90 years young
The artist is a marvel, still working every day, rising late like a gentleman, never showing his work, just diligently continuing to fill the walls and floorspace of the house, and even the attic, for many decades now with his creations: Magnificent things – larger than life paintings of armored men on acid-tone motorcyles in green and blue and pink, and street people asleep under newspaper in black and ochre and brown like stains, model trains and boats so intricate that your eyes squint involuntarily suddenly feeling like you must be far away, sinuous pen and ink renditions of plows and the hulls of ships, blocky factory landscapes, and many sensuous drawings of beautiful women, all curvy and creviced, and staring away in introspection.
But more numerous than all of those are the sculptures, in both wood and stone. The sculptures are always women, in sets of two or three, or sometimes alone – voluptuous and nude, but contemplative and turned inward, steady as the earth. The fiercely kinetic men in his work are usually in some form of armor, but the women go naked (one can dig deep into just that one fact alone about his oeuvre), all of them but the one portrait of the artist’s Mother, who is fixed formally in her chair for eternity in a place of honor.
Last fall in his small garden between the studio and the house, the cannas were monstrous after years without thinning, 3 meters tall and falling over onto other plants, overgrowing the irises and everything else. They had already broken a precious limb from his slow-growing rhododendron.
I set about to dig them up, to make myself useful. It was a bigger job than I expected, untold years’ worth of interlocking swollen bulb-roots unwilling to be parted from the earth. I pried them up in slabs so thick that I fell over backwards when they gave way.
Figuring I was already as dirty as I was going to get, and with my usual uncareful bombast, I started digging out that whole section of the beds, surfacing all the bulbs that had been tangled in them, suffocating, and those jutting up shoots willynilly nearby. I was sorting them carelessly into piles by type on the lawn.
That is when he told me: The irises of Maman! His mother’s irises, or rather their direct descendants, were among the tubers which I had already half unearthed. I had not seen him come out of the house, he had sprung so quickly to their defense, his index finger raised in alarm.
In truth they needed resetting and were years overdue anyway, but how do you handle something so precious as a 89-year-old man’s mother’s heirloom iris bulbs? They are living things after all – and so in a sense fragile, like the great man himself. And yet like him in another sense, what possible harm can you do to irises? They survive no matter what.
So I was brave, if more respectful and slower in my work than before, and I separated the iris clumps from the rest, and reset them all around. I even colonized a new bed with a neat distribution of tubers. I hauled out four potato sacks full of canna bulbs so that Hydra would at least be hobbled, but of the irises I saved every single one, coddling each into its new place in the ground.
That was last fall, and now, months later, they are rising, during this winter that has so far been a perpetually premature spring. They are rising, like green tongues singing in the wet air, quivering in the little wind that makes it into this walled enclosure between city buildings.
And today he turns 90, that beautiful soul. I hope the irises of Maman sing him a happy birthday song on this unseasonably warm day. I hope the voluptuous women are drawn into that chorus, and that their chivalrous companions lay down their swords and javelins along the floorboards to take note of this singular event.
Maman, I am 90.
And like your irises which I have kept all these years,
I am still quick and green.