredth time, I’d love it just for once to get at a totally different answer. Not because I messed up, though that is certainly something that keeps my students on their toes. Not from some inattention on my part. But because the universe, at that very moment, had whispered to its constituents, “Oh, why the fandango not?” And I overheard, just enough to slink curvature into the apparatus of science, bending its rigid ear more fully to the wild delight of the world.
In the meantime, because I am still breathing, I want to hold in my hands something I’ve made and that I love. Hopefully, should that ever happen, a few goat-anus-dog bastards will be around to bear witness. Longing is one rapacious fucker.
* * *
In an ancient church in the old, Old Country, the country of my great uncle’s birth, there lives an icon. It was a gift from my great uncle. He made it with his hands. The Madonna’s face is my young mother’s. She’s rendered forever in egg tempera and gold foil.
Carey Bagdassarian is on the faculty of The College of William and Mary where he’s working on a roadmap towards a sweeter science.