March 15, 2012

Tour Guide


Some tour I’m leading here, huh? Imagine going on such a tour, the guide leading the group past a few featured pieces in a steady rhythm and then just, like, stopping, maybe staring blankly off into space for minutes, hours, or, in this case, days. Were you on this tour, and several days had gone by without any guiding, you’d begin to wonder about its existence. What brought us here? What’s holding us together? Most of life, maybe all of it insofar as we are able to perceive it, is a construct no more impervious to dissolution than cardboard. I intended to get to this penultimate stop on this tour last week, before my seventh-month-old son started running a high fever that eventually led to trips to the doctor and a trip to a hospital and, finally (everything is okay now), a 4 a.m. trip to the ER. I just said it, but allow me to say it again, for my own sake: everything is okay now. But I’m still shaken up. Every once in a while you are shown that reality is actually shapeless. All art is a hoping in the face of this reckoning.


In the early 1970s, right around when Doug McWilliams began taking photographs of figures and blue sky for Topps, my mother painted the portrait at the top of this page. It was of her friend Beth. Beth and her family lived next door to us.

This is when we were all living in a house in Hopewell, New Jersey: me, my brother, my father, my mother, and my mother’s boyfriend, Tom. I don’t have the time right now to once again explain this experimental hippie-inflected arrangement, but it was imperfect and based in hope and love. It was a complicated, hopeful, loving, impossible moment. I see all that in my mom’s painting of human beauty and sky. Eventually, we splintered. Dad to Manhattan, the rest of us to Vermont. Cold winters, little money: my mom drifted away from painting.

Years later, with my brother and me out of the house, she came back to art, not as a creator but as a student. For her, more hard years and little money. Eventually, she made it to the big leagues. I remember the day. She had a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arguably the greatest museum on earth. It was a temporary position but it lasted long enough that it would have merited—if working in a museum were like major league baseball in all its particulars—an appearance on a baseball card. I was thinking this past week about the closest thing to an equivalent to a baseball card, the photo ID badge that allowed her to walk past security and into even the most hidden corridors of the museum. My mother happened to be visiting this past week while my son was sick. During one of the moments when he seemed to be feeling okay I asked my mom how it felt to wear that ID badge and walk into the greatest museum on earth as an insider, a pro.

“Nerve-racking,” she said. “I was nervous there.”

She explained that it was a charged, pressurized environment. People were climbing over one another to get ahead. Departments battled one another. Some years later, after that temporary position had given way to another and then another, she would finally get a permanent museum job, at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it would be more to her liking: there, everyone was in it together.

But she admitted it did feel good to have a moment within that pinnacle of the museum world. Her highlight there was her contribution to the museum’s retrospective on Honoré Daumier. She wrote the chronology for the exhibition catalog and led tours through the exhibit. I went one day and stood among the gathering looking to her as the tour began. My mom introduced herself. She was wearing a dress. When she finished her opening spiel on Daumier an old guy in the tour piped up, addressing my mom.

“Nice knees, Jenny,” he said.

There was a staggered pause, a kind of communal eye-blink, and then my mom, the pro, pressed on, launching into the body of her tour guide presentation, and though I don’t specifically remember anything she said, I remember that I was very proud of her and then I was simply engrossed in her talk. She was a great tour guide. She made Daumier come alive. People were looking at old art and laughing.


I walked my mom to the train on Monday. The 4 a.m. trip to the ER had come and gone. My son was starting to feel better. There was blue sky.

“It was so good that you were here for this,” I said.

She had not been a guide through the crisis, because no one could have been, but it was very good for my sanity that she was there. She had been through similar tribulations. Under a doctor’s recommendation, she’d once dunked my brother, when he’d been an infant, in ice cold water to try to bring his fever down. She’d lived through broken legs and broken arms (my brother) and a falls down a well and off a cliff (me). It didn’t translate to anything specific beyond a presence that I could feel. My mother knew what it was like to have a sick kid. I tried to tell her some short version of all this, my gratitude for her presence, as we said goodbye.

“Well, I wasn’t a perfect mother,” she said. Disparagement of her own mothering abilities is something of a mantra for her. Her fallibility, her mistakes. I don’t care about that. I try to tell her, but I know how it is to have self-lacerating mantras.

She was and is a good mother, and she was and is a good artist, too. Most recently, she painted something for my son, a beanstalk climbing into the sky. She affixed a length of measuring tape along the right-hand border of it. We put it on the wall of his room and have started to use it to measure his progress up into the blue.


  1. Josh,

    Your writing continues to impress because it takes such interesting turns. Thank you.

  2. hopewell, new jersey sounds like such an appropriate name for your family’s experiment.
    is that museum, the metro museum in new york the one that houses or housed
    the jefferson burdick collection? did you ever see it?
    this blue theme you’ve been working on comes out nicely in your mom’s painting. i’ve never seen blue tinted sunglasses like that. they make me think of swimming pools which is alway a fun part of the tour and coming up in a few months. public swimming pools and all the arcade mix of kids and trouble makers and drunks drying up in the grass on the other side of the fence.
    this post was a nice knuckle ball.

  3. Totally loved this series. You should, you know, get an award for it or something.

  4. Steven:
    Yes, the Met has the Jefferson Burdick collection of cards. I did check out the small portion of his cards on display there but don’t remember the viewing very well. I did find this essay about a visit to the Met to see the collection:

    (Thanks for the good words, daverave2 and Jon.)

  5. And the main draw in the Burdick collection is the rare Honus Wagner card. When I was in the MMA print department, a steady stream of men and their sons came in to see it. Now it is apparently on periodic display:

  6. I’m married to that woman up there and I have her card.

  7. You’re right about Jenny. She was a terrific artist, a wonderful mother AND a dear friend.

  8. Great to hear from you, George and Beth!

    George brings this full circle a bit–if I remember correctly, George was an excellent baseball player in his day. This memory is from when I was five and is hazy and possibly fictional, but I think the first time I ever heard the term “semi-pro” it was in reference to George’s baseball career.

  9. “Totally loved this series.”

    If my vocabulary skills are what they used to be, there should be one more entry. Right?

  10. Oh I’ve gotta try this one…

    Considering the blue sky, the sunglasses, and what could be a Jaws-era swimsuit if not just a beachy outfit, I’d say this was done on the beach, as opposed to, say, downtown Hopewell. It could easily be at a lake or a park, but I’m gonna say it’s the Jersey shore. (Though this would have required the neighbor going with the family on a trip–hey, we’d take our next-door neighbor with us to Atlantic City every summer to act as babysitter while mom and dad gambled, so it’s possible.) If it IS the Jersey shore, I’ll play it safe and go with the closest notable beach town to Hopewell, Asbury Park. A common vacation time would be 4th of July. And you say “early 70s”–we know from other Wilker writings that Tom started his run in the house in ’73, and they were in Vermont by spring ’75, so I’ll just go with ’74. That’s my guess. Asbury Park, NJ, 7/4/1974, 2 p.m.

    Now then–we’ve got the artist and subject active in these comments! So let’s hear the real answer! I have a feeling I’m wayyyyy off on this one….

  11. thank you jenny s wilker for that link-
    an interview with museum curator,
    future plans for the burdick collection.

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