“It spoke to me. I could see the emotion. Don’t you?”
I knew the response Mom wanted. I even felt my better self writing a proper sentence in the back of my mind. Too bad my genius took too long perfecting the answer, allowing my usual snark to reach my mouth first. “It reminds me of geometry class. That was high school, which was full of traumatic emotions. So, yeah, I guess I see it.”
Cue Mom’s famous eye roll and sigh. (You know the one; every parent masters the motion and trots it out for such moments) I abandoned false apologies in my twenties, so a hasty retreat proved the better option. She saw something in the print — enough to ask Uncle Jim to keep it. Whether I understood (or any of his art, for that matter) remained immaterial.
Whenever I entered the room from that point, though, my gaze lifted. If Mom noticed, she chose not to mention it. Any more than I discussed the hours I spent attempting to puzzle out the meaning from the lines and angles. Endless minutes, lying on my back recovering from my spinal fusion, wondering if the combination of pain medications and fatigue might unlock the mystery.
Sometimes I decided he’d drawn a wheat field. Other times? I labeled them kelp strands, with the moon risen in the water overhead. The man dabbled in abstract and minimalism — artistic concepts that butted heads with my wild imagination. So, after years of squinting, I saw nothing more than that first reveal: lines and a circle.
Then the 2021 phone calls began. Uncle Jim — a man contemplating his 87th, a man with multiple survivals under his belt — was failing fast. I listened through every update Mom provided with a sinking heart. Each time, I wandered back to look at the framed print, blinking away remembered afterimages of his Christmas cards. Angles, shapes, and lines clashed with the fanciful titles he assigned to each (which I never understood), leaving behind a soft cushion of indescribable emotion.
Despite the fragmented nature of our relationship, Mom told me Uncle Jim always looked forward to my Christmas card and the travesty of a letter I tucked inside. (The one I spent weeks agonizing over, struggling to condense 365 days onto a single page) After that, his handmade cards (in this decade, printing on a computer counts) took on a special meaning. Maybe I didn’t understand the artwork, but I comprehended the underlying meaning: family, sharing, connection, love. I understood and wanted to reciprocate — even if it meant extra work for me on that damn letter.
Uncle Jim passed away on May 13, 2021.
The world doesn’t stop. You want it to, especially when you hear a familiar ring tone and look over to see your parents’ icon on the phone. The world, the universe, keeps moving, though. Even your heart continues to beat. It’s something in your brain that stops — or wants to. As you listen to tear-filled words, your mind stutters and fails to do anything except bring up an image of those lines and that circle. Not because you suddenly understand the print (you don’t), but because, as the wave of grief crashes down, the picture forms a final bridge to your loved one as they slip from your life.
Sitting at my desk, tear-blind, the only thought I processed after hanging up the phone was, “Who’s going to read my Christmas letter this year?” Followed close behind, I realized I wouldn’t open an envelope and find a new geometry print. And all I wanted to do was sit in front of those lines, the angles, and that circle. I wanted to reach out and touch the glass, smear my fingerprint across his tiny penned signature.
Between one breath and the next, the print transformed from a point of confusion and contention to the embodiment of everything that made my uncle the person I knew and remembered. (Mom, I found that emotion; it only took me six years)
The print turned into an inanimate object hanging on a wall, conveying decades of memories in a single glance. I don’t see the lines or circle when I stop in the room now. In their place are the laughing faces of a middle-aged couple; one face rounder and quicker with his smile, while the other’s more classic in his appearance and reserved. Another time, I catch the scent of the ocean and see the rolling mists of San Francisco’s famous fog. Or the reflection might show me the faded beauty of a “painted lady” on Valencia, complete with the creaking metal gate leading to a tiny patch of garden. I pick up the rolling timbre of a deep voice relating a fond story of our family history, complete with a restrained chuckle. The print IS Uncle Jim, preserved beyond the fragility of memory.
It reminds me of other objects squirreled away in my life. The box of “Are You Being Served?” episodes on VHS, stubbornly clung to despite the lack of a player. That gaudy beaded purse with the broken strap I’d never use in a million years. A stuffed eagle with twisted sticks in the wings, worn spots, and a missing eye. The hopelessly tacky snow globe of kittens playing on an armchair that plays “Memory.” The inanimate pieces of my life that tie me to loved ones I’ve lost. Parts and pieces I’ll never give up, with meanings and emotions tangled up in their simplicity I can’t quite explain to other people.
A little like a print on a wall of geometric lines that called out Mom all those years ago.