A farewell for the old artist RTC

June 02, 1995|By Bonni Goldberg

WHEN WE arrived he was seated on a lawn chair in the doorway to his house: a gaunt, disheveled man sporting a worn fedora and horn-rimmed glasses. My grandfather. There was no telling how long he'd been sitting there awaiting our arrival. He was strategically placed to discourage us from looking into the house's unkempt rooms; he didn't want us to think that he was unable to care for himself.

But we weren't there to question him, to argue or even to cajole: only to visit.

My mother wanted him to join us for the two-block drive to the place my grandmother, his wife, now lived: a nursing home. It wasn't the best in Brooklyn, N.Y., but it was the closest to his home. But he said he wasn't well and he needed to stay home.

We sat in the sun making small talk. He told jokes he had probably practiced for days to entertain us and to prove that his mind was still sharp and sound. At 89 he looked ancient; hoary, face unshaven, eyebrows tangled, ears sprouting tufts of hair, his skin crusty and stained, a dimness to his eyes. But he kept the conversation going, and after only a few minutes he started to speak with deep devotion about his greatest love -- his art. "Just a minute," he said. "Stay where you are; I'll be right back."

We obeyed, my mother checking her watch, calculating the time spent at the house, the time at the nursing home and, no doubt, the emotional cost of this visit. He returned holding a page torn from a magazine, the glossy paper now dull. He gave it to me. It was a review from the Gotham Guide of a one-man show of his paintings at a gallery on Christopher Street in Manhattan from decades ago. I read the review aloud as I had done on other visits with other reviews of his work. Only after I finished and, as usual, responded enthusiastically, instead of taking it back as he always did -- as if it were a sacred text -- he turned his head away as I tried to hand it to him.

"You keep it," he said.

I blinked. In that moment and the few that followed, on the first warm day of March, I saw him not as my grandfather but as the Old Artist, an archetype sitting in the doorway of a wood-and-stucco house anywhere: Italy, Greece, San Juan, Zaire. I was no longer only a granddaughter sitting beside him but a student, an apprentice at the knee of the Old Master who imparted his wisdom in a subtle way. And it wasn't March 1995 anymore, but rather a timeless moment where the sage elder passes something on and feels it received.

Neither of us spoke about what passed between us though it was so palpable my husband tried to capture the exchange on film. Once more we encouraged my grandfather to accompany us to the nursing home and he again refused. We kissed him again, climbed into the jeep and drove away.

In my grandmother's sour smelling nursing home room, we had to rouse her. She was slumped in a chair like a rag doll.

"Do you know who this is?" my mother asked pointing to me.

My grandmother raised her head, then shouted my name and lifted herself to kiss me.

Just then my grandfather appeared at the door a little winded from the short walk. He made his way to grandmother and kissed her, explaining that he felt much better and that he should've come with us in the car. He proceeded to show us how active her mind was -- she could spell every word he asked her.

After our visit, we dropped my grandfather at his house. He practically hopped out of the jeep. As we pulled away waving, I watched through the back window as he did a little soft shoe step and gave a full salute. He showed the spryness in his body and the sparkle in his eyes that I remembered but had not seen since I was a child. During the many weekends I spent with them, he would make every stuffed animal speak to me in a different voice, climb higher than I could on the monkey bars and gave me my own brushes and paint so I could work along side him in his studio.

The day after our visit my mother phoned me in Baltimore. They found my grandfather at home unconscious and paralyzed. At the hospital he was diagnosed as being terminally ill with cancer. A week later he died in his sleep. I returned to New York for his funeral though we had already said our goodbye back on the stoop in those timeless moments when his soul winked at mine.

5) Bonni Goldberg writes from Baltimore.

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