I’m travelling from town to town…
one day I might settle down…
but you know I hanker to be free…
drifting is the only life for me…
My husband’s cousin, Harvey, is a professor at Yale. He teaches Russian. Harvey was born in Canada, but when he sings this little ditty, his words are softly slurred by an Eastern European accent and he gets a dreamy look in his eye. I had never heard this song before, but the words resonate:
A-drifting, the world is my home…
I understand Harvey’s lilting tune because I feel most at home away from home.
I’ve tried to contemplate when that wanderlust first began. Maybe, it was summer vacations when my family packed up the car and we drove across the States. Yet the smell of my carsick sister’s rangy stuffed dogs that she insisted on bringing pervades my memories and I know that was not the start.
More likely, it was the voyage to Europe on the British Empress with my socialist aunt and uncle when I turned 18. He, a World Federalist and she, a member of Voice of Women felt my education would be incomplete unless I toured old age homes in Sweden, the Tivoli in Copenhagen and department stores in Finland. It seemed somewhat ironic to cruise first class and dine at fine restaurants, but I hardly complained, taking in the sweetness of immense chocolate-dipped strawberries with the sour smells of mixed ages housing. My eccentric aunt’s itinerary included sculpture parks where we would wander for hours, exchanging insights on the solid sculpted bodies that lived amongst the greenery in Vigeland and the artists who had produced them.
But again, my reminiscences when I was barely out of adolescence are interrupted by memories of my prissy cousin who taletaled when I stayed out all night with the cabin boys. Naomi was a strange companion. I passionately loved my aunt, with her flaming red mouth and dyed jet-black hair that covered the bald spots, but my cousin was a lumpy snarling thing, inheriting my aunt’s squat figure and my uncle’s bookish introspection. Naomi resented my aunt’s mentorship of me. I recall the look of disgust on her face, standing on one side of a turnstile in some foreign place, clutching her purse to her chest, and me on the other side, entreating her to please, please, deposit a token in the slot so I could return to the hotel. She held me in her stare, hoping perhaps to make me disappear if she glared long and hard enough, forcing me to join some other family and leave hers in peace. But I met her gaze, imaging myself lost and homeless in dark alleys. Eventually she paid my way with a shrug as if to indicate that like some miserable charity case, I must, after all, be tended to.
My Aunt Marion‘s love of aesthetics most certainly played a role in my evolution. She was my Auntie Mame, hosting soirees for me alone as dazzled ingénue. She turned my father away at her door, but I was always welcome. Her invitations to me never ceased. She tempted me with strange and delicious treats, holding forth on topics as diverse as pastry-making, world peace and the disappearance of species of wild birds. Her intonation and knowledge seemed boundless and I drank it all in, traveling vicariously through her narratives that promised to go forever.
Returning from China, the Galapagos or Istanbul, she would issue forth special invitations to my family. We were to gather at her feet as she provided the context for specially chosen trinkets she had located in a remote village or market. Papier mache, tin or wood required an hour at least of her reverie on its provenance. I loved her in spite of the ramblings and the affectation duly noted by her brother, my father. He disliked the similarities between us, fearing I would adopt her high flaunting ways, odd dress and patronizing manner. She was the ambiguous art to his rational thinking. Her tone was disrespectful to him, mysterious and challenging and neither one could comprehend how they had been related by error of birth.
She encouraged my art, purchasing extravagant paints and books for me, never asking what I had accomplished. In truth, I did little, wasting valuable paint and opportunity. I doodled, covering all available surfaces with images of movie stars. Hardly an incipient Andy Warhol, I knew better than to share these bits of nothing with my family of logical thinkers who guffawed at my frivolity.
Eventually I stumbled into an actual art class and determined that I would see for myself the thousands of slides flashed on the screen, day after day, in darkened lecture halls. Mesmerized by sumptuous details, I poured over textbooks, wondering how the originals of famous pictures might differ from the black and white reproductions. I was intrigued by bizarre stories that surrounded both artisans and artists who laboured for patron and church. I would speculate by what foul deed fingers of saints had been delivered into gilded reliquaries and whether or not fragments of cherished saintly noses or toes were authentic? I dreamed of dark cloisters where talking was forbidden but hunchbacked monks laboured nightly over embossed Celtic letters. I ruminated over whether pattern books of approved designs had arrived by mule or penitent, smuggled from abbey to abbey along with casks of wine. I shivered as I imagined the voice of Vincent Price intoning Edgar Allan Poe’s poems: fitting backdrops to dimly lit caverns where nefarious deeds had occurred.
I marvelled at the artistry that rendered skies transparently clear and faces so exquisitely tortured that you could feel their hearts crying out from their birdlike rib cages. Were there deadly mysteries that entwined Franciscan and Benedictine monks in the capital letters of illuminated manuscripts? Nothing would prevent me from following the routes of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. Even if I had to do it on my knees! I hungered to pray beneath Giotto’s frescoes in Italy and taste the mangoes of Gauguin’s Tahiti. I was driven to see for myself, tickled by the lurking adventures projected on screens in those lecture halls. So far from the lives of my dodgy family.
I worked at three jobs: a girl from the city, who easily chose the wrong direction when two roads intersected; a girl so caught up in daydreams that she often forgot she had feet and landed in a heap on the ground, elbows and knees bruised and bleeding. I lived in my head, preferring the intoxicating beauty of things and the lure of strange places to the daily routines of everyday people. I surmised that artists had escaped their dreary lives through their art, fantasizing life at court, calling out for reforms for the poor, soaking up moments of sun-drenched perfection, envisioning a life different from their own. They were like cousin Harvey, always traveling, hankering to be free. In my quiet moments, I wondered, were they driven by aesthetics or just running away from home?
What was I seeking? Was I recreating the conversations I had shared with my eccentric aunt? Was I turning on my family’s conventional mores and snubbing my nose at my father, his tradition of hard work dissolved by the images of observant madonnas and plump cherubs? Their faces beamed at me, not scowling or inveighing that I was wasting my time and energy.
To stereotype my family as materialistic and bull-headed is hardly fair, for my father, much like an old time watchmaker deliberated in his shop, perfecting the circuits that would give rise to perfect pitch and melodious tone as he tinkered with amplifiers, speakers and tuners from which the richest of sounds of music soared. Amidst an untidy blur of parts and paraphernalia, he was the silent focused explorer, making his workbench the scene of adventures of the mind. Fixed, solitary, unmoving, concentrating, a stone sculpture, he posed, unaware he was transfixed.
Paintings bored my father. For him, visual aesthetics were trivial; for me, they were everything. Tonedeaf and rebellious, I scorned his focus, haughtily lauding my passion far beyond his. I continued to drift, further away from him who preferred the hard-headed logic of my science-obsessed sister, never able to untangle the cobwebs of wires that covered his table and our relationship.
A-drifting…I hunger to be free
I traveled to Chantilly to examine the Duke of Berry’s illuminated manuscripts, painted by the medieval Limbourg Brothers. My diversion concerned the eyelashes of peasants perhaps plucked to form microscopic brushes to paint individual blades of grass. Each jewel-like page gleamed with secrets that beckoned and taunted. Yet, when I discovered that only facsimiles were on view, the originals under lock and key in ancient libraries, I was disillusioned, put out, offended and I imagined the bespeckled pinched-faced guardians of the books, glaring down from locked towers, jeering at daughters like myself who chanced to believe they might be privileged to look on the work of Masters. I thought I glimpsed the ridicule of my father’s eyes beneath the heavy brows of a skyhigh gargoyle.
I moved on to the south of France where there were light-filled landscapes and detailed drawings of sudden nooks and hidden lanes. Songs like Starry, Starry Night that commemorated Van Gogh’s desire to create a Japan in the south of France called like a siren. A field of sunflowers. A fierce red bed tilted dangerously upward. Self-portraits. The journals. Letters to brother Theo: they also spoke of strained relationships. But I rationalized that my true quest centred on seeing where a misunderstood genius had risen and fallen. Perhaps witness, voyeur, but always a seeker, always on the move, wanting to understand more and look through the tormented eyes of artists.
In Amsterdam, I found the Dutch Masters. I didn’t much like his portraits of Rembrandt’s three voluptuous wives. Too much flesh and flabby thighs that reminded me of myself. I knew he had dislocated heads and rearranged bodies in his work to produce an effect, a twist of the spine, a glorified moment: a modern airbrushing or an assemblage of impossible parts that could not exist in nature. My sketches were weak, arms and legs unattractively protruding because of my lack of skill, not a desire to portray perfection. In the back of my head, my aunt’s encouragement wrestled with my father’s shaking head at his scowling child. Her smiling support to his frowning annoyance.
Sometimes I ran madly from floor to floor in art galleries, afraid I would miss a vital clue. Once at the Rijksmuseum, I lingered long and studied hard the faces before me. A meaningful look or a gesture opened up reverie that could last for hours. Often just the richness of a colour or a well-placed icon spoke of a culture, a time, a place documented in an artist’s work and I was partially sated for awhile as I escaped the time and space of my own family. In truth, I found few clues there.
I searched on, contemplating Rembrandt’s paintings that chronicled his aging. He seemed so in love with his own image. I lingered before those portraits, desirous of learning truths, but saw only an egotist fascinated by his own face. His secrets were safe from me. But, perhaps by capturing his youthful reflection in paint and prolonging an expression, he might deter the advance of time, providing him with more time to contemplate the issues that also ate away at his soul. I knew his haunting gazes had survived, the topic of lengthy dissertations and art store sales, bought by perplexed seekers like me, hoping to discover the right questions to unlock the mysteries that connected life and art.
I sensed my father’s stern eyes watching me. Like Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, I longed to be swept up and receive fatherly approval. As I trudged out from the museum, I found myself in a flowermarket, my dark thoughts given sudden reprieve by the bright colours of tulips and marigolds, saved from further introspection.
My knowledge of art history grew, informing me of processes, providing me with background, context and critique, but still my imagination intervened, plotting against my rationale brain, teasing and turning my thoughts away from the actual works of art and acceptance of family at home.
Travelling propelled me on. Galleries in Paris, Barcelona and Berlin called and I responded. Obsessed, driven, fixated I was: always plotting to rearrange my relationship with my father, rendering it somehow whole, and like a jigsaw puzzle make all the sharp pieces fit smoothly together, but I moved away- not towards him. Father back home was a few expressionistic scratches on someone else’s drawing pad that maybe, might one day become a recognizable picture, but for now, for me, he remained only an underpainting.
Eventually, I stopped my travels, settled down, got married, had kids. I dragged them to the golden churches and tantalizing museums in Europe, hoping to fire their imaginations. I lacked my fiery aunt’s panache, low-keyed to their wide- eyed but polite interest. Soon, I lost my fascination with dried paint, arguing with myself that it was only artifice, reproduction, replica, aesthetic frivolity. I turned my attention to the frames that surrounded the art and I noted the care and materials that were most often ignored and I recalled my father as ancient goldsmith, a fine jeweller who by his attention to detail, made it possible for sound to sing. He was the paint, the binder, the means through which art could be realized. He ensured the best processes and most recent technology kept music from becoming stagnant or out of date. His focussed examination, his passion for his art ensured the communication between music and its creators as on-going conversation, a living process that relied on his knowledge of both entities. He was, in his way, essential to art.
In my quiet moments beneath the stained glass of gothic cathedrals, I realized that I had been mesmerized by the talk of travel in my aunt’s transcendent aura. I had emulated her by dashing in and out of scenarios, judging, dismissing, holding court, searching for trinkets that could represent more. I came to realize that the lure of fantastic locales and the canvases of famous painters beckon us deeper into mysteries that are merely the keys to unlock secrets. It was not Aunt Marion’s fault, my father’s, or even mine, for that matter. We all inhabit our own universes, some collide, others just miss one another: it is the way of the world.
In the end, I had my trips, the searches, the images and maybe, that was enough. But maybe like Oz, travel was only an illusion.