Thursday, March 6, 2014

Returning to Eden

On Sunday, February 23, my grandfather, the Canadian artist John Koerner, passed away peacefully in his home at the age of 100. I drank some champagne for him this week, as he once said that rather than put money in the stock market, he'd prefer to buy 100 cases of Veuve Cliquot and "sip it slowly." I also had the honor of speaking at his memorial in Vancouver last weekend, reflecting on our deep connection and how it grew and changed over the years. Below are my comments from his service. He is an eternal inspiration.

Johnny with Theo and Nathan, 2012. "Lighthouse" series painting in background.

Making it to one hundred is always a rare achievement, but even more rare is to live so well, with such lucidity and grace, as Johnny did for all that time. I count it among the greatest gifts of my life to have had my grandfather a close part of it for so long. In particular, I think often about what the last dozen years have meant. If Johnny had left us at eighty-eight, he would have still had an exceptionally long art career, a fifty-plus-year marriage, a loving family that included four adult grandchildren who could converse intelligently about his love for Japan, or his dislike of Schopenhauer; who could mix him a decent martini and try again at his insistence to read the pages of his adored Bô Yin Râ's philosophy.

I would still have been able to cherish childhood memories of Johnny telling us Bubbledog stories, teaching us to play checkers, gin, and even poker, and making wry jokes just when you least expected him to. He was a unique combination of European formality and an incredibly open sense of wonder. On the one hand, his precise gestures at the dinner table: pressing a finger to the wood-grain to pick up a stray crumb, always the napkin rings, tea cozy, rye bread. On the other hand, finding beauty in the pattern of wet leaves on a sidewalk, or a cast-off metal stencil of the number 5 that he turned into abstracted patterns in his paintings, or lighting up with his conspiratorial giggle. Once, waiting for the ferry to Victoria, when my brother Brian and I, with cousins Taylor and Jason, were playing in a playhouse pile of multi-colored balls, he took off his shoes and jumped in. Where there was joy to be had, he claimed it.

All of that stays with me. Yet the past decade or so has been a marvel.  First of all, I saw him fall in love—exactly like the proverbial lighting bolt or Cupid’s arrow—and I witnessed what an incredible thing it was for him to find such compatibility and happiness with his second wife, Lisa. You could see that rediscovering love at this time in his life was an unexpected revelation, and it was deeply moving to witness.

Secondly, my own children came to know Johnny. Nathan flew kites with him on visits to Vancouver and challenged him to a chess match during a stay in Palm Springs. Most recently, my sons were able to not only celebrate Johnny’s 100th birthday, but went around town making a movie called “Secrets of a Centenarian”—interviewing family members and friends on their favorite memories with him, and filming each other giving impromptu docent tours of Johnny’s retrospective in Penticton. Even Theo, only 6, could without prompting tell you that this canvas represented a kimono, but also looked like a gateway, and also a harp. They heard what Johnny was saying in his light-filled paintings.

But the most profound thing for me was that I came to a different understanding of my grandfather in these last ten years—one that had eluded me. For a long time, well into my twenties, part of my grandfather remained an enigma to me. For all his openness and optimism, he remained resolutely evasive, inexpressive about certain aspects of the past. When I was in graduate school, in 1998, I was getting more and more involved in the Jewish community through friends and the roommates I was then living with. On one phone call, I finally got up the courage to ask Johnny, “What did it mean to you to be Jewish, to come from a Jewish family?” Long silence on the line. Then he said quietly, “I will write something about that for you.” That seemed understandable—he was always brief on the phone, but was a wonderful letter writer. I have a bulky three-ring binder of all the lengthy, lovely letters he has written me since I was two years old. When the promised missive arrived several months later, however, it was more than a letter—a fifty-page essay discoursing on memories of Prague and coming to Canada—but less than I desired, remaining stubbornly silent on the point I had most wanted to know about.

Two years later, when at dinner at our favorite local Chinese restaurant in Kerrisdale—just the two of us, as my grandmother Eileen was in hospital—I told him that I had met my future husband Micah—a rabbi—and that I was converting to Judaism. His eyebrows raised skyward in the middle of a bite of black bean fish. He expressed surprise, but still revealed nothing about what his Jewish family history meant to him.

At my wedding, he wore a yarmulke to the synagogue service, danced gallantly with my husband’s gorgeous cousin, and afterwards, still euphoric from the celebration, went swimming late at night with my cousin Taylor who recounted to me later that Johnny had told him he’d had a vision that night of Hebrew text called up from long ago.

Finally, after the birth of my second child, since I am a researcher by both nature and training, I determined that I could uncover much of the Koerner story in other ways. I researched online, hired a genealogist in the Czech Republic, and consulted Walter and Leon’s papers at the UBC archive; finally, Micah and I made a trip to Prague, and to the towns in Moravia where Johnny and his parents Theodore and Bertha were born. During the trip, expecting little in the way of material evidence, instead I uncovered traces of the Körner family going back several centuries: paintings of a mill in Hodonin from the 18th century, from which the Körner name, meaning grain-trader, derived. A plaque in a Prague synagogue thanking Ignatz Körner—a great-uncle of Johnny’s—for having helped restore the building in 1894. Visiting the town archives of Novy Jicin, where Johnny was born and where his grandfather had founded the lumber company that made the family’s fortunes, I found out that Johnny’s grandfather Isidore Körner had been President of the Jewish community there and uncle Leon had served as representative to several Zionist Congresses in Prague through the 1920s. I discovered that the Körner family had been among the founders of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem—and when I later visited Israel, was able to see their names on the walls there. All of this was a complete revelation to me.

I didn’t know how Johnny would react to me turning up all this history. This part of the past was something he’d discarded in transit to North America. He was deeply spiritual, but had fashioned his own beliefs at a young age from the readings of the Christian mystic Bô Yin Râ. He turned always towards the Pacific, not back across the Atlantic.

But instead, Johnny was curious, interested to know what I’d found, and downright tickled by the family photos I’d uncovered in Leon’s archive, including dozens from before the war: postcards of his family on vacation in Switzerland or Italy; portraits of he and Fred in matching sailor suits, or holding ice skates. He listened rapt to my stories of the places I’d visited on my trip. He began asking me questions about why this or that was not kosher, how I felt about Israel, what my observance meant to me.

I came to realize he wasn’t hiding or suppressing something; his life truly had simply taken him in a different direction.

Three years ago, Johnny had a retrospective of six decades of his work at the Elliott Louis Gallery and I volunteered to write wall texts for the show, and ultimately for the catalogue that was produced. We had long conversations on the phone discussing the many themes his work returned to over and over again in his long career: the lighthouse, the coastlines, cosmos and celebration. In our collaboration, we produced something more than just text: a mutual understanding. He knew I got what he had been expressing in his work, and to me he wasn’t an enigma anymore.

John Koerner, "Garden of Eden, Opus 37," 1987

One of his favored series was that of the Garden of Eden—in a credo he wrote just weeks ago, he expressed that the garden stood for the rapturous plenitude from which we come, and to which we return. In the Jewish tradition, there is a beautiful, mournful prayer called “El Maleh Rachamim” that is sung not only at one’s funeral but at times during the year when we pause to remember those who have passed. At its center lies the same notion—that of a soul’s return to Eden. I would like to end not by singing it in Hebrew, as I could not do it justice, but by reading my and my husband Micah’s translation of it.

El Maleh Rachamim

Source of Tender Compassion,
Dwelling in the highest realms,
Grant complete rest under the wings of your Divine Presence,
In the realm of the holy and pure,
Resplendent as the shimmering firmament,
To the soul of John son of Theodore and Bertl
Who has gone to his world of light.
The Garden of Eden will be his resting place.

Master of mercy, envelop this soul in your radiance for eternity.
And may his legacy firmly be rooted within the world of the living.
May he rest in peace. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Amen. How wonderful that just as he had a great influence on you, your choices caused something to flower in him. May his memory be for a blessing.