George and Jean
In the beginning, before Giulio, before those others, who then became part of my life, there was George.
Golden jade dragons:
George was, perhaps, the first of the people who had meant something to me. I had never had a crush on my high school classmates – indeed, never had a date. I was a loner, then as now.
Was he a father figure? Perhaps. But more than anything else, he was someone who had tastes I could identify with, with whom there was somehow a synonymy. And I knew that he, too, was pleased to have someone who could understand him and the things he loved.
I don’t think I was twenty yet. First year of junior college behind me, and a summer where I hoped to make some money. Our sociology class had toured a shoe shop and I wondered if they didn’t need extra help. So I got a summer job, covering the heels of shoes and making bows. Even now, I can smell the glue that had to be refilled from a big can, and see the dust floating in the beams of sunlight. The texture and feel of the leather fascinated me.
I was set at a bench with two older women. Lillian, more experienced, was a warm talkative woman, large in her movements, curiously perceptive, for when the boss had needed someone to work with him on covering the wedgies, she had suggest me, a young college girl, sensing that we would like each other. The first day he came by, Lillian gave a nod and said “That’s the boss, so show that you’re busy working.” That was really no problem for I soon learned to move fast in a harmonious pattern. The “boss” or owner was a small spare man with an eagle nose and lively eyes. Scottish in this New England town, and with a granddaughter almost my age. He showed me how to cover the wedgies and make different kinds of bows and somehow conversations began. I soon found myself telling him how I loved Rembrandt while he asked me if I knew of Tagliavini, a great tenor. We were somehow kindred souls and I wondered with whom else he shared his love of Persian rugs and Chinese jades.
On weekends, sorting apples on my father’s farm, their red shapes cool in my hands and the fragrance filling my nostrils, I would think of our conversations and sing songs to the breeze —There’s a tree in the meadow, with a stream running by, and on that tree are carved these words, I’ll love you till I die. And no one knew why I was singing. It was, in a sense, my secret love.
One day, the sun shining in the dusty window, he brought in a jade bowl – a yellow jade bowl with dragons curving around the sides, and left it with me till closing time.
Now where again would I find someone who would give me golden jade dragons glowing in the sunlight?
And then there was my dear friend, Jean:
The green cloth-covered basket.
Old mandarins with long sparse beards
parade around the sides.
It stands up on a shelf, a kind of catchall.
A present was not called for
but it meant that I was in her thoughts
even before our friendship grew in range and depth
with the passing of the years
When she crossed Piazza Duomo, you were afraid the wind might sweep her up and carry her over the cliff. Fragile, slight, yet with an iron will, GEO had sent her to Orvieto to cover the shoring up of the cliff after a sizeable chunk slipped down into the valley, endangering the Cathedral itself. With unusual speed, the Italian government had set aside funds to, as the article was then titled, save this jewel.
Jean Potter Chelnov. That’s how I came into the story for she needed an interpreter. I was delighted and it was the beginning of a friendship that continued through the years until, on my last visit to the US as I was about to go on to San Francisco to see her, I received a phone call that she had passed away. Still I had the memories, and the letters.
As a young twenty year old, she had been sent to Alaska to write about the bush pilots, a book recently republished. She had married Anatole Chelnov, a Russian, who represented the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and with him lived in any number of countries.
Eventually, this fragile tiny white-haired woman stayed with me in the country and I learned to be patient as she prepared herself in the morning, taking her gold pills, prescribed by her ayurveda teacher Deepak Chopra, and eating her 8 almonds. I later also helped her interviewing pietra dure craftsmen in Florence (now there seems to be only one left) for an article she was working on.
Our correspondence, strangely enough, was often hand-written and sent by mail, so that time passed between one letter and another. It was not yet the age of emails. In July of 1992, I wrote, citing Edmund Morris: “Why, in the age of voice mail, is script still the preferred style for messages of great intimacy? Because it is both direct and enduring. Spoken words, whether recorded at long distance or whispered across an inch of pillow, may have greater impact, but they evaporate at once, like splashes of acetone. Hand-written words mean more the more they are read, and time only increases their first force.”
It is true, there is nothing quite as touching, as moving, as finding an old letter and rereading it. Although I would gladly destroy some letters I still have, those of my mother I treasure for they reveal her warm imaginative personality. She died in April of 1995 and Jean was in a sense a life-saver. Letters. Fragments of people, of personalities. More clearly revealed than mere day to day contact.
Poe’s words keep returning to my mind – “the fever called ‘living’”. . . it is sometimes like a fever. It burns and consumes you –it heightens your awareness – and when it calms down, you live less intensely, you manage to recuperate your strength. But the fever comes back –perhaps I should call it ‘malaria’.
When my mother died, I wrote Jean that for me old age was like a disease, an inevitable disease with which we must come to terms. One ignores it, one accepts the limitations, one can even realize what the advantages and privileges are. For old age has the experience that youth can never have, and therefore a richness of awareness. Our many-layered lives which build up in depth and richness as time passes. In the end to be blown away, to explode into nothing – but that is not true either for the particles of our lives will rain down on other lives around us. Not a bad concept. We become so full of feelings, experiences, impressions that our bodies at a certain point become too fragile and we explode like a star, a rocket. And if we are lucky the sparks ignite new fires.
It was not easy to accustom myself to being alone, not having someone to take care of every day. Being more aware of my surroundings was one way of returning to normality.
Sharing my feelings with Jean became part of my daily life. “Today I took a run up to the Badia to check on things for the guidebook I was translating. Of course the frescoes are in restoration here as elsewhere, and only the Soprintendenza has the key. But outside it was perfectly lovely. And I didn’t mind being alone – almost rejoiced in being alone and being able to ‘feel’ the surroundings with the wind blowing my hair awry and then rushing through the poplars and olives, side swept, and the russet field of wheat down in the valley. A bird flew by and gleamed white as he turned. Orvieto rose up in the background, slightly hazy and further on the valley and the mountains. Despite the background noise of cars and motorcycles, which the wind was unable to drown out, and the gleam of the bird’s calls, there was a sense of peace and space.”
In the last paragraph of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the old Abbess meditates: “Soon we shall die and all memory of those five (who fell with the bridge) will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
As Thornton Wilder described her, the abbess was a sort of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. And to give this sort of love is something most of us are incapable of. We give our small jot of love to those we know, as best we can. And perhaps it is in the giving that we truly live – although I still need feedback of some sort. Dear Jean, how important it is to know that you are there and I can keep writing you, and that sooner or later you will respond. And if Leo were no longer, my rosary would be broken and I could no longer build onto the string of beads. Those to whom I write – if like you they receive my thoughts – are more real than the people who share my physical space.
Jean is now still with me thanks also to the over 50 letters she wrote me between 1986 and 1996. They range from a single page to nine or more. Many were hand-written, often on lined yellow notebook paper, others typed. Particularly in the beginning, they regarded Orvieto and the city itself and what was being done to save it.
When she was working on her article on Orvieto, which included interviews of various kinds, resulted in an unexpected friendship with Gualverio Michelangeli, the artisan known for his whimsical animals and figures in wood. He died prematurely and on July 18, 1986, when Jean was back in San Francisco, she wrote: “Erika, how strange “fate” is. We must talk about it sometime. I like to think that Gualverio may have been extricated from the circumstances stressing him in this life to continue more freely in another. I can’t believe that the essence of him, his spirit, is destroyed – so far as I am concerned, this makes no sense. But of course spirit – which is so very different from the body. A spiritual sphere of existence does exist.”
Somehow, that spiritual sphere of existence did often surface with Jean. (in rereading her letters I too feel her presence and wish I could still write her). In the meantime her husband Andy also passed away before their projected visit to Europe and the places dear to him and to her. Her son and daughter had lives of their own to live, yet in her solitude she was never far from those she had loved and felt close to.
“Last night, at a loss for what to do, I felt so sad, I took a crystal ball that my son gave me that had been hanging in the window by my desk to catch the sunlight — I took it down and hung it around my marionette’s neck (Michelangeli had given her a carpenter marionette), just touching the wood plane of the “falegname” (crystal, it’s said, has positive properties, qualities, for health and good, luck of is this only an old wives tale?). Anyway I hung it there as I wept. This morning the sunshine created a rainbow on the falegname’s wonderful hands. Enough! But I was thinking of Gualverio and wondering what has suddenly happened to that unique formation of energy that was his spirit, his mind and soul, —- apart from his body —- why should it (the spirit) of him cease to exist, when according to physicists no energy ever is lost …”
We continued to exchange thoughts, to which the packets of letters bear witness. Writing for me, as for Jean, was something we could do whenever we wished, was an uninterrupted ongoing conversation. At the time of her death, on December 14, 1996, she was working on her memoirs. “Lifelight: a Memoir” for her 10-year -old granddaughter. The word, “lifelight,” was her own invention, a word that has not yet passed the test for inclusion in a dictionary. “Still, you may sense what it means.” she wrote. It means that something, mysterious but real, that shines through life and – gently but as powerfully – defies cynicism. You have met it here and there, I am sure, despite all the money, greed, carelessness and violence that are destroying civilization today. It shines through life in a way to move us, delight us, in its many forms. Curiosity. Friendliness. Compassion. Tolerance. Love.”
I could not help thinking of Thornton Wilder and the old Abbess. It is almost as if Jean were speaking. “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
I particularly treasure her letter of February 8, 1994, atoning for a rather lengthy silence. A mutual understanding, a friendship that like love is “the only survival”.
“In hospital with bad virus, could neither eat nor drink. Kept getting weaker and began to wonder how I would ever survive. Tania (little granddaughter) scrawled a note at school “Dear Nonie I hope you git betr soon” and Sandra (my daughter) tacked it up on the wall and I kept staring at it and asking myself HOW?
… I want to tell you how it happened that I did get better. It seems a miracle. One night, about 4 a.m., I woke to see a crescent moon sailing in the sky (through the window of the hospital room) and near it was a huge bright star. (It was about January 4 or so, I hear that this “star” may have been a planet). In any case the sight transformed me. I kept thinking “Such pure loveliness” and the marvelous sight seemed to tell me that I could take comfort, I would live, somehow … When I shut my eyes the crescent moon and the star seemed to come into my head and then I noticed that I had begun to yawn and yawn, and it seemed a good sign … and then I realized sometime later that I was craving scrambled eggs. I was HUNGRY! The nausea started to abate and I gathered strength to tell my doctor he had to, HAD to let me go home, as I could not eat here … nor sleep … I guess I was pretty eloquent and firm and he said “You can go home tomorrow.” Erika what HEAVEN. They sent me home in an ambulance and carried me up the steps and from that moment I began to improve in all ways. What I want to tell you is about the HAPPINESS. First just to find Sauvage (the cat), who trembled at the sight of me and has been following me around and sleeping next to my legs ever since. Then to be alive, such happiness. I came home on the 11th and now we are into February and I am still so delightfully HAPPY every day. Just to waken and see the sun rise. To eat (I am hungry as a wolf). To read books. To hear music. Something has happened to me that I am no longer feeling stressed about time pressure, about writing professionally, about “all I have to do” – I am just taking it easy and enjoying life. Reading a book of Rilke poetry Andy (her husband) once gave me to read that had stayed in my beside table unread. I don’t know if I can convey it to you, but I seem to float through the days …”
Isn’t love the leitmotif of our lives? Some loves last, some don’t. Some grow gradually, unexpectedly; some flare up and then die down. Some burn steadily and never leave us, hidden or out in the open, cherished memories to be treasured, part of our lives and who we are forever.