Today I talked to my mother on Skype—she is getting ready to visit me, something that hasn't happened in two years—and behind her, on a calendar, was an image of a watermelon, and the significance of this simple combination nearly overcame with wonder. It took me a long time to get to this point, but now that I am here, I want to dwell in it for a moment.
I've been full of watermelon lately.
I recently rode my bike on a trail alongside a watermelon patch, on a trail that was punctuated every few hundred meters with a smashed melon, its kind of atomized pink guts sprayed out all over the brown dirt. They looked unripe because they were so light in color, but I did consider grabbing one and putting it in my bag. I decided not to, because I didn't want to get caught for poaching watermelons.
But a bike ride earlier this year is what really got the watermelon thing started. This ride along the Alexander River, just north of Netanya, passed by a khirbet (an abandoned structure), a post that was once a way station for watermelons being exported to Egypt. My father-in-law, who was riding with me, thought this was ironic since Egypt was, biblically speaking, a watermelon hub (it still is). The exact line, Israelites lamenting in the desert, reads: "we remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the watermelons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic. But now our soul is dried away..."
That got me started on a research mission, in which I found this history of the watermelons: Melon: A
Global History by Sylvia Lovegren. A few weeks later, at the kitchen sink, I was cutting up two enormous watermelons with my wife for our son's birthday party the next morning, and I was telling her about what I had learned about the history of the watermelon. One point I loved: the Hebrew word אבטיח (avatiach)—which many Hebrew speakers assume is derived from the word for "father," abba— actually came from the Ancient Egyptian word for watermelon, bddw-k. For some reason, in that moment I felt entirely overwhelmed with satisfaction with her as my wife, and being in love with her, and living our lives together. To me that moment was the reason for it all: love, marriage, being alive. It's the kind of boring thing that shouldn't be remarkable (we were talking about watermelons by the sink!) and yet there it is.
"What does the Egyptian word mean?" she asked. So I googled. Looking for the references for the ancient origin of that word, to see what exactly bddw-k meant, if anything other than "watermelon" itself, I stumbled upon a page from the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum that showed the sculpture work of artist Tony Matelli. Matelli created Hera, a facsimile ancient Greek statue of the goddess Hera, goddess of matrimony and women, adorned with watermelons: eaten ones, whole ones, halved, quartered. All types. The museum explains that by bringing the watermelon and the sculpture together "Matelli stages opposing entropic forces, the synthetically preserved, and the forcibly decayed." But for me the pairing of watermelon and Hera, in that moment, was utterly full of sustenance.
Hera isn't usually thought of as being goddess of something as tangible as the sea or the sky, like other ancient Greek deities. Her domain is purely cultural: marriage, women. You don't usually associate her with being a love goddess, but in as much as marriage is about love, or has the potential to engender those feelings in people, she is. She doesn't have the feminist cache that Artemis or Athena have; she's viewed mostly in her relation to the patriarchy, and as being in some way subservient to it. As Theoi Project puts it: "Hera is not, like Zeus, the queen of gods and men, but simply the wife of the supreme god." I don't see it that way. I think marriage has more nuanced purpose and depth of feeling than most people—especially married people—give it credit. Over the 48 hours I have had one dear friend begin a marriage, and another dear friend end one. And in those extremes it becomes so clear why the marriage queen would be the partner of a supreme being. It is a force that can transform you into something new, and through you, transform the whole world into something else.
All of this really reminded me of a part in My Dinner with Andre, which I had watched again recently. Andre tells Wally about a string of coincidences that led him to begin his work with children's book The Little Prince.
The long passage in full:
Now that same morning I had gotten a letter from one
of the women who had been in my group in Poland.
And in her letter she had said, "You have dominated
me." She spoke, you know, very awkward English. And
so she'd gone to the dictionary, and she'd crossed out the
word "dominated" and witten, "No, the correct word is
'tamed.'" And then when I went into town and bought the
book and started to read it, I saw that "taming" was the
most important word in the whole book. And by the end
of the book I was in tears, I was so moved by the story.
And I went to try to write an answer to the letter, because
she'd sent me a very long letter, but I just couldn't find the
right words. So finally I took my hand, put it on a piece
of paper and outlined it with a pen and put in the center
something like "Your heart is in my hand"—something
like that. And then I went over to my brother's house to
swim, because he lives nearby in the country and he has a
pool, and he wasn't there. And i went into his library, and
he had bought at an auction the collected issued of
Minotaur—you know, the surrealist magazine—it was a
great, great surrealist magazine of the twenties and thirties
that had all kinds of people like Dali and so on — and I
had never—because I consider myself a bit of a surrealist—
I had never ever seen a copy of Minotaur. And here they
were, bound, year after year. So, at random, I picked one
out, and I opened it, and there was a full-page reproduction
of the letter "A" from Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland. And I
thought, That's— Well, you know, it's been a day of
coincidences, but that's not unusual, that the surrealist would
have been interested in Alice and I did a play of Alice. So I
opened to another page, and there were four handprints. One
was André Breton, another was André Derain, the third was
André—I've got it written down somewhere, it's not Malraux,
it's like—someone—another of the surrealists—all A's—
and the fourth was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote
The Little Prince. And they'd given these handprints to
some kind of an expert without saying whose hands they
belonged to, and under Saint Exupéry it said he was an artist
with very powerful eyes who was a tamer of wild animals.
So I thought, This is incredible, you know. And I looked back
to see when this issue came out, and it came out on the
newsstands May 12, 1934, and I was born during the day of
May 11, 1934.
It all seems silly to me now as I type it, but there was a real feeling that this was no coincidence for me, that I was meant to follow the path from the significance of watermelon in human history, feeling deeply enamored with my wife, feeling deep sentiments of attraction and devotion, to finding this statue that combined both those elements together. And the sculptor's name name was Anthony.
Now I know what you are going to say: you're going to say exactly what Wally says to Andre when Wally finally gets a chance to answer. They're just coincidences!
Everything he knows and has ever been taught to know about scientific thinking and the ordered, rational, non-mystical world says these events are not personal signals from the deep soul of the universe. Yes, it's summer, we eat watermelon in the summer, ergo there are a lot of watermelon images out there. And yes, I was talking to my wife about watermelons, and feeling the strength of being with her together in marriage, and then there was an image of the goddess of marriage covered in watermelons by an artist with the same name as me, which is all oddly similar to the scene in My Dinner with Andre which I just recently watched. These sort of coincidences just happen.
I can accept that that might be true. And yet, things are not always what they seem.
[Photo credits: Top: Pyramid Watermelon by Flickr user rumpleteaser, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.]