I'd only been to Boston once before, when I was in my early twenties and living in New York with my then-husband, an artist I met through my brother. What stood out in my mind from that long-ago visit was the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum of Art. This is one of my four favorite art museums in America, which include the Gardner, the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Frick in New York City. These are all small, privately built museums that embrace the viewer as a family friend. The Gardner was designed by Mrs. Gardner herself and reflects her passion for Roman antiquities, as well as housing a wide range of European art. Everything is exactly as she left it, and it is stipulated in her will that nothing ever be changed. What you see is what she created, dark, ornate, a bit over the top, but utterly charming.
After our museum visit, we had an hour to kill, so we crossed the street and strolled down to Harvard Square. I had never been there before, and I was slightly amazed to see that it looked like any college campus, with brick buildings, criss-crossing sidewalks, and incredibly young-looking students lumbering along with their bulging backpacks. We sat down on two chairs under some trees and settled in to people-watching. One exuberant student led a tour of prospective students and their parents; he was a hoot. Maybe he was an acting major (if there is such a thing at Harvard) or maybe he simply enjoyed being the center of attention, but if I'd had to join a tour group, I'd have wanted to be in his.
I always enjoy watching family threesomes navigating an unfamiliar space. Gangly teens with big feet stumble alongside eager parents, whose lostness is undoubtedly an embarrassment to their offspring. I like to see the noses in particular. Every kid's nose resembles at least one of his parent's, and you can project a middle-aged face onto the undefined features of the young. I have been that awkward teenager; I have been that tentative parent; I have been that professor who alone seems to know where she is going. Now I am the observer, a graduate, if you will, of the institution we call "higher education." I have sailed through its straits, survived its turbulence, and come ashore on an island afloat in time. It is good to be still and sit under the trees and remember where I've been.
I have concluded that I am not a big-city person. I find the idea of small-town life suffocating, but large cities make me feel like a bug about to be crushed. Too many strangers, too much traffic, too much dirt. The Gardner and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts were like ports in the storm to me, places where I could put down an anchor and look about. I do love art museums--better than concerts, plays, or operas, probably because I prefer walking around at my own pace to sitting still while other people do the moving. I want to be able to speak, to push ahead, or to pause, without following someone else's timetable, even if it is Mozart's. I love the four above-mentioned museums, for their scale as well as for their art, but my very favorite museums have to be the ones I visited in the South of France many years ago. The Fondation Maeght, the Matisse Chapel, the Leger Museum, the Picasso Museum in Antibes, as well as others, combine the attributes of a human-scale, a single vision or focus, and the tranquility of nature. Renoir's house, with its small collection of the master's paintings, could almost be any French family country home, and the monastery in Nice that houses a fine collection of Matisse vestments perches on a mountainside amid tangled olive trees, overlooking the Mediterranean. Of course, the Louvre, the Metropolitan, or MOMA are impressive, but I still prefer the small jewel to the mountain of marble. I have refreshed my memory of the Isabella Stuart Gardner. Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, I'll be able to walk through the farmers' market on the way to Picasso's fortress, picking up an armload of flowers along the way.
Addendum: I have been reminded that the Gardner museum is nowhere near Harvard, so obviously we didn't walk from one to the other. The way I described it is the way I remember it, however. Memory is indeed a slippery fellow who, as the psychologists point out, has his own agenda. Sometimes I wonder if we don't create the narrative of our lives, rather than simply remembering it. As Wordsworth put it, "We half perceive and half create."