BethMarch 15, 2012
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.