A weathered gramophone ponders in the corner of the dinning room. Retired, yet at peace with its place in the world. Noble. Its scuffed brass softly mirrors the amber of the glowing hearth. It broods, in silence, on its mahogany pedestal like an old grandfather whom we seat out of the way of the running children. Sitting it is not so easily toppled. But it is not entirely for the grandfather’s sake. For he too may erupt unexpectedly, cane flying, grumbling words not heard for an era. No, he wouldn’t. But the potential nonetheless demands a certain deference. Grandfathers are creatures of tempers. The grand-children do not yet know what the children remember of a time less peaceful. Like a grandfather, yes, who has spoken all the words he would ever speak, the gramophone now merely listens. Through its dull brass horn it takes in the tremendous scandal and commotion that is life. Once the centre-piece, now shelved as a memento of everything it has once given; as a witness to the legacy it has inspired. Might any of the grand-children, one may wonder, been conceived on a night of folly and excitement brought on by the parties this house once held? Perhaps it is inappropriate to think such things. But it is a curious inversion of roles nonetheless. The gramophone’s brass horn was a giver once, spilling music into a room, flushing cheeks, throwing feet hither and tither. And now, now it is old and hasn’t been in working order for year. It simply sits in its corner and listens, its horn receiving the music of life. One has to wonder whether the scratched vinyl that lays on the turntable, underneath the long-stationary needle—the self-same disk that might have moved to romance or tears—whether it might now bear the symphony of the years engraved into its black dusty furrows. So that one would need only gyrate its rusty crank, to spill forth the intricate music of a house. Of a home. Or of a family reunion such as this one.
‘Help your sisters set the table.’
‘Let her be. Please? You know she doesn’t like that.’
‘It’s a ‘55. You wouldn’t believe how much work it took to get it running again.’
‘He says he’ll take me to see the whole world, you know.’
‘That’s what they like I guess. It’s their “thing”.’
And before dinner is over, the accidental traditions of such gatherings go through their motions. The broken crystal, the fumbling of truths known by all but left unspoken, the wine stains, the water rings on wood, the scuffles that end in tears, the embers leaping onto the carpet, the burnt dish… A mild chaos threaded in the weave of things, that may easily be dismissed as a by-product of such reunions, by anyone but the elderly. Grand-parents hold the secret knowledge of such things. For them, the past holds many more of the secrets of life. Ask them what they remember most. Go ahead. They will not say the chicken or the egg. They will say the coyote. The cold winters. The troublesome rooster. To them the interwoven chaos is no more a by-product than colour is to a scarf.
One does not, for example, ask children to be quiet because silence is more desirable. Silence only inherits its rich relief by being a brief surcease from noise. Children are life burbling over. Children are untamed chaos. That is not to say, pure chaos. Life is a chaotic substance, not so easily handled. Left wild, unguided, children would be easily overpowered by chaos. However, the converse can be equally undesirable. Express excess anger, disappointment, annoyance, indifference… at the manifestations of chaos, and a child will live a dull, repressed existence.
Order is perhaps best perceived as placing a frame around a painting, or placing a plate under food. While the painting and the food may very well survive on their own, the frame and the plate acquire their sense only through their task, through their content. And yet, haven’t we all, at one time or another, cultivated the belief that pure order is desirable? This belief wears many disguises through the span of a life. It is the belief that all we desire in the world is for the children to sleep, to grow up, to leave the house; it is the end of a workday, it is retirement, it is heaven. It is the lie we believe so as to get us through the, at times excessive, chaos of life.
When the chaos becomes overwhelming, we might easily come to forget that it is merely the pause we require, not the change. For, in believing the promise of pure order, one becomes obsessed with the non-life. The state of peace that surrounds life on both sides.
So brief is our hiatus from non-life, that it is fathomable that our souls prove such limited instruments for life’s expression. It takes a special courage to embrace life. Only a few truly possess the depth of soul to allow chaos to express itself through them. It is a rare gift. As powerful a gift as it is a curse to those who constantly deny chaos, and fashion their life to mirror the ways of non-life.
The gramophone regained focus. The music of the gathering returned to my ears and I sighed. Freed from the fertile bog of my thoughts, an inexplicable fear suddenly washed over me. There was a precarious order to my thoughts that I could not bear losing. I politely excused myself from the table and wandered off towards the washroom. On the way, I changed my mind and headed upstairs. I found my bag in the guestroom, and rummaged through it to find my notebook and a pen. The lively hubbub of the house simmered behind as I, once again, wallowed in thought. With the ink of my pen, I sought to frame the chaos therein.
The point of the matter, it seems, I wrote, still unsure where the inspiration would guide me, is that what is often referred to as a fear of death is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is an obsession with death. A fear of life. Of its chaotic substance. It is right that we should fear life in many more ways than we fear non-life. But we, as humans, are defined by the courage with which we welcome chaos. That is to say, how we live. Indeed, the unique way we each possess of flirting with chaos has come to be called personality; while the way we mold it to our desires is called character. But the rarest gift of all is to possess a capacity to let chaos do the molding. This, I believe, is called vulnerability, and it is the highest expression of humankind.
Satisfied, I traced over the words once more.
So, it stands to reason, I added, postscriptum, that the converse is true. A true fear of death, is an obsession with life. An infatuation with chaos.
What a curious distinction to make. And for it to get me in such a state? Shrugging, I placed the pen and notebook back into my bag, and returned to the live theater below.
After dinner, the ritual carried on its usual course. The table is cleared, the kids are put to bed, the guests leave, and the embers are left to smoulder without artifice. The house quietens. It is an odd ritual that leads a house to such a state. The hushed atmosphere is a direct symptom of the life that was momentarily unleashed within its walls. Atmosphere is right. Not silence. This residual atmosphere is so pervasive that, to some extent, even those who did not partake in or witness its cause, might yet sense it. It is a withdrawal, an aftermath. Just as silence is a richer experience in the presence of a crackling hearth, even as it perturbs the very silence we come to enjoy with its crackling.
Sleep found most of the family in the later hours of the evening. As for myself, my mind was too restless for some reason. Going to bed in such a state was out of the question. So, I found my way to the fireplace, to join my wife’s cousin in the second of two armchairs. Together we sat in silence, gazing pensively into the fire. A rare intimacy blossomed between us. Though I might have been as content to bask in the moment; in the fertile wake of so much commotion, so much life, an unnameable intuition moved me to speak.
‘How life leaves an imprint.’
Enrique, my cousin-in-law, greeted my observation with a slow pensive smile. My observation was but a tentative bond between us. I could have easily chosen to surrender the attempt and let the matter rest. But, instead, I chose to substantiate the direction in which I was guiding the moment we shared. I felt once more the vessel of some curious inspiration, which I knew would haunt me if left unexpressed.
‘It’s like the heat of a fire,’ I extended a hand to the embers, ‘but it takes a different sensitivity to perceive it.’
I could tell that Enrique was confused with my vague observations and was generously waiting for me to organise my thoughts. He reached a hand towards the fire to feel its radiating heat, perhaps searching, there, for a clue to my ramblings. I readjusted my angle of entry into the elusive subject of my inspiration, and dove deeper into it.
‘It’s about Enrique.’ I said, perhaps cryptically. ‘Your grandfather.’
‘Enrique? But, he passed away five years ago now.’
‘And you never met him.’
‘Exactly.’ I said, sensing that we were finally getting somewhere. That I was narrowing in on my intuition, even as poor Enrique was surely drifting farther away from comprehension. Nonetheless, the ephemeral bond we shared felt substantial enough to risk the curious confession I was about to make.
‘You know, I used to get into arguments with my twin brother about things that I’m sure happened to me, and he says happened to him. To this day, there are things which even our parents and siblings can adjudicate on our behalf.’
‘Really?’ he asked, interested, though surely wondering how the anecdote would tie in. ‘Well?’
‘Well, it’s like that with Enrique, your grandfather. I have… memories of the man. Memories of…’ I paused, studying Enrique’s eyes. I was about to tread on delicate ground. To speak on the dead, on those whom you have not known in life, and to someone who has known the person intimately for the breadth of his life; was to teeter precariously on the edge of desecration, of blaspheming. I never would have believed that I might one day tread this ground, let alone willfully. Whether I was brave or reckless to seize upon this opportunity, would be judged only by my capacity to do justice to my insight. Seeing a willingness to breach the subject, a hint of curiosity behind Enrique’s confusion, I chose to push on.
‘I have memories of his… impact on my life. I sense him telling me to love her better.’
‘Love? Love whom?’
‘All the time. His granddaughter, I mean. My wife. How… How can he transcend so far?’
‘There’s so much of him, here, amongst his vast family. The imprint left behind by his life is… omnipresent. Everything… everything is a homage to what he represented. The love… The LOVE.’
Enrique, greeted my words fondly. I could tell they instantly found a resonance chamber within him. I seized this opening.
‘The way he lives in your collective imagination… How can he transcend so far? In his children. In his children’s children. And the more of you—his descendants—present, the more substantial his presence.’
‘Like tonight, yes.’
‘Death must have been the lightest thing for how much of his soul still resides, here, amongst the living. His life takes almost corporeal form amongst you all. And perhaps… perhaps having known nothing other than this manifestation of him, it is somehow easier for me to sense him. You, who have known the living man, might not recognise the ways in which he is still here.’
Enrique pondered this.
‘You know,’ I added, trying to illustrate my point further, ‘I was contemplating the old gramophone earlier. If the music it once played inspired romance, intimacy, joy, melancholia… then, everything that follows bears its imprint. So fickle and ever-changing is life, that the slightest of details will impact its course. Was the gramophone not here, for example, would I have found the inspiration that led me to this confession?
Let’s paint with a broader brush. You, for example, are so familiar with your culture, that you might not realise how it has come to shape who you are. You might not connect how the lack of a functional justice system, has moulded a strong sense of honour in you. You are too intimately linked, too invested, too engrossed; and so, you do not possess the perspective necessary to notice. A foreigner, however, possessing just such a perspective, might effortlessly pinpoint these influences and their effects.’
‘And so it is with my grandfather?’ Enrique asked.
‘Yes. I think. Through no virtue of my own, you understand. Simply by being an outsider. Your grandfather’s spirit endures with such brilliance. Through shared stories, yes; but also through shared tears, shared laughter, shared silence. Even the inanimate bears his imprint. The hat on the newspaper, the radio in the distance, the swaying breeze, the sweat, the five o’clock shadow on the pool, where he used to exercise. Even twice removed. The clink of metal windchimes might bring to mind the clink of ice against glass of his afternoon drinks. The wet kiss of translucent geckos might bring to mind the wet kiss of his cigar ends. How he transcends. Even to me.
What am I? Thrice, perhaps four times removed. Even I, who have never known him in life, remember how he would take me aside and inquire about me. How he could make you feel so… significant. That the world revolved around you, in that moment. I remember the Cuban music in the background as he read the news in the shade. How he would debate endlessly, insightfully. I remember how he would unravel a piece of candy, and the sound it would make against his teeth.’
‘How would you know this’, Enrique asked with a confused smile.
‘Am I wrong?’
‘No… No, you are not exactly wrong.’
‘You see? I can go further and add one more layer of separation, to the subtle manifestations of an era flowing softly beneath everyone’s notice. The maid and the chauffeur fanning flies as they exchanged whispered words of the worldly; of health and tragedy. Of a shame long past. The subtle craft embedded in hats, in portraits, in table-mats, in artifacts, in electro-appliances, in wicker baskets, in newspaper clippings… The era reminds me of him and he reminds me of the era. The grandiosity of it. Of BEING an era. Of being effortlessly iconic.’
‘And you say he speaks to you?’
‘Yes, sorry, I’m rambling aren’t I?’
‘No no. I’m curious that’s all.’
‘Yes, in a way, he speaks to me. I know it sounds crazy, who he was, who he still is, through all of you, speaks to me. As loud as our present conversation, if perhaps he lacks the vocal cords.’
‘And he speaks to you of loving his granddaughter more?’
‘Better. To love her better, yes.’
‘Well… See, where exactly do ideas come from? Sometimes, it is possible recognise the path behind them, the path that has led you to them. It’s possible to recognise that, in some way, an idea is inherently yours. Born of life lessons and of your unique perception of life. Your path has led you to it.’
‘Well, for the life of me, one thought escapes this trend. You see, it is not a lesson, or an idea, or a philosophy that could have been manufactured by the combination of my mind and my life experience. Not that I disagree with it. It’s just… foreign. And that idea, perhaps it will sound strange, is that women are the highest expression of humanity.’
Enrique smiled at the concept, and I allowed that it was indeed a strange concept. Though, whether there were the buds of a knowing comprehension there, I could not yet tell.
‘I am a… temperate equalist’, I said, at length. ‘I believe that equality should be striven for, insomuch as it does not come at the detriment of our individual traits as men and women. In the same way that I believe that hardship is a spectrum, and that to end all hardship, is inevitably to end all passion. And so, that women are the highest expression of humanity… It’s simply not a belief that I would naturally espouse. We are different, men and women. And to compare is invariably to undervalue the truest expression of our individuality, of our uniqueness.’
‘The highest expression of humanity’, I continued, pondering the concept. ‘There’s a tone of worship there, which I would normally not abide. And yet, I find myself agreeing with the concept. This idea that men are unparallelly suited to the task; to the protection of the vulnerability required to reach such a height of expression. A vulnerability that we, as men, do not possess. Not in the same measure, in the same capacity. Our vulnerability is sealed, protected from the world. While theirs has this capacity to remain open. It is at once a gift of sensitivity, and a curse of weakness. They are more susceptible to the chaos that is life. And thus, have the potential of becoming better vessels for its expression.
And, just as abusers might exploit that vulnerability; at the other end of the spectrum, men possess the ability—and, I’ve come to believe, the responsibility—to enable this expression of life. That it is, in a way, a path to our highest expression as men too. For, to enable such heights of expression is inevitably to enable humanity to reach the heights of its potential expression.
Having fathered seven women, and being a grandfather to twelve more, your grandfather has birthed this belief, this enabling, this noble philosophy. And every time I am with a sufficient amount of his descendants, his presence is substantial enough for him to communicate this vision to me. That is to say, you are all pieces of the puzzle that has led me to meet him. To inherit his vision. To remedy the fact that I have not known him in life, having arrived in the family precisely on the year and a few months following his passing. I understand something now, something that he could not convey to me in life, but by some convoluted means of fate, has conveyed to me posthumously.
I am with my wife for this reason. We’ve been together for four years. And I’ve only now grasped this. It is the key to understanding the incongruity of who she is. I have never known a more noble soul and, simultaneously, one less enabled. She is a flickering flame. Shield her from the wind and she will bring warmth and light to the world. Leave her to the wind…
I will admit, she is ill-equipped for the world as it is now. As an heir to your grandfather’s vision, she too has been taught the nobility of cultivating her vulnerability, her capacity to remain an apt vessel for life. But, the world is becoming increasingly faithless and misguided. And a vulnerability such as hers is… too easy a prey. It is too easily judged unsustainable or inauthentic or taken advantage of. And so, she is divested of the tool with which she has learned to interact with life.
I… I am of two minds on the subject. To my endemic reasoning, there is a recklessness to enabling such vulnerability. And the potential height of expression may not be worth the risk of failure. Your grandfather, however, instills in me the courage of the opposite belief. When I witness the true beauty of his vision, in your grandmother, in his daughters, I go through such a profound paradigm shift. I see the potential latent in my wife. I see her wayward path, how the world has threatened her flame; and I awaken to the tremendous responsibility I inherited. The responsibility, but so too the potential reward of such a path.
And indeed, when my wife and I travel away from your extended family for long periods of time, I sometimes lose sight of the responsibility bestowed upon me. We both begin to stray in our path. I, as a defender, and an enabler. She as a worthy vessel. Then, with every return to the familial nest, our faith is renewed. Here, where near-twenty women, heirs of your grandfather’s vision, fearlessly pursue the noble philosophy of vulnerability. Here, where your grandmother still lives as an enduring exemplar, an archetype, of the standard to be aspired to. Here where the men, whether related by blood or relationship, endeavour to be worthy of his example. Here, your grandfather speaks to me. He reminds me of my vow. Helps me remain worthy of my faith.’
I took a deep breath as a burden, whose size I could not have fathomed, was suddenly alleviated by my unexpected confession.
‘I might be mistaken, of course,’ I said, after a moment of silence. ‘I work with a level of abstraction different to all of you. For, I do not possess the knowledge, but only the spirit of who he was. And what a spirit! To transcend life itself, to transcend generations, to transcend into a stranger, into me. The fragments of his soul leave an imprint even on that which it has never known.’
‘I’m sorry for my wordy confession,’ I added, a little embarrassed.
‘No… No, on the contrary, I’m honoured by your confession. I am perhaps a little confused that you would choose to confide in me.’
I thought about this a moment.
‘You, Enrique. Named after your grandfather. Perhaps there’s a symbolism there. Perhaps it’s simply happen-stance. Or perhaps some part of me believed that through you, my words might reach him. To say to him, that he may rest easy. That I understand now. That his granddaughter is in hands that will endeavour to be worthy of his vision. Of him.’
The last dancing embers in the hearth cast a pale glow upon us. Enrique and I parted ways shortly after these last words. The bond tethering us together, at last, dissolved. Sleep rested its heavy hand upon both our souls, and we stepped through the sleeping house to find the warmth of our respective beds. Before I retired, my path crossed that of the old gramophone, listening in the semi-darkness. I knew I would never speak this confession again. That I needn’t. Engraved as it was, now, in the furrows of this family’s rich, noble history.
© 2022 Etienne Robert. All rights reserved.