“Her eyes are shut tight like faded fallen petals
that will no longer bloom.” – anonymous
Gold leaves splayed the middle of the spring in Vienna. I remember it distinctly because everywhere I went to, there were the mosaic leaves printed and displayed in facades and edifices. They were all alluringly integrated into the flow of the city. Mysticism and romanticism became the language spoken in faithful adoration of Gustav Klimt’s works. Seduction reflected in the morning calm as well as in the golden afternoon. It was evident in the full belly of U-Bahns and Strabenbahn and even in the elegant street of Kartner Strasse. Surprisingly, it glowed too in the front of the neo-Gothic City Hall and outside the Schonbrunn Palace.
Vienna or Wein was a city at the throes of an intimate embrace of newness and feminine delicacy. A thin shower of rain peppered the invisible and flimsy layer of velvet and greenish life, as seen in the erect and oblatory lime trees. There was intense enthusiasm in the rhythm that permeated in the square of Stephansplatz. Vibrance dominated among the Viennese people who enjoyed their freshly brewed coffee outdoors. Behind the windows, there was the temptation of the sweet pastries and artfully sculpted cakes. Women in their floral motif scarves glided through boutiques and posh shops. Men huddled together, enjoying the Wiener schnitzel and apfelstrudel. A plethora of culinary feasts presented itself everywhere, from Turkish falafel and kebab to wurstel and bratwurst. It was musical in its existence. Along the Danube River, charm bristled, generated wings of discovery in the small patterns of architecture and musical scores faithful to the tradition of Haydn, Schubert, and Strauss.
It was a time when you wanted to waltz through the well-patterned street and maybe recite Garcia Lorca’s lines of “in Vienna I will dance with you in a costume with a river’s head. See how the hyacinths line my banks!” It was a time to listen even in the traffic-jammed Ringstrasse and see how the city comes alive and perpetuates the legacy of an empire that lost its glory to time and shifting powers.
It was the year Vienna celebrated the 150th birthday of one of its favorite sons, Gustave Klimt. Everywhere, posters and banners were enticing the crowds of visitors to come inside the fertile bosom of the different museums, the Belvedere, the Leopold, Albertina, and others. They all bellowed to become vulnerable, with Klimt fever gripping the whole city. Vienna looked like an exuberant empress leaving extravagant exhibitions on its trail dedicated to Klimt’s works. They competed in attention and complemented each other in full appreciation of the genius and symbolism of his oeuvre. In our hotel lobby, a reproduction of the iconic Kiss invites you to take part in that intimate embrace. It encouraged us to transport ourselves into the ethereal, into the mosaic world recondite of Byzantine art.
I looked at the soulful eyes of two women seated before me while at Cafe Europa. They both glowed in their beauty and aura. They were bathed in the warm lights of this cafe that opened until midnight and welcomed us after watching a piano performance at the nearby St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The music probably still lingered with them, and they looked forward to a taste of sacher torte and Viennese coffee. They smiled to me, a smile engulfing to the experience of being present and being there at that moment as if everything became too poignant and profoundly human. I had a date with two women who most mattered to me, my wife, and my mother. It was memorable as it was on the eve of Mothers’ Day. Both are mothers — my mother with three children and my wife with our four children.
“Happy Mothers’ Day to both of you.”, I said with sincere gratitude before I savored the nectarine taste of the Austrian specialty.
At that moment, I remembered the iconic painting of Kiss. Like the woman in Klimt’s masterpiece, they have been both embraced and kissed by the fate of men’s death.
My wife lost her younger brother, who was 21 years old and engaged to be married. She fought hard to uncover and expose the perpetrators of the murder of her navy ensign brother, who stood up against corruption and remained firm with his conviction. Her love for her brother made her trod a dangerous path, actively supporting her father to get justice despite fighting the military establishment. She became an astute sleuth helping piece together pieces of evidence, shunned by the police authorities, threatened physically, and robbed some of the time she can spend with the growing children of hers. Throughout the more than 20 years where justice ran extremely slow in the labyrinthine judicial platforms, I saw her fought back and prayed extremely hard. I embraced and comforted her in pain and lingering frustration in the quixotic battle for truth. At times, I celebrated with her small gains and victories. I listened to her share the special bond they had as siblings growing together in family bliss and sharing childhood dreams they nurtured and cherished. One of the lines in a poem written Leonard Cohen aptly described her utter loss, “there’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking, they’ve been sentenced to death by the blues.” Yet, she survived, building dreams with the family that celebrate the life and legacy of his brother.
My mother, at a young age of 37, saw herself left alone to raise three children of tender ages. The man of her life, my father, succumbed to the complications of kidney failure leaving her hospital bills to pay and an uncertain future. She descended into black mourning. The cry of a young widow in the middle of the night would sometimes wake us up worried about her. Her sadness was so profound that it seemed her cold bed she used to share with her husband of a dozen years, became an altar of that insurmountable despair. Thinking about this now, the poet Cohen captured it well when he wrote,
“On a bed where the moon has been sweating,
in a cry filled with footsteps and sand—
Ay, ay ay ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz,
take its broken waist in your hand.”
Yet, she fought back against the pangs of enveloping misfortune. She crawled back from that grave that was about to bury her in oblivion. She promised to bring up her children and make the family intact. She fought with resilience and a resolve to be a strong and formidable woman. She sacrificed her whims and the prospect of finding a new partner in life. She made significant sacrifices and maybe had whispered at her husband’s grave that she would spend the remaining years of her life dedicating it to her children. All through those years, she endured, while teaching young children in a public government school. After two decades, life looked upon her with favor. Life rewarded with her children charting their future and learning from that tragedy.
In that Viennese cafe of celebration, they both smiled with grace and flair. In their faces, their luminous beauty became so full of meaning and courage. These two women vanquished the violence and kiss of death that looked so skeletal in Kiss. The Kiss, although gilded with the mesmerizing patterns and exquisite colors of a flowing robe of geometric prints, symbolizes the depth and breadth of their journeys. These will forever be tapestries of our family stories. I am fortunate to witness and be part of the intersection of the lives with these two women of faith, courage, and perseverance.
I looked outside the windows of the cafe. There rose a sobering view of accentuated magic and soulful sensuality. The bed of spring flowers, of different hues and varieties, connived to bring that almost imperceptible spectacle. I noticed, in the flowers’ ebullience of experiencing spring, there was still a tinge of sadness and quietness depicted in them. Maybe, their innate beauty lies in experiencing pain and despair and desiring to be the expression of pure color and life. I had wanted to harvest them all and bring them to the women before me. I wanted to proffer them a simple mystery of fragrance shared. I told myself, it won’t matter a bit if I don’t see the Kiss in a canvas displayed at the Belvedere Museum the next day. The real Kiss that Klimt imbued with so much genius, style, and adoration was there before me. I can embrace them both with so much fire, empathy, and love.
I thanked Vienna and the Kiss as I intoned Cohen’s lines.
“Little waltz, little waltz, little waltz,
of itself of death, and of brandy
that dips its tail in the sea.”