From There To Here, Then to Now
The warm tropical rain continued to fall. Not the usual cloudburst or intense downpour, but a gentle, light drizzle, which in the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, had been called 'chipi-chipi'. Here, in this part of Mexico, drizzle or llovizna, which was the proper word in Spanish, was still referred to as 'chipi-chipi' and it had been in evidence for several days. The soft pervading fragrance of the balmy atmosphere filled the room; jasmine, gardenias, orchids and of course that scent which had been Gregg's favorite, the soft distinctive perfume of the flowering ginger. It was the month of March and the year was 1998. Forty five years had passed since that day in March of 1953 when I had first met Gregg and experienced one of the singularly most important events of my life. There were of course many other beautiful moments, but none had ever been so explicit in their profundity.
Finally I was able to once again recapture Gregg's smile. And with it I entered that repository of deeply buried memories. I could see his mirthful twinkling eyes, experience again the sound of his unique voice. Memories which had been purposefully hidden for so many years. In those first few years following his death, the pain had been so intense that the only way to deal with it was repression. Not erasure. Not a denial of its existence; just hide it from today, from the now, and with such vigor that it did indeed seem to disappear. It seemed to be a technique necessary for survival.
Upon returning to California from Japan I had plunged into my university studies. They were sufficient to help in the process of returning to life. Live today and do what needs to be done today. Yesterday — all the yesterdays and days before yesterday, somehow ceased to exist. They had been secreted away.
It was the summer vacation after my first year back in college. I had called Bela and made arrangements to spend a few days with her at her home in Quincy, south of Boston. When the cab stopped in front of Bela's house I had the sudden impulse to tell the driver to return to the airport. I suddenly felt that I couldn't confront the reality of entering a house which was filled with so many memories. I forced myself to get out of the taxi and rang the doorbell. Bela opened the door, grabbed me, smiled briefly and then I saw the tears begin to form. Composing herself, she had me take my bags up to the guest room and told me to then come down to the kitchen. I put my suitcase and small handbag next to the bed and went to the bathroom. I fully expected to see Gregg's cologne sitting on the shelf. He had always used a marvelous citrus smelling cologne from Germany. It wasn't there, though its aroma had permeated time and softly lingered in the air. On leaving the bathroom I couldn't stop myself and peeked in the through the half open door to Gregg's room. Fortunately it was completely different and was obviously now used by the young daughter of Paolo and Francesca. Paolo had seen the light of Bela's rather forceful advice and married the young lady that had caused him to get his leg broken. Their daughter had been born a few months later.
Bela was, as usual, busy in the kitchen. I noticed that her hair was now almost completely white. She looked considerably older, but then it had been over six years since I had last seen her. She poured two cups of coffee, sat down and began to ask about my life and how my classes were going at college. She got up to get some cake and I looked around the kitchen. It hadn't changed and looked exactly the same. It was like stepping back in time. Then I saw the refrigerator and somehow it triggered one of Gregg's most humorous stories, about how Bela should have closed the refrigerator door on his neck.... Now it was my turn and I began to wipe back the tears. Bela, forever observant, noticed and came over and put her hand on my shoulder. "Yes, I know. There are days when I miss him so much I feel like I want to die." She took my hand in hers, then looked down at the gold band which I still wore. Without a word she went to her bedroom and returned. Holding something, she motioned for me to put out my hand. "I have saved this for you. I was sure that it should belong to you." It was Gregg's ring.
Paolo, his wife and their daughter were on vacation and visiting relatives in Connecticut so it was rather quiet in the house. Bela and I had a light dinner and shortly thereafter Gina came by for a visit. She was as charming and beautiful as ever. After a bit of conversation Bela excused herself and said she was going to rest for a bit, mentioning at the same time that if she went to sleep I should just make myself at home, watch television then go to bed when I wanted.
Gina got some more coffee and we began to talk. She began the conversation, "On Gregg's last visit, before he went to Korea, we had a nice long chat. Actually it was more like a marathon. He finally told me he was gay and all about the relationship between the two of you. I already knew, as did mom. It wasn't something we could talk about, but we knew. I also knew, without being told, how much you meant to him; how much he loved you."
She got up to get some Kleenex. "It was nice to see him in love and that's the way I'll always remember him—with that incredibly joyous sparkle in his eyes, radiance in his being."
She paused and then continued, "If during your visit you'd like to go to the cemetery I could take you. I haven't been there since he was buried, although mom goes every month. He's next to his parents, my brother Giuseppi and Carla. Mom also mentioned that you are welcome to any of Gregg's things; everything is stored in the garage. She thought you might especially be interested in his master's thesis on the troubadours. Evidently in one of his last letters from Korea he wrote that if anything ever happened to him he wanted you to have it. Do you think he might have had a premonition of what was going to happen?"
It was a question I couldn't answer. Many times I had thought back to his conversation about being buried under that large rock in Carmel. That entire conversation had been so out of character for him. I was also perplexed and explained to Gina that I didn't know he had actually finished his master's thesis "Not exactly. You know he got his bachelors degree at Boston University and graduated with honors. We were all very, very proud of him. He started in the master's program and then suddenly seemed to lose interest. Shortly thereafter he joined the Army." I noticed that she was looking at my tattoo. "He told me you had both gotten them and at first it seemed so, well, so out of character—for both of you. But now, somehow it seems to make sense.
As Gina reached over to run her finger over my tattoo she commented, “Obviously he's going to be with you for the rest of your life."
Gina hesitated, "Actually I would like for you to go to the cemetery with me since I want to show, as well as ask, you something. I know that it may be difficult for you as it's always difficult for me. Since I've never married and had children of my own he was much like my own son. Especially after my brother and Carla died he would come to me and confide those little secrets that he felt mom wouldn't understand. After all this time it's still difficult for me accept that one day he won't come bounding through the door, smiling his special smile and talking about a thousand things at once." By now we had both used a great number of the Kleenex.
The next morning dawned cloudy, though still warm. It carried the hint of rain. Giovanna arrived about 10:00. Bela's arthritis was bothering her and announced that she was not up to going to the cemetery. I really didn't want to go though with it; I was rebelling internally but knew that for some reason Gina felt that it was important.
There it was. A simple headstone.
Gina put some flowers in the recessed container and I added a single red rose, picked from Bela's garden. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and immediately inquired as to how they had put that particular verse on the stone.
She explained that it was this that prompted her question of the previous evening, "In the same letter with the request to give the Troubadour manuscript to you, Gregg wrote that if anything ever happened to him, he would like that line to be remembered as a part of him. Mom had been perplexed, but when a month later she got the letter from the Department of the Army about the jeep accident, she was sure that he had had a premonition of his own death."
I told Gina that it was a line from one of Gregg's favorite poems and that it undoubtedly referred to his love of life. Though I didn't say so, I knew that it was a special message for me. Seeing it now I knew that it was something, like my tattoo, that would be with me for the rest of my life.
I thought back to the day when we finally finished 'our secret script' and that was the first thing he wrote, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘How Do I Love Thee?” from her Sonnets to the Portuguese.
How do I love thee? Let me
count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Then Gina pointed to the bouquet of mixed yellow flowers, which I had seen, but not really noticed. She explained that they arrived once a month and were always the same color. The only other thing she knew about the sender was that they were sent from a florist’s shop in Los Angeles. I immediately knew that they were from Bozhena. I told Gina that my mother had also had been devastated by Gregg's death and then told about how she had promised to get Gregg a yellow shirt on his return from Korea.
That visit to Boston continued with the process of erasure. In order to continue living in the present, I was forced to internally negate a past that seemed too painful to contemplate.
Soon I had finished my Bachelor's degree at Los Angeles State College and decided to get my Master's. I had decided to continue my studies at the State College in San Francisco. Soon that period also came to an end and I had the piece of paper, but it, like much of my life, still held no particular direction. Then I decided to completely envelop myself in the world of horticulture. Six years of preparation in order to teach and yet I had suddenly changed direction. No matter, I was relatively happy. It felt good to be happy again.
During my college days there were several infatuations. First it had been Terry. Terry's companionship was the indication that I still had feelings. Emotional, as well as physical yearnings, though I wasn't able to express them. Vivacious Norman who introduced me to the joys of motorcycling. Ivan, a distant cousin from Hungary who wanted to share more than his love of our mutual European connections. During those first few years I was incapable of any response other than friendship and even that was kept at a respectable distance.
When I was finishing my master's degree, I met Jerry. I had just bought a small, charming house perched on a hillside in Mill Valley and we lived together for two years. Our relationship seemed to contain all the proper elements of a true love affair. Yet, when Jerry suddenly flew the coop, I recovered in short order and, within a few months, hardly knew that he was gone. He was followed by the handsome, plant loving Dutchman, Keith, and we spent two years in Australia. I got tired of the relationship, or perhaps it was Keith's aberrant behavior while on his frequent drug trips, and I returned to California.
A year later I met Walter, a slightly bizarre though pleasant, young psychologist. We bought a home in the hills above the town of Sonoma. Three years later we had gone our separate ways. Soon thereafter it was Gary, a fellow horticulturist. We became involved and bought a beautiful home in rolling hills of western Sonoma county. Though we lived together for a nearly fifteen years, our physical relationship didn't last more than a few months. Then it was Andrés, a charming vivacious young fellow from El Salvador.
Later, on a trip to the state of Veracruz in Mexico, I met Fernando, a teacher at a university in the nearby town of Córdoba. In many small indefinable ways it was like encountering Gregg anew. I knew he was Gregg in a different body. Our love affair was instantaneous and I soon sold my home in California and moved to Mexico. After several years of bliss Fernando was killed as the result of an automobile accident and once again my world collapsed.
Then one rainy day in March I opened the long closed repository of memories about Gregg. Almost immediately I began to see that I had consciously, and unconsciously, hidden a great deal from not only the people in my life, but most importantly, also from myself. It was a revelation to discover that I talked incessantly about Giovanni and Francesca Caminetti, the Italian couple that I knew while I was in college, and that my love of the Italian culture had been a result of my friendship with them. In recalling Gregg there came the sudden realization that he was the one who had first kindled an interest in Italian culture. The Caminetti's had certainly reinforced it, but it all began with Gregg. I had even hidden that little bit of information from myself.
One day in that same month of March of 1998, seated at my desk in the small Mexican town of Fortin de las Flores, I decided to write about Gregg. It was after Fernando’s death, and when I realized that I had lost Gregg for the second time. It was also the first time I'd written about him in any detail in over forty years. The more I wrote, the more I remembered. I finally recognized that I been concealing a number of things It was very revealing to see that I had spent more than forty years responding to the people and events in my life and heeding an unknown agenda.
One of the most important discoveries during this process was recognizing how I had spent my life looking for 'another Gregg'; it had been reflected in each and every one of the love affairs that I'd been involved in. I could now, with hindsight, point out particular qualities of each of my 'partners' as being especially characteristic of Gregg. Naturally it was impossible for any of those individuals to be that particular person from the past, and so, sooner or later, the relationship came to an end. How could I not have realized what I was doing to myself and those involved? I silently asked their forgiveness, and where possible did so verbally or in correspondence, and in that release came to love each of them for being themselves. Something I had previously neglected, or perhaps didn't even know how, to do.
Fortin de las Flores, state of Veracruz, in southeastern Mexico. I had found this particular location in Mexico after meeting Fernando. Its climate and natural geographic features appealed to me—as did the fragrance of the abundant, flowering ginger. I also seemed especially drawn to this area, as if it contained some inner magnetic force. At first I couldn't pinpoint the particular reason, which seemed to be hidden beneath the surface.
Not only was I drawn to the area, but decided to make it my permanent residence. I had been living in the area for several months when one day I inquired of one of the local inhabitants about an especially large, walled estate with a tall, wooden gate and the avenue of lofty palms beyond. I had found it especially intriguing every time I passed. It was sort of a shock when I was told that it had been the summer residence of Maximillian and Carlotta in the 1860's. It was now known as 'Las Animas' or 'The Place of the Soul'. Of course, now I knew. In a sudden flash of 'knowing' everything became clear. That very house, inside those gates, was where Michele, attached to the court of Carlotta, had sat at her desk on a dark night in 1864 and had first learned of Philippe's death. It was that past event that Gregg and I had, independently, both tuned into to. The connections, mental as well as physical, and which spanned more than a century, had come full circle. And I realized that Philippe, Gregg and Fernando were in essence the same person, separated only by time.
It seems rather odd the way in which 'destiny' appears to introduce new elements into our lives. We are always free to chose which of those components will become a part of a new probable future. They can then be made a part of the fabric of forming something new. Oftentimes they also contain threads which have a direct connection with the past.
A friend had given me the name of an ophthalmologist in Cordoba since it was time to have my eyes checked. The receptionist showed me into Dr. Velasco's office and I immediately noticed that he had been writing in Japanese. It was soon established that he had been studying Japanese for a little over a year. It seemed incongruous that Japanese was being taught here in this remote part of the state of Veracruz, but then I had over the years learned to accept the fact that it is usually only on the surface that certain things seem to be out of place. Invariably, it's an integral part of the totality. As we began chatting, I explained to the doctor that I had lived in Japan many years ago.
Dr. Velasco, who also spoke English, had just finished examining my eyes and announced that I no longer needed a prescription quite as strong as the one I had. At that moment the receptionist came in and mentioned something to the doctor. He excused himself, left the room and then almost immediately returned. There was a young fellow behind him and I was introduced to Seiji Fukushima, the doctor's Japanese teacher. Being Mexico, the doctor asked Laura, the receptionist to bring us coffee and some sweet rolls. We began chatting, a strange combination of Spanish, Japanese and English, and thus began yet another beautiful friendship.
Seiji, who was employed by the Japanese government, was on a three year contract in Mexico to teach Japanese. Seiji and I immediately became very close friends and spent nearly every weekend together as well as chatting by phone during the week. It was not unlike rediscovering a long lost friend. I found out that Seiji had studied for two years in the U.S. before eventually finishing his degree in Japanese Literature in Tokyo. I was also impressed when I discovered that he had attended and graduated from Keio University, which has much the same reputation in Japan as Harvard, Yale or Stanford does in the U.S. We spent a lot of time talking about Japanese authors and Japanese literature in general. I had, over the years, read a considerable amount of Japanese literature and he was thrilled to find a kindred spirit. We had both read a lot of Latin American literature and shared that also. In fact we found limitless items of mutual interest which resulted in conversations which were both pleasant and intellectually stimulating.
I was bit astounded one Saturday morning when Seiji asked how much Russian he could learn in a year's time. It had been established that he had one more year on his contract in Mexico and he was considering the places he might be interested in for his next government posting. He had recently come back from a three week trip to Japan and while there had investigated the postings available. One of the requirements was a sound, basic knowledge of the language of the country where he would teach. I had yet another thing which I could share with him, my knowledge of Russian. It would also be a good review for me since I hadn't had any intimate contact with the Russian language for several years. So for the next year, every spare moment was devoted to an intense study the Russian language. I soon discovered that he was a very adept and willing pupil. It also added yet another dimension to our conversations. Now we easily slipped back and forth between Japanese, Spanish, English.....and Russian.
That year slipped by all too quickly. During that time I had begun writing about Gregg. It was something that I felt comfortable freely discussing with Seiji. And in writing about Japan I was drawing upon memories that were now nearly half a century old. I would occasionally not be able to remember the name of a temple, a town or a river. Invariably he was able to help me. With his constant stories and anecdotes he also helped to rekindle my love of Japan. A few days before he departed for Tokyo he made an marvelous comment. I was questioning him about an obscure event in the Kojiki, the ancient myths about the Shinto gods. After mentally searching for the information and answering, he smiled. His eyes becoming thin lines, he looked over the top of his glasses and said, "You know Gordon-san, you certainly don't look it, but there are times when I could almost swear that you are Japanese." It was an observation that I shall always cherish.
After he returned to Japan we corresponded at least weekly by email. Then one evening he called. After our normal salutations in Japanese, Seiji switched to Spanish, "He extrañado mucho el sonido de tu voz" (I've really missed the sound of your voice). It was a touching reminder of our deep ties. Then he went on to tell me that he had successfully passed the third level Russian language proficiency exam. He would be leaving for Russia within two months. My Japanese ‘gypsy’ friend was packing his bags for yet another exploration.
Did I, do I love Seiji? Oh yes, very much. However, this time I loved someone completely just for being themselves, and like my young friend Terry, of so long ago, my love had gone beyond the need of a physical manifestation. Now, Philippe, Gregg, Fernando, Terry, George, Seiji. . ., all of those many names and faces of the past, had become a part of the swirling, enveloping totality of time.
Oh, lest I forget, after returning from Boston many years ago, those two plain gold rings were carefully buried under a very special, large rock in Carmel, California. Surrounded and covered by tufts of native grasses and wild flowers. Every day they are the recipients of the songs of the birds in the graceful cypress overhead, the call of the seagulls beyond, the eternal, unceasing beat of the waves against the shore. It hardly needs to be mentioned that they continue to embody the nature of their previous wearers; love without end. And as young Igor discovered so long ago, eternity is indeed a very long time.
All sorrows can be borne if you put them
into a story or tell a story about them.