Finding the Grape Arbor
A month before I left for Rome, I felt a mounting apprehension.
I’d reached an impasse in my life. I called it age. But it was something bigger—the feeling that every dollar, every minute, every gesture had to count. Hard as I tried to hold on, life was slipping too fast through my hands. In one of those great ironies of mind, the terror of this was so profound, I couldn’t do anything.
Looking back, I think the mold had already started to take hold.
A week before departure, my sister reminded me I didn’t have to go.
“But I do,” I told her. And then added—surprised to hear myself say it—“I’m going in search of my grape arbor.”
The grape arbor in the yard next to my grandmother’s house was where I went the day I played hooky in second grade. While I hated the world of school that turned everything into to right and wrong answers, going to the grape arbor was not an act of defiance. I simply went there in an act of free will, drawn by the quiet mystery of leaves and the sweetness of grapes. After a peaceful morning, I went home for lunch and found myself facing my father and the system that both came down on me so hard that the only way I could survive was to conform to the world of linear expectations. “That day at the grape arbor,” I told my sister, “was the last day I was truly myself.”
I’d thought I might rediscover my grape arbor in the ruins of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins—those women chosen at seven or eight to serve for thirty years, denying their own lives to keep the sacred fire of Rome going. But all I felt was the grief of young women who for daring to exercise their free will by expressing their love were buried alive.
Several days later, as I was awaiting for confirmation that I could escape the mold by moving to an apartment with windows, I set out for the Villa Giulia—the Renaissance palazzo that now housed Rome’s collection of Etruscan art. It was a long walk, so I’d waited for a day when it wasn’t raining. The map led me to the edge of a wooded park where, off the beaten track, the map suddenly proved useless so that I suddenly found myself lost in a damp dark place with nothing but the belief that it couldn’t possibly go on forever. A November chill and the smell of decaying leaves filled the air. Was it the mold, the antihistamine, or the place that made me think if it was all just a dream?
At last, light at the end of the trees. I stepped out—and there he sat in his white marble chair like thunder in the off-white morning:
Poeta Azerbaigiano Nizami Ganjavi 1141 - 1209
holding quill and ppwer in his bronze hands so large and powerful they appeared alive with god-like energy, his gaze so fierce that I turned to see what he was gazing at.
But what he was seeing was not the museum of modern art across the street that lay at the foot of a wide long flight of steps.
What was an eight-hundred-year-old Azergbaijani poet doing in the middle of Rome? Had I like some Italian Alice wandered down the coniglio hole?
But then, up the steps came a woman who knew where I was headed.
And very soon, I was paying my admission at il Museo Etrusco and asking how to find the ladies room. Through the courtyard to the left directed the woman in the book store.
As it turned out the courtyard, not the ladies room was to the left. And so it was that lost to the confusion of prepositional phrase, I found myself going left at the far end of the courtyard, a deserted and ghostly place covered in…yes, black mold. Ah, a doorway…that led to what appeared to be some sort of dungeon.
I really had to go.
Another door. Nope. An office.
I really really had to go.
Oh, not to the left, to the right.
Expecting something dismal and alarming, I was delighted to find a spotless facility and quickly headed back to the courtyard and the Etruscans. It was then that I noticed the frescos under the porticos on either side of the walkway. They were old and faded, with red or gold backgrounds. Fascinating. Like Chagall would have done, I thought, if he’d lived here.
I started back into the lobby for information about the frescos. What was I looking at and who painted them? But then suddenly, I stopped dead and said aloud to the calico cat who had just emerged from behind a hedge, “You know, I don’t really care. I’m just going to let them speak to me.” And they did:
Faces and images floating out from a nameless place. Bodies like spirits. Visages of grief and terror. Worlds of frivolity and feathers, clouds and fish, formal design and random gardens. I cannot now, even looking at the photographs explain how the story of my life emerged from the frescos. I think it was not the story of my life but the history of my soul that found its way back to me from exile in a foreign land, arriving through empires, art, animals, and even the hand of whoever it might have been that scraped away the genitals of the godly men and lovely women. I moved from one portico across the courtyard to the other portico and was nearly through it when I paused by a real door and looked at the potted trees on either side of it. Spindly and pruned.
Tears for them filled my eyes. I blinked and to clear the tears looked up. And there painted on the ceiling—a grape arbor. And beside the door with the sign pointing me toward the Etruscans, the last of the frescos: a woman making an offering and attended by a child cherub underneath a grape arbor.