January 20, 2005

Fire to Endure

Well, it's been three weeks now since my grandfather departed the world, and since I last wrote here; I think twenty-one days is probably sufficient time to gather myself and share a little.

It's been hard. The nature of loss is that it finds odd moments to remind you, when you've gotten around to thinking you're okay and acting like you're living a normal life again. But I'm mostly okay these days. I miss him terribly, which is the selfishness of the living for you. He was not happy in his last months (at least), enduring the dual onslaughts of his body's betrayals and living in a nursing home; he was ready to go. I'm glad he's not suffering any more. And I think that, hey, fourscore and one is a pretty good run of it, all told. (And Death, in her top-hat, smiles and says, "You got what everyone gets. You got a lifetime.") Nonetheless, selfishly, irrationally, I wish I'd had more time just knowing he was around. The part of me that kept up a silly hope that he'd find some spark of the person he'd been ten years ago is frustrated that now he'll never have the chance.


His ashes have been interred in one of his own pots, which is as grand and fitting as can be hoped for. I had the honor of bringing him home one last time, two weeks ago Saturday, after the memorial service in Allentown. It was also my great privelege to deliver his eulogy, which ran as follows:

"Thank you all for coming.

"First off, I must beg your indulgence. I know that many of you knew my grandfather as Ray or Raymond or possibly Mr. Gallucci. None of those names feel right to me. All my life, to me he's been PaPa - my brother's mispronunciation of 'Grandpa' when he was just learning to talk. It's stuck these last forty years, and if that's the name that first comes to me to call him, bear with me.

"(I also apologize if I'm echoing other things said here by family and friends. We shared, obviously, many of the same experiences, and didn't bother to make sure we weren't repeating each other. Today of all days, anything worth saying about him is worth saying more than once.)

"I have the honor of delivering this eulogy this in part because, as you might have noticed, there are no services being given by clergy today. I'm afraid PaPa's sympathies for the religious impulse were somewhat limited. (That is, believe me, putting it mildly.) He was, all his life - even through his involvement with the Unitarian church - a skeptic and a rationalist, as zealous in his atheism as any convert to a faith. To be entirely honest, it wasn't one of his kinder qualities; he was rarely hesitant to express his lack of patience with anything he saw as nonsense. A universe full of nothing more miraculous than the dance of elements and forces, circling each other in the measureless void, was quite wondrous enough for him. I myself am largely agnostic, though a great believer in the value of beauteous and meaningful nonsense, so my own sympathies are somewhat divided. Nonetheless, I won't do him the disrespect of referring to God or heaven or souls in what follows, the truth of all of which you may decide for yourselves, and which he certainly now knows better than any of us here.

"I will, however, point out that this underlines one of the delightful paradoxes in his character - the rational atheist who spent most of his life as an artist, engaged with numinal forces that science and reason have yet to quantify. To create Art is to invoke Mystery, as the first people to paint images on a cave wall knew, and those first artists were indistinguishable from priests and magicians. My grandfather's materials were the same as those of a paleolithic shaman - earth and pigment, water and fire - and the magic he conjured out of them of a similar kind.

"And, like a shaman, he seemed to only partly live in the world the rest of us did. His eccentricities - and they were, believe me, numerous - were almost all the result of the worldly things he couldn't bother to be concerned with: appearance, possessions, frivolities. It was enough that his clothes were comfortable, that a car was a serviceable conveyance, that he had enough money to live simply on. The things that were truly important to him were abstractions: Color and form. Perfection of composition. Beauty. Language. Family. Dignity. Justice.

"Even his own creations, which never awakened the joy and awe in him they did in almost everyone else, ceased to hold his interest once they were completed. A finished pot or a mosaic was just a thing, an object. A work-in-progress was sacred; woe betide the person who upset a tray of mugs before firing, before they had the chance to become complete. But break a finished piece? 'It's just mud,' he'd say, as if unable to understand why anyone would be upset by it. In a way, he may have suffered some of the disillusionment artists are prone to once they're intimate with the messy, dirty processes of creation. Some of the magic is inevitably lost once you know how the trick's done; the pot looks different to the man who spends all day up to his elbows in the stuff of its materials.

"Which is certainly not to say he was immune to wonder. He called clay 'the poetry of the earth' (and in his hands it was), though he may have given too much credit to the medium and too little to the maker in that. He sought the same poetry elsewhere as well, in music and literature and the works of the other artists he admired. About ten years ago, he decided to reread all of Shakespeare's plays (a passion we shared, and talked about too little). He remarked to me that the thought had occurred to him, over one particularly poignant bit of verse, that he knew all the words in that sentence - why couldn't he have put them together like that? The spark of genius - Shakespeare, Mozart, Rembrandt - fascinated him, maybe in part because he felt like it eluded him.

"The rest of us knew better, of course. Look at any of his works - his pottery, his paintings, his mosaics - and his incredible gifts are apparent. Many of them are abstracts, studies in pure shape and color, but even his more representational work is infused with a vision that was uniquely and brilliantly his. Once you come to know it, there's no mistaking his art for anyone else's, though the sheer amount of it is astounding: dozens of mosaics and paintings and sculptures, probably thousands of pieces of pottery. Again and again he returned to the forms that obsessed him - circles, rectangles, branches, strata - and yet his revisitations of those themes never feel stale or tired. It was part of his particular gift to reinvent without repeating himself, and that is a thing wondrous rare. Though he never quite articulated the reasons he finally ceased creating, now many years since, it may be that he felt he'd come to the end of his explorations and wanted to stop before his interest soured.

"We can forgive him for being too close to what he did to see it as it truly was. It's hard enough for me, growing up surrounded by his work, to reconcile its genius with the man who was my grandfather, just plain PaPa with his silly charm and disheveled clothes, his uncut hair and his pungent cigars. The man who made sure his grandchildren got to go to the zoo at least once a summer, who could effortlessly eat a quart of ice cream at a sitting, who cut open his shoes with a razor because they fit better that way - this person has a hard time existing in the same space as the maker of the mosaic that hangs over my fireplace. I saw many, many of his pieces as works-in-progress, saw him bent over them for hours on end, and I still can't quite fit those two personae together in my head. But it's a credit to him as both artist and man that, in my memory at least, he occupies both roles in equal measure. And it's one of the wonders of the universe that a finished pot can be a work of sublime beauty and also be… just mud. It may do that mystery honor enough to recognize the paradox and live with both truths at once.

"There is never enough time. If the human condition has an overriding theme, that may be it. The fact that we get death as part of the bargain of living ensures that time is something that is always in insufficient supply. I wish I had more now, to tell you everything about the PaPa I knew, his quirks and his brilliance and his flaws all together. And I know that everything I can recall is just a fragment of the person he was. In the time to come, I hope to know more, from those of you who saw other fragments, other facets. One of the means by which we cope with our shortage of time is the way we spend our lives at least as much in story and memory as in the living moments; it's a tragedy of our species, but also a gift. It means that Ray Gallucci will endure in all his facets for as long as our memories of him remain, as long as there are stories of him to tell, and for as long as the works he shaped out of mud and poetry may last. Flesh, after all, is also just mud, wet earth given shape by steady turning on an implacable wheel. And when this fragile vessel breaks beyond repair, we can still take joy in the poetry that lingers afterwards.

"That is why we are here today: to take joy in what lingers after a person departs the world. The rites of the dead are not for the dead, who are past caring. Our rites are for us, to say farewell, to know that we are not alone in our grief, to somehow find a way to accommodate our unbearable loss; to learn, with each other, to cope with the fact that there is now a hole in the world the size and shape of someone we dearly loved.

"His body is ash now, unmade by the same fire by which he turned clay into Art; there's a poetry, too, in that completion, a circle made whole. It's a dignified end, and dignity was something he treasured, one of the things he kept for himself until the very last. It's a comfort to me to think of him released into the Universe like that, his energies returned into Creation: no better than earth, but also no less than a sun. That was how he lived, too; may we all be inspired to do the same.

"I close my thoughts today with two pieces of verse, both of which say things I wish I had thought of first ('I know all those words') about loss and mortality and the honoring of the departed. The first is Walt Whitman, from "Song of Myself":

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

"The second is a prayer, of sorts, written by another unbeliever. This is from the Requiem Mass by Kurt Vonnegut, a fellow Unitarian and, like my grandfather, a pacifist veteran of the Second World War. It's a corrective to irrational, judgmental theology, a petition to the Universe itself to take pity on the dead and give them rest; I like to think PaPa might have approved.

Chrone, eleison.
Stoechia, eleisate.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Munde,
Neve lux somnum pertubet eorum.

"Time, have mercy upon us;
Elements, have mercy upon us;
Rest eternal grant them, O Cosmos,
And let not light disturb their sleep.

"Thank you for listening."

So life, inexorably and absurdly, goes on. I like my new job, even if it's a bit of a demotion and not quite where I saw myself at this point in my life; so it goes. We've had our first snow of the winter this week, with more on the way, and Baltimore is lovely with white. I'm going to be thirty-one on Tuesday. I hope to be able to write again soon, an impulse I haven't felt able to tap into for a little while now.

Mostly I'm just getting through the days. There are worse fates.

Thanks, everyone, for your support and love these last weeks. It's meant the world and helped more than you know. And thanks, too, for your patience while I dropped off the earth for a while. I promise I'll be in touch properly and more often in the time to come.

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