Last Sunday as I was walking up to the entrance of our church, our young priest was outside to greet us. He was in his immaculate white cassock with an dark apple green surplice, and fastened around his waist was a white cincture cord tied in a luscious knot. Behind him the sun was shining through an oak tree that was blazing red, yellow, orange. It was a magnificent panoply of color and light.
As I made my way to my pew, to settle in and let go and breathe, I had a memory that I hadn’t had for a long time. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was staying with us during the fall. He was ill, gravely ill we were soon to learn. He was a lovely man, charming, affectionate, outgoing, funny and easygoing — everyone loved him. He was also a bit of a Beau Brummell, but in a good way, he always looked amazing and he made it look easy. But that fall his heart was failing him, and maybe in the back of all of our minds we knew it.
My grandfather would sit in my father’s study which had a nice comfortable chair that seemed to ease his distress. The chair faced a window which looked out onto the fairly vast front lawn of my family home. Right near the window was a very old and very large oak tree — majestic and much loved. We had all climbed it, swung on it, and the tree tolerated us all. Every fall it would turn the most exquisite shade of brilliant yellow gold and the glow would fill the room with a warm cast. I remember my grandfather sitting in the chair with the light was hitting the tree just right, and it was a vision moment like the one I just described from last Sunday where I think we really see — we see the true perfection of all things. My grandfather was wearing a camel hair sweater and an oxblood ascot and he looked wonderful. He had these lovely light hazel eyes and he was staring out onto the view. I remember him remarking to us how beautiful a sight that tree was, with the golden leaves still on the branches and the glorious pool of yellow leaves beneath. It gave him comfort and his remark compelled us to look at the beauty which we took a little bit for granted because it had always been there. We all surrounded him, standing by his chair or sitting on the floor beside him, and we all shared the moment.
He died at the end of November — his heart was enlarged — too big my mother said. I think of that moment with all of us there and fast forward to now. Everyone, except me, is gone. I see that image and there is almost a cinematic effect of each of the players in the tableau gradually fading and disappearing. The house is gone too, and that tree that stood for so many generations is gone as well I am told. It’s a precious memory. I remember then, and it still reminds me of it now, of the myth of Danae. Apparently Zeus fell in love with this princess and impregnated her with Perseus by visiting her in the form of a shower of gold. There are quite a few ancient depictions and Renaissance paintings of this myth but I think my favorite one is Titian’s.
I haven’t read all of Freud, but some, and wonder how he missed the heavy “symbolism?” of this myth. We all know that the Oedipal one has been done to death, and for those more interested, the Electra one as well. Just wondering what Freud would have made of it. But the encounter of Zeus and Danae I suppose was glorious, and it yielded a great hero. For Danae the shower of gold was an entrance into fecundity and birth; it was the inverse for my grandfather — those were his last days until he exited our lives but not our hearts. But the tree, our giving tree, and that my grandfather was surrounded by his children and grandchildren and his wife, my grandmother, whom he adored – I think eased his passage, and he enjoyed the splendor of his shower of gold.
P.S. I also love Correggio’s and Klimt’s interpretations of Danae….