wherein my grandfather's life in exile is described
My grandfather had a painter friend who'd defected in '48 and settled in New York City but kept a studio in the Catskills because the rolling hills and climate reminded him of Bohemia. It was here that Dedi stayed after defecting, fixing up the farmhouse and trying his hand at drinking and painting.
The day before Babi surprised him by appearing at the farmhouse door, Dedi pushed an empty winejug off the back porch for the last time, expecting to hear it break. But it didn't. There was an empty bottle there for every day he had been in America, six months' worth of drunken sunsets. Like memories of days themselves, most were shattered and mixed in with other fragments, but every so often, for whatever reason, one remained intact, whole and perfect, so that to run his finger over the surface would eventually lead back to where he started. He leaned over the porch to look at it, knowing that that unbroken bottle would be his key to all the memories of this day. It wasn't even cracked.
He was drunk when he answered the door the next day. He had never been a drinker before but now he found a weakness for the cheap local wine which he carried home jauntily slung over his shoulder. He found it humorous that for a native Czech he was only now starting to live la vie boheme. He had taken up painting, spent his day chasing the light from room to room in borrowed overalls, methodically recording the contents of his wallet: colorful Czech currency, snapshots of his family, his own official ID, business cards and receipts. These were the only reminders of the life he'd left behind the night he crawled under the wire, his rucksack stuffed with fungus and his cutting knife drawn--mushroom-picking his alibi should he be caught.
She could have overlooked his unshaven face, the bare feet, even the paintspattered pants had his fly not been undone. The open fly was just too much, and she never omitted the detail when she told the triumphant tale of immigrant-made-good which always climaxed her account of their reunion. The first thing she said was also her final say: "We are moving to Long Island. Even if I have to sell every last jewel, we are not going to live like this."
They bought a house in once-fashionable Hempstead and he established himself in a large closet in the finished basement where he continued to paint until his death although he didn't have a talent for it. He painted his faces too symmetrical, like valentines, serene and vapid, with none of the tension between the opposing sides of the brain that enliven faces with the ambiguities of emotion. He kept some clean brushes in a jar filled with vodka to which he added a shot of milk to make it look like dirty thinner. Had my grandmother suspected the true inspiration for his painting she never would have indulged it, but he tickled her vanity by making her his sole subject.
The only painting which remains is a group portrait of my grandmother based on a lifetime of photographs. There she is as a young mother with a stroller, her babyself in the carriage being pushed past her most recent photo, seated on the park bench looking wise, mother to the mother of herself, watching the baby go bye-bye.
In all there was one version of her face for each year she had lived distributed throughout the scene which he presented to her on her 60th birthday. "It's beautiful," she said, "But it's not finished. You must add a new one every year."
Whether it was drinking or discouragement which did him in, my grandfther died a few months later. She held onto the painting and every birthday thereafter would wake expecting a miracle, a new portrait among the flat fading faces, evidence that she still lived. But nothing changes in a portrait except how we look at ourselves and she came to call the time after her husband's death her faceless existence.