You can’t imagine how much I loved holidays. Especially Christmas. Getting out the Christmas records and playing them over and over on the stereo. There was a Bing Crosby one where he talked in soothing tones about Young Jethro unwrapping presents all done up with paper that looked like stained glass. Decorating the tree. I was a Christmas ornament. Miss Twitchell told us to bring our school photo and we cut it into a triangle and put popsicle sticks around the edge. She came around and put glue on them and we sprinkled dusty sparkles that looked like icicles all along the frame and it made us feel proud. We knew we’d be right there on the tree, front and center, and everyone would say “oooh” as the tinsel reflected off the sparkles that made our faces with smiles shine and our lips look like flower petals that would bloom in different colors in April. I’m still there, somewhere down inside a cardboard box under the stairs wrapped in newspaper that’s got 1950 and some other words on it. Once a year I come out and hang there smiling at everyone with sparkly popsicle frame.
Easter too. Coloring Easter eggs. My Easter basket was the wrong color and I thought everyone would think I was a girl; my brother got the one I wanted and I cried but didn’t let anyone see. Mom would boil a dozen eggs and we used this funny wire to fish them out to dry. I liked to put different colors together and ended up with green because I mixed in yellow. I always liked science.
I was reading “Follow My Leader,” about a boy who was blind, and wondered if he colored Easter eggs too.
On camping trips, the best part was the fire. Back then Dad would always get out of the tent first in the morning to build one. Then my brother and I sat by it while he got ready to cook bacon. I liked to look at the flame, especially the really hot part. It’s the part in the center that looks like those electric lights that bubble on a Christmas tree. It makes smoke that always follows you around and makes your eyes sting like anything. You breathe it in sometimes, and it makes you cough. So you know what it smells like and how it used to make you feel when you were sitting there with your big brother and your Dad who always knew what to say and how to say it.
Funny how the flame gives birth to smoke that’s the same color and then just rises up into the waiting arms of the pines and disappears into the sky.
Look up. You need to look up, at the sky. On a clear cold morning next to a campfire and watch that happen. If you are next to a lake, look at the surface. That’s how you are going to feel when the camping trip is over and you have to leave. It’s what saying goodbye feels like.
We learned about the Civil War in school. The teacher said it was a dark time in our history. I kept thinking to myself, if Americans were shooting at each other, how could anyone tell whose side they were on? Turns out the Union soldiers wore one color uniform, and the Confederate soldiers wore another.
My brother was color blind and that made me worry. One time I wrote him a letter and in it wondered what it would have been like to be wearing a uniform and to look across a field at your brother who was wearing a different color. He didn’t say much, but I couldn’t stop feeling sad about it, and the sadness stayed in me.
When you are in college, you start to think about which things are important to you. You have to decide if the school colors matter. Football games and such. To me, my school colors looked like pastel colored ice-cream that was made from fake cream and had sickly-sweet sticky syrup in it.
You start to think about other things, too: Science. Logic. Music. Art. A girl with honey hair that looks at you a certain way and makes you feel another way. She plays Joni Mitchell records and says that sometimes Joni wails a lot but it makes you feel free and alive.
You need to listen to Joni Mitchell. She’s from Canada. It’s no wonder because she did an album that’s named for the way the sky and the lakes look there. The lakes. You need to go to Canada. You have to drive to Banff and get out of the car and look down at them from above. They look like sapphires. You’ll remember how you feel when you are seeing them the first time, just like you remember your first time falling in love when you are in college, with the honey hair and eyes of a certain reflective color that make you look deep into her soul and feel the world is waiting there for you. She demolishes you with her eyes. You go with her to look for places at two in the morning to steal kisses and touches and other things that you want no one else to see you doing.
I took a course in Physics. We learned about the electromagnetic spectrum. The human eye can only detect a fraction of all that is in it. We can see from 380 to 740 nanometers (nm), and that’s the part called the visible spectrum. It’s what makes up the colors of a rainbow.
There are some animals that can see parts of it that we can’t. That tells me a lot about animals.
I had a roommate named Stephen Gray when I was in college. He was good in math. So good that there’s a theorem named after him. He became a professor and went to a math conference in England. On his day off he went swimming in a lake. He went under and never came up again, and with him went a lot of undiscovered information about Riemannian manifolds. I got a card from someone after it happened, because they had gone through his address book and I was in it.
So unlucky. I’ve never been the same since. His name was cold like a blanket of snow, but thinking about him made me feel like I was looking at the lake next to a warm campfire when I was ten.
Someone gave me a book about animal ethics. I read it and decided to go vegan. The chapter about cows got me. The way a cow must feel when her milk is stolen and given away to feed the young not her own. That made me think of looking down at the lakes in Canada and looking up at the sky when I was ten. It was an empty feeling of goodbye. It felt like Joni was singing, but no one was there to hear it.
I went to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. My first time. My God, you can’t imagine. Outside on the Esplanade I saw a group of six statues called “Six Continents.” They had a dark shade to them that reflected light as if they were smoke rising from a campfire. Smoke is ephemeral, statues are bronze, but it’s what they are feeling that interests me most. I felt sorry for them, trapped there, looking. Guarding what’s inside an old train station, stoic. But are they happy? I asked my brother his opinion once, but he had none. They are just bronze figures of women, he said.
I said, one must imagine them melancholic, like the muted hue of their surfaces. Trapped, unable to look up or down. Only straight ahead at people walking by each day, barely taking notice. Static and without purpose.
Inside, I gazed at the sky of “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” No words, only tears. Loss, deep sadness, the color of Easter eggs, unknowing cows, unlucky friends, melancholic statues.
My brother invited me home. I hesitated, but said yes. We visited a cemetery and looked at the stone with our family name chiseled finely there. The stone reflected the light from the sky and the iris that he planted before I arrived. Vincent painted Iris, I said, the same color as those. He must have been a scientist to mix colors so perfectly on his palette. 450 nm? 460?
Was he happy? The answer lies in those iris, and in the night sky over Arles.
In the stained glass windows of the church where we were choirboys, there are pictures of saints and angels, smiling. Their feelings are reserved for the deep colors of the glass that let in
only the sunlight reflected off clouds in an azure sky where the heavens meet the earth. My brother kept going back to look at them but I stopped a long time ago.
I am alone now. There is a box under the stairs with my name on it. Easter baskets and Christmas ornaments. Records, Bing Crosby smiling on the cover. I am still a Christmas ornament. Faded, after years of hanging on trees with electric lights bubbling nearby. Popsicle sticks that lost most of their icicle glitter in the black and white newspaper I was hiding in all that time.
I search for Miss Twitchell in that box, but she’s gone too. There’s a secret I never told anyone: I kissed her cheek on the last day of first grade after everyone else left the room. I still see the dress she wore that day. It reflected the color of her eyes as she looked up at the sky or down at crystal lakes or at popsicle sticks with sparkles. Like Vincent’s iris, it was about 465 nm.
Was she someone’s Grandmother? I wonder if she wrote love letters to someone and stored them in the attic in a box tied up with a bow. A bow the color of her eyes, of her dress that day, of my brother’s Easter basket, of Canada skies, of Union soldiers, and of a sliver of the rainbow I carry in my heart.
Image: – google images.
9 thoughts on “About 465 nm: A Chronology by Martin Agee”
This was so well done we couldn’t pass it by.
I especially loved the section about The Civil War.
You are a skilled and lyrical writer my friend.
I hope that you have more for us very soon.
Thank you, Hugh.
The Civil War…here’s hoping we can learn from our collective past and one day embrace all of the colors of our individual rainbows.
Listening to each other’s stories would be a good place to begin, I think. Thanks for your part in helping make that happen.
It is moving without mawkish sentimentality; dignified yet not aloof; striking without getting in your face, and just plain good.
Thank you, Leila, for giving this piece a home.
The parts about the Christmas ornament and Easter egg wire implement makes we think we grew up in the same house. I never kissed a teacher though, despite owing so much to some great ones.
This story is pure gold!
I don’t recall growing up in the same house, but thank you for your kind words!
Like the above comment, this resonates with me, despite being a little younger than 84. I remember Christmas for the tinsel that had to be removed and folded for the next year. Despite forgetting almost everything from a career in math, I do remember Rieman integration. The failed relationships, those who have died, the melancholly. Yes.
Kind of like different musical moments leading to the whole life a symphony of moods, impressions and colours. The age 15 bit reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s style. I spelled Colours the Canadian way.
That was beautiful from start to finish. I think you managed to draw so many of us in with those intimate memories and concepts. I love the idea that the world is shades of black and white and that because our eyes are so unique we see colour. I would agree about Banff, it’s really a natural wonder and treasure. Mozart in the mountains was so amazing to experience. Wonderful story.