Sunday, April 19, 2009
You wouldn't have described me as a carefree child; instead, you might charitably have called me sensitive: I was a child who cried a lot. The sadness came not from the vicissitudes of being little so much as from a deep existentialism--why?--my genes? my Jewishness? undiagnosed depression?--I felt more than I knew even very young. That is, I felt but didn't know why I felt.
I couldn't stop the tears that would spring into my eyes at the strangest times--in synagogue, as we sang "shalom rav" together in congregation, in my grandma's house, watching my mom and her mom gossip together over the news of the day; I cried at songs I heard faintly over my parents' am/fm radio, over Mozart piano sonatas, Puff the Magic Dragon, the sound of my dad clinking his hot chocolate mug on the coffee table late at night...
My parents took me to see art, and I welled up; to hear music, and I welled up; we read poetry, and I welled up; at concerts and plays I was teary at the nearness of them, the solid feel of their arms against mine, solid but already faint, gone away from me; at holiday dinners around the family table, taking stock of all those arrayed as if in a photograph, the parents, grandparents, aunts, friends, somehow knowing they would not always be there to take stock of. I welled up at the sight of my aunt bringing the chicken in wild cherry sauce, proudly bearing the platter; at the sight of my dad's mom carrying the apricot chicken to feed us. I never realized that they too knew the temporary nature of their own existence, because grown-ups know that. They just try not to think of it too often.
One time in particular comes to mind. I was very little, I believe my sister hadn't been born yet, and my parents took me to The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park to see the tapestries and walk through the lilacs. We went to the stone rooms, chilly even in spring, and saw the Hunt of the Unicorn, and before long I was crying inconsolably. I remember the horror of the Unicorn's fate, the crowding Medieval nobles and their dogs and swords, the slashes in the Unicorn's white flesh, the beautiful lady who kindly stood guard but couldn't save him (or, as I now know, was in fact the traitorous lure).
I remember sobbing, clinging to my parents' hands, my parents exchanging glances and murmuring "too scary" before they took me out into the sunny courtyard. I couldn't explain to them, through the choking sobs, that it was not the blood and swords that scared me, but the inexorable story, the Unicorn's destiny to die, like all of us someday, surrounded but alone...I was overwhelmed by the grand pictures, the stern faces and the gore, the gorgeous Unicorn, the lady in the red dress, but also seized by a sudden terrified understanding of the ephemeral, the brevity of my time and my parents' time here...
I now know how right I was to cry. But I also try to take some tiny comfort in the fact that those tapestries are still there, hanging in silence in the Cloisters, having told the same story again and again for five hundred years, and I think maybe they will continue to do so for a thousand more, if they are cared for properly and dusted and repaired and the world has not collapsed around us.
And I try very hard not to cry so much these days, because it's my time to live now and besides as I learned early, there's no end to tears once they start...
Visit the Unicorn Hunt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to know more about the tapestries.