Recently an audience member approached following a performance. “That was pure genius!” he said. I would have been more impressed had his next sentence not been, “Dude you rocked!” The boy was thirteen. He had mustard on his glasses and his belt buckled just beneath his butt. It was clear to me that he wouldn’t know “genius” if it crawled out of his shorts. The truth is I may very well have rocked that night. But “genius”? Probably not. I’m okay with that though because I think “genius” is highly over rated.
As a child, I knew that some of my classmates were a little smarter than I. Actually I knew that many of them… okay most of them were. I even suspected that a few might be geniuses. They were the kids who never had to study and yet they got straight A’s. I remember one girl in particular. Her name was Andrea. She always finished her tests with half our class time to spare. I would have just completed signing my paper and figuring out the date… maybe I’d scanned down to see if there were any easy questions. She’d be done. Then she’d file her nails while casually glancing over at my paper and smiling.
Was she a genius? I don’t know. Maybe. There was no way to know for sure because “genius” had to do with IQ scores and those were unavailable to us. Supposedly we’d all been tested at some time and somewhere in a dark office, probably underground, someone guarded a file full of IQs. But we were never to see them… ever! That was fine with me because I didn’t remember taking the test which probably meant I’d only signed my name and scanned for the easy ones before the bell rang. Best we leave the IQ file closed.
Honestly, I don’t think there were many geniuses among us. There was one boy in my sister’s class who we all thought of as the dummy. He’s now a world-renowned brain surgeon. I’m not saying I’d trust him with my grey matter but supposedly if anyone could find it, it would be him. I also wonder about this guy because he always seemed unhappy. This might be attributable to the fact that we all thought him stupid, and more than a few told him so, but maybe he was unhappy because he was a genius. The two do seem to go hand in hand. I’ve met only one person who I believe to be a genuine, honest to goodness genius.
In 1975, my wife Judy and I had the opportunity to vacation in Sweden. We traveled to my paternal grandfather’s hometown and it was there that we met my distant cousin Bernt Goran. He was a young man my own age, bearing a remarkable resemblance to my father’s family- in some ways a smaller version of myself. I found him intriguing. When he sat, he looked straight ahead. Even when crossing one leg over the other, as if relaxing, he looked on edge… he looked ready to bolt. His face would change appropriately with the room’s conversation, smiling when he ought, shaking his head in agreement or raising an eyebrow in concern but he seemed not fully engaged. Some underlying preoccupation gnawed for his attention. Judy and I liked him very much. We found him to be kind hearted but oddly apologetic. This may have been the result of shyness but we sensed there was something more.
“Bob, Judy,” he said and continued in faltering English, “tonight I wish to prepare a meal. Will you enjoy to come to my house then?”
“Yes of course,” Judy said, “We would enjoy that very much.”
That evening he picked us up at exactly the time we’d arranged and drove us far into the countryside where we saw nestled in the woods a small cottage. It was stained a deep iron red with white painted trim and fully blossomed window boxes. The roof was hand hewn wooden shakes and the evening sun, casting long shadows, gave it a soft mossy texture. Even from outside I could see that the windows were old wavy bubble glassed panes.
Inside, the floors of wide hardwood planking were covered with woven rugs the color of wild flowers, the same flowers that decorated the hand stenciled walls. The dining ware was set upon a lovely pine table, its design and patina perfectly tuned to the rest of the room. Down the center of the table a fine linen runner of blackberry purple, raspberry red, celery green. Around us, every detail was exquisite. I’d only a year earlier moved out of my own bachelor dwelling. I remembered it being not as nice.
Judy walked from vase to lamp to place-setting admiring each article, softly touching the fabrics and then standing for a long speechless moment before the stenciled walls. Finally she spoke softly. “Bernt,” she said. “Everything is so beautiful.”
“Yes, thanks very much,” he said. “It was many long hours.”
“What was?” I asked.
“To make this house,” he said.
“You made this? You did it by yourself?”
“No,” he said. “Sometimes I have a little help with heavy things.” Choosing his English words carefully, he spoke quietly, mostly looking downward. “I must first dig a hole for underneath and there are many large stones. So I use them for the foundation. Then I must cut some trees and make boards. And I have found glass for the windows in an old house, which has being taken down. And I must make the shingles for the roof. It has been much work.”
Judy returned to the table where she admired the linen runner. “This is a wonderful old linen,” she said. “Where did you find it?”
“Oh,” he said, “I have not found it. I have made it.” At this I laughed out loud only to realize he was serious.
“You made it?” I said.
“How?” I said. He looked directly at me and for a brief moment his expression changed. It was just a flash but I wondered if he thought I might be a bit slow.
“Well,” he continued, “first I must take a grown sheep…”
“Wait,” I said. “You grew a sheep?”
“No,” he said, “The sheep grew by itself but I shaved off the wool and spun it into threads on a… what do you call it?”
“A spinning wheel,” we chimed.
“Yes, yes and then I must make dye with flowers that I have grown. And the green color was very difficult because I must go into the forest for one kind of …” He searched for the word and made like he was digging.
“A root,” we said.
“Yes, yes.” He passed his hand over the linen and pointing at a thin line of mossy green thread, he said, “It is a rare root but I think it makes a very nice color.”
He had prepared a traditional meal of fish with dill sauce, boiled potatoes and summer beets. While we ate we asked about the leather shoulder bag and hat. We asked about the candlesticks, the flower arrangements and the woolen wall hanging. He made them all. Words like “master craftsman” and “renaissance man” came to mind. Two times I thought the word “moron” but both were in reference to myself. I did not wonder if he was a genius. Not yet.
Following the meal we drank dark coffee and he showed us a dulcimer… that he had made. Then I saw the accordion case in the corner. For anyone who plays the instrument the case is easily recognized. It can be for nothing else.
“Do you play the accordion?” I asked.
“Yes, this is a new one,” then he added with a smile, “but I have not made it.”
“I took lessons when I was a young boy,” I said.
Bernt’s countenance brightened. “Well then, you must play a song for me.” He put the instrument in my arms. I knew then that I could not play him a song. Even if I could remember one from my boyhood I could not play it on his instrument.
“Bernt, I’m sorry but I can’t play this kind of accordion. On my instrument I have keys for the right hand. But you have no keys. There are only buttons. Please, will you play for us?” I secured the bellows with the snap and handed him the instrument.
“Well… yes,” he said and left the room. When he returned he wore the accordion on his chest and a large harmonica in a neck holder.
“Alright then,” he said. “This song I have written.” He closed his eyes and began.
I don’t remember how long he played. I do remember though that he did not play a song. He played a masterpiece… lyrical and intricate. Woven melodies from both hands and another from the harmonica. Once I thought I heard Copland and then again something like Bernstein. Always it was wholly Scandinavian, intrinsically Swedish, moody with long mossy shadows and then flashes of midnight sun that stole my breath. How does one describe music with words? Let me fail even more and say it felt like Van Gogh.
When he finished he smiled.
We sat in silence.
“It is just something I have made,” he said softly. I shook my head. That’s all I could do. If I were brighter I might have told him that it too was exquisite. Like everything else in his home, its design and patina were perfectly tuned to… well to their maker. I was unable to find those words.
“Bernt,” I said, “I have never heard an accordion played that way. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe any of this. Bernt, do you know how remarkable you are? You are… you are… “ and then the word came. “I think you are a genius.” He lowered his gaze to the floor and shook his head side to side. “No,” I said. “I mean it. Everything you’ve done. And what you have just played… Bernt it is genius.”
Perhaps I expected a nonclaimer or at the least a “thank you”. Instead still shaking his head he said sadly, “It is not so good to be like this. My mind… it always goes. I sleep very little. Almost never. It won’t stop. My mind, it is always round and round. I am always thinking, trying to… “ Still shaking his head he said, “It is just not the best.”
I was awed standing in the presence of my cousin… a genius. And, I am so thankful to just be me.
I think of Bernt very often. I always hope he is well.About Bob Stromberg: From his home in St Paul, Minnesota Bob is sought after from corporations, nonprofits and media industry professionals from all over the world. He entertains and inspires with his unique and perfect blend of story, standup and shtick. Bob is also the co-author and original stars of the megahit theatrical comedy, Triple Espresso, which has been seen by almost two million people from San Diego to the West End of London. The Chicago Sun Times called Bob“…a mesmerizing physical comedian.” The London Times called him “…a genuinely funny man.” Bob Stromberg is also the author of the blog “Life on the Carousel.“ For more information call 615 283 0039 or email.