by Raju Peddada
To my brother and his family -- for their welcoming dogs, and their unpretentious informal hearth.
(Swans - September 23, 2013) 1998: This was a priceless year. We explored Elora Gorge in May, a quaint hamlet on the Grand River in Ontario. The kids, besides gorging on handmade chocolates and ice cream, did tubing on that rapid river that coursed through a deep misty gorge. In June, we (Lizzy and I) flew to Seattle, on our way to Vancouver, for a vacation. We were received warmly by my friend Harji, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia. We accumulated indelible experiences: nerve-jangling white-water rafting in Whistler; a private helicopter landing atop a glacier -- very scary; a ferry trip and B&B stays on Victoria (British Columbia's capital) and Salt Lake Island; a steam train ride to Squamish, in upper BC, and visits to local art galleries. At one gallery, they featured a stunning exhibit of fantastic mechanical birds crafted out of discarded typewriters and sewing machines, by Cynthia Lyman. I brought the whole show -- unburdened some pressing guilt, I suppose. "You are crazy, dad!" offered Lizzy.
On July 15th, Vipin, our old friend from New Delhi, arrived to spend a few months with us. And while I waited for him at terminal No. 5 at O'Hare, I met this unavoidable blonde, Monika, who happened to be an Olympic-class figure skater, with a body full of evidence. Let me slice off the small-talk here -- we made a date for the 23rd of July. Everything before the date became opaque, except this -- on the 22nd of July, we -- Vipin and I -- left early for Canada to visit my brother, his closer friend. I was in a hurry to return. You understand? And, as I took 278B onto 401W for Windsor, I was flooded with sultry images of all the possibilities. I flew back, barely avoiding being clocked at 85-90 mph by the state troopers.
I took exit 16 to the Indiana Toll Road, onto 90W for Chicago, and as I slowed to 40 mph approaching the toll booth, a white pigeon, swooping low, chased by a hawk, hit the left side of my car and skittered across the pavement. I stopped the car, got out, and walked to it filled with remorse. Still alive, it shuddered in its broken body, bleeding from its beak. I left it where it lay, and drove off, keeping an eye on it in the rear view mirror. Then suddenly I realized what would happen to it as other vehicles pulled up -- I shut my eyes for a moment. My mind, in flights of fancy since 278B, now fluttered with fatal omens. I traded my bloodied car for another car on August 12th. As it turned out, my coupling with Monika dashed into October and decoupled -- the only thing worth remembering was this: on October 10th, she was the last person I was with, atop the World Trade Center Towers in New York.
Ann Fisher, my old colleague from our Kimberly-Clark/Wisconsin days, visited me at the end of the year. We had traveled together extensively, from Neenah to Boston and to Atlanta regularly on company business during 1985-87. We both had developed an uninhibited friendship. She was hounded by the demons of her past, as a victim. Consequently, she had developed colic disorders, which turned her into a vegetarian. She loved exploring our ancient, curative, as well as restorative vegan cuisine, with deep appreciation. In the last week of December we drove to Waterloo to visit my whole family.
During this trip, we visited the nearby town of St. Jacobs, an artsy place with antique and craft shops. In our puttering through one antique shop, I noticed this frame back, about 5 by 3 feet, glass front facing the wall, deep in a corner, neglected and covered in cobwebs -- quite antiquated. When we had it pulled upright, I was stunned -- speechless. I recovered quickly and pulled on my poker face. Being an ardent student of English history, I estimated what it was: the memorial proclamation of the English Parliament, from the 1st of May, 1787, of "The Procession of King Edward VI From the Town of London to Westminster - Feb. XIX, MDXLVII Previous to His Coronation."
What was the significance of this etching? Well, first, it was the celebration of a schism with Catholicism. King Edward VI (1537-53) was the only son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. He was the third Tudor monarch, but the first Protestant king to cement the transformation of the Anglican Church into a prominent body. Reformation riots and unrest of 1549 marked Edward's short reign, and despite the turmoil and succession intrigue, he set the stage for Elizabethan England. But what excited me more were the names on this historic issue -- masters at their craft!
This watercolor painting was the work of Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (1733-1794), a Swiss topographical artist in watercolors and pen-&-ink, who was referred to as a "man of genius." The British Library credits him with producing the only surviving scene of the coronation of Edward VI, and it possesses 2,662 drawings of this artist. The other name on the piece was that of James Basire (1730-1802), who had apprenticed under William Blake and was the son of Issac Basire (1704-1768). The Basires were the royal map makers and engravers for four generations, and they were known for their accurate coast lines. James's extraordinarily detailed engraving is a masterpiece of reproduction art in the age when art-printing was still embryonic. Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake probably relied on their maps during their quests. I paid a pittance in U.S. currency and escaped with it on the 29th of December. We drove back to Chicago with my find the following morning, taking the same exit.
Back in Chicago, a few days later a prominent auction-house expert examined the etching closely with a special magnifying glass, and declared it to be a unique and genuine artifact of that schism. He pointed out the folds, and the reddish sealing impression still on it, from the 18th century, and also demonstrated how it was gate folded and sealed when it was issued. He stated how incredibly rare it was to see an artifact, much less one in paper, from that parliament commemorating the formative era of the Anglican Church -- they were deliberately sought and destroyed by the Catholics through the centuries. The frame and the cast glass with a wavy surface that housed the etching were from the Industrial Revolution -- 19th century. Ann, who was still with me -- less of a gambler than I -- was both envious and ecstatic for me.
This called for celebration, and what better than the New Year's Eve gala concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of which I was subscriber and had been attending concerts with Lizzy and other friends. The December 31st concert with Lizzy and Ann was an event within the event itself. I had somehow conjured a ticket for Ann at the last minute. We champagned away with Mozart's K22, especially its majestic 3rd movement; then Sylvia McNair belted out "O Mio Babbino Caro" by Puccini. An encore followed, but they crescendoed to Johann Strauss's marches and waltzes, with an occasional Gershwin. Ann, earlier during the concert, had whispered to me "my tummy feels like a compost pit." At the intermission, around 11:45, the subscribers were invited to dance on the stage, to bring in the New Year -- 1999 -- while the orchestra powered on.
All the subscribers, drunk by now, wobbled down in their formals to the stage, where Ann and I joined hands and danced. A few minutes into it, as we twirled away, she whispers again, "I have a huge fart... waiting." "Are you serious?" I asked, "Yes... yaas, I can't help it!" she whimpered. "Oh my god" was all I could say. "Did you take any medication?" She shook her head. Ann was nervous -- her colic malady flared, especially with all this excitement. Now, if you were constipated, like most carnivores can be, you would issue silent-deadly ones, which usually does not advertise the perpetrator. But, in Ann's case, she was a roughage grazer (raw, leafy fare), hence, the loud-guilty ones. Flatulence can't wait, it mandated quick thinking. As we became conscious of it, Ann's hip movement became choppy. She had pulled her buttocks in, to preempt any disaster -- even Lizzy noticed, watching from the sidelines.
Suddenly, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" alighted the auditorium, with all the wind instruments. "Ahaa!" I gushed, "What... whaaat?" she queried with her eyes. "Ann, could you time your fart to the trombone or the tuba?" She croons "oh gaad, Raaj -- you're my fuckin Solti!" So, as the orchestra percussed on, we negotiated our way to a corner, where she managed to clock one perfectly on the flugelhorn. Perhaps, it was the champagne, or just my hallucination under the conditions -- I sensed two things: her expulsion, bigger than I had expected, thrust her into me -- at the same time I noticed, over her shoulder, the decorative bunting vibrate with impact. "Aaaahh...!" she exhaled, deflated in relief. Lizzy turned away, with her hand over her mouth. This did not go unnoticed -- we were next to a liquored up couple, and the lady, with a complicit smirk, remarks "Too much broccoli, huh? -- I held mine all through Mozart...!"
This is how the curtain descended on 1998. All those decked-out people, in their tuxes and gowns, looking plastic and perfumed, trying desperately to cork up what makes them uncomfortable! Well, isn't it time to uncork, at least at the year end? Can you imagine what it was like in the car with the three of us on the way back home in those wee hours?
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)