Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Fröhliche Geburtstag, Herr Professor Doktor Einstein

My grandfathers were not close by in my childhood. One died when I was seven, and the other became very ill for some years. So it was that I adopted Einstein as my granddaddy. He was always there; just above the couch. I'd lie on it, feet up along the backrest, my back twisted along the seat, looking up at him in our cool, shadowed family room.

Portrait of the Old Man by an Artist 

The painting was done by a student of my father's. He was from Malaysia, and once went home to visit his family. When he came back to school, he brought gifts. I still have the shells he gave me, one thick with mother of pearl, pink-veined and shaped like a fan. The other is a delicate, spiny spiral.

We got close to a number of dad's students when we were kids. I remember some of them so vividly, though none of them have I seen for twenty-five years - and many far, far longer. We had wonderful picnics at our house, volleyball, and hot dogs on the brick grill dad built, too many sweets, and cases of soda from a specialty place called The Poppe Shoppe (I think it was spelled so).

The artist who painted the above piece was one of the early ones. I would have been three or four at his advent. Memory of him is hazy; and yet, I have always been grateful for his kindnesses. So distinct, they still mean something to a toddling moppet near half a century on. And his great talent. The portrait was painted in mere hours, part of an art class he took because he wanted to be well-rounded. It is glorious, and was the great gift my father left me when he died. We discussed it when he was ill; my brother would get the pocketwatch, I the portrait. Nothing - no *thing* - could have meant much more to me, from him. We all love the painting; my mom has wished from time to time that she could have it. But, though I try to be undemanding with her, this I will not give up. It is a very literal legacy.

Dad was a physicist, you see. Einstein was practically a fixture in our family culture, and literally part of the furnishings, in this painting. Dad's students were part of our lives well beyond their graduations; we followed careers, dad received beautiful invitations to important events for them; his university, his colleagues, his advisees and lab assistants were ingrained with us.

The painting is more than a sentimental present, it is the history of our nuclear foursome AND the history of our nuclear understanding in the scientific sense.

The painting is a bold thing, marvelous in its execution, beautiful to look at - formative not only of my philosophy, but very much of my aesthetic. I love its incredibly powerful reds, yellows, negative space. Its seventies mod-ness. Its connection, almost beyond dad, to the *influence* he had in this world, in this place we occupy even now without his presence.

The painting *is* his presence - and it is his absence. That is relativity for you.

A year or so back, I had a contractor out to the house, quoting me a job. As he stood in the front door saying goodbye when he'd inspected the pertinent area of the home, he stopped cold - transfixed. He fell in love with the Einstein portrait instantly, and we ended up talking a good while longer about it, about its presence. Closest I've come to falling in love since Mr. X. I still think about that (the guy didn't get the job in the end, possibly unfortunately).

The presence of the dead can be exquisitely random, and yet it can be predictable. I know every time I go to the dentist, I'll cry - not because I've been hurt, but because the guy I go to was one of my dad's advisees. And he always has memories - such respect, such almost AWE at my dad's intelligence. His goodness. My dad had an elegant expansiveness; he was more than a marvelous teacher, he was a teacher of marvels, and he cared immensely about the students.

I remember the year he went from being the kid on the physics faculty, to being the oldest. Just the right retirements, a couple new hires - boom, suddenly he was the old war horse. He wore it so well.

The thing about the painting. The thing about the student who painted it. The thing about the guy transfixed by the portrait. The thing about my dentist, and the very books I inherited and the dog he never knew and the dog now years-gone, whom dad did love though she was so hard on his lungs ... the thing about the flotsam and the furniture of my life ... is that dad is part of none of it now - not the way he was. But he is part of all of it - and always will be.

My dad is me. He is my brother. He is my mom. He is the reason, and the question, and the answer, and the causation. He is how I came to be. What I hope *to* be. He IS, even still, a good man.

He gave me Einstein. And so did that student.

And all three of them - though not alone, not by a long shot - taught me gratitude. All these things are me.

And old Albert ... he made a good substitute granddaddy, when I had none left to "give me a little bit of that applesauce" or to love, quietly, while grandma took care.

Happy 138th birthday, Herr Professor Dr. Einstein. And thank you for *our* little corner of relativity.

And how has it always escaped me ... that Einstein's birthday is Pi day?


Anonymous said...

True story: For a long time I thought Einstein's Theory of Relativity was explaining the relationships of extended families. I thought it took a genius to understand how all of my Relatives were related.

DLM said...

When I was young, I learned at some point the rules of nomenclature around degree (first-cousin, second-cousin and so forth) and remove (once-removed, etc.). I also learned all the Greek gods and myths, and their constellations.

I can still spot Orion. But my first cousin's new grandson? He's just my cousin now. He can call me Auntie when it's time. I won't know the difference. :)

Lilac Shoshani said...

"The painting *is* his presence - and it is his absence. That is relativity for you." I love it!

DLM said...

:) Thank you, Lilac!