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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

At the National Portrait Gallery

Dreams of My Grandfather
By David Houston
Junto Staff Writer Bio
Now treading the last waters of consciousness, the figures from
Dreamland poised around me like players in a game of Red light Green
light, ready to resume, waiting for my attention to shift a little more.

On a silent cue, we all exhale and take up the Play again. I am in a
theatre, or club. It looks  like  a fancy house from the 1840's that has
seen better days, slightly frayed red damask walls, gas light fixtures.

Upstairs everything is smaller, the ceiling only as high as a man can
reach, like in early times. I am expected somewhere downstairs, but I'm
not sure where, I am not familiar with this place, still discovering it.

There is a sense of foreboding, anticipation. I go out onto a balcony
that wraps around three stories of the lobby. There is light, activity,
I hears voices. I go down. There, around a long table sits my Grandfather
and, on his right, Ben Franklin, and then James Madison, and perhaps eight
or nine others.

I'm so distracted trying to keep acting normally and process "Ben Franklin"?  "People from a different centuries?"  I don't register who the rest are. My Grandfather welcomes me very warmly
like a much favored grandchild. I feel about eight years old in his company. I am a little taken back because I never knew him in this life; he died before I was born.

There is a large document on the table, parchment, they are planning something. There is one of those moments where it is silently and quickly translated from unknown to known, but only the vague outlines. I'm asked what I think.

"Yes, yes" I silently ascent, although I have no clear idea to what. Inside I am busy on two
tracks. One, that we might still be involved with this world, even planning new things for this world after we die  It hardly seems worth it, to call it dying, that I am so warmly favoured by my Grandfather, really that he even knows me.

He was always reported to be formidable, distant from my Father, who in turn was reserved, distant from me. I just assumed that I would never be accepted into the fold on that side of the family.

This dream, this encounter really, was a right of passage for me, a rite of acceptance. Rather shaky ground to base this on I know but my only other contact was putting a cotton beard
on his portrait at Christmastime.

When we went to see the painting on a trip back to Washington with the family, something told me it was venturing too far into the past, or was untoward to move the memory of his painting to such a public place. I couldn't really tell, and anyway couldn't see the harm. We finally located where the painting was hung, it was in the National Portrait Gallery. It was done when he was Secretary of Agriculture in President Wilson's Cabinet.

Anyway when we located the gallery and turned the corner, there we were met by an entire blank wall of milky plastic taped off all around, floor walls and ceiling. The gallery  was undergoing
renovation. In the Art of Memory, the technique for remembering things by placing them in a familiar place or temple, it is perhaps untoward or at least disruptive to go back and see that the skeleton of your memories is completely reordered.

I had the same feeling when I went back near my college, and was opening lots of old doors. Well, again, what's the harm, when was I going to be back again anyway now that I live in California? I headed over. Half way there the road was completely blocked by a pile of dirt ten feet high. I think they must have taken out the bridge, or something to go to such measures. I turned
back, I didn't go around the other way.

Washington is great for places that stay the same year in and year out. The National Gallery, where it is always the same temperature and humidity as well, hit me full force, seeming to neatly
gather up all the visits going back to when I was 12, and in such a way that I was re-seeing everything with eyes of a now 40-year-old.

At 12, it was "my" collection and I took it for granted that like the movies that came to town two months after they opened in New York, a little behind. Now there were Masterpieces looming from every wall. I got Stendhal Syndrome. Embarrassing, I thought it was fictive, an
affectation or an artifact from a more refined time of fainting couches and smelling salts.

Stendhal Syndrome, overcome by an excess of beauty, turns out to be about as much fun as car sickness. Like a carnival ride going too fast my stomach got queasy and the power started to drain from every limb. I had to get out of there, fast. Literally shielding my eyes from an entire roomful  of Velasquez on the way, I found my way to a side door and sat down. There beside me was the date the building was erected. MCMXL, 1940, only seven years older than I.