Monday, August 8, 2011

Recent Travels: Second Stop

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."

Recent Travels: First Stop

This summer's vacation took us to upstate New York, Boston, East Greenwich, RI, Litchfield Ct., and Winchester, Va.  It's always good to do things in the right order, and this time we hit it just about right.  First stop: my brother's house, which perches above a small lake where the Colgate University crew practice.  My brother has a pontoon boat that putts happily around the lake, and I love being out on the water.  Truth to tell, I prefer a lake to the ocean.  Oceans are so infinite and ultimately threatening.  Excepting the Great Lakes, a lake tends to lap the shore gently and smells comfortingly of water, rotting plant life, and boat fumes.  This may sound like an unpleasant combination, but when I smell it and feel the wind in my face, I am young again and anything seems possible.

For us, a couple of days hanging out on my brother's deck was a wonderful respite from the deadly heat in NC.  It had been hot in Hamilton too, but fortunately it cooled down in time for our stay.  Global warming is changing everything, as this summer's droughts, floods, storms, and heat waves attest.  Human beings' long history has been witness to many climate changes, and people have had to adapt in order to thrive, if not to survive.  The Thames used to freeze solid, and the Sahara used to be under water.  Nothing stays the same.  But sitting among the trees that shelter my brother's house, I felt the past--both my brother's and mine--as a presence that I could see out of the corner of my eye.

My brother had a cache of old family photographs, most of which I hadn't seen before, strangely enough.  Together we pored over them, recalling long-dead relatives, our own childhoods, and an America where cars had running boards and swim suits were made of wool.  One photograph in particular sticks in my mind.  It shows my father lying prone on a diving board that projects from a lakeside dock.  Hanging from his arms, with her feet just grazing the water, is my mother.  They both look so young, this photo must have been taken when they were in college.  My dad looks much as I  always think of him, except his hair is dark.  My mother, though, seems a different person from the one I knew.  Here, caught in a playful moment where she literally depends from my father, she is a slender sprite.  Will he continue to hold her, perhaps pull her up beside him?  Or will he let her go into the water?  My mother never really learned to swim; the water was an alien environment for her, and I imagine the thrill of fear, hilarity, and love she must have felt at that moment.

When I observe young people today, I am conscious of what lies ahead for them: the pains and joys of parenthood, the anxiety over career and money, the pressure of never having enough time.  Imagining my mother as one of those hopeful kids, with a World War, seriously ill children, and a year in Afghanistan no one could have predicted all ahead of her, I feel a lurch.  It is as if I were seeing her as my own daughter.

My brother moves more slowly now than he used to.  He nods off as I continue riffling through our shared family history, and I try not to disturb him.  My big brother.  My hero when I was a child, my advocate when I was an unhappy teenager, my friend when I most needed one.  I feel time nudging us from behind, and I want to say, "Stop!"  I want to stop the reel of memory from spinning; I want memory to be more than a black and white photo or a whisper of an emotion once felt.  I want to say everything I know I won't say, because to do so would be to admit mortality, and I can't do that.

And so we embrace and laugh and say goodbye until next time.  I never lived in Hamilton myself, but I spent a lot of time there over the years, so much so that I almost feel it as a kind of home and am struck by how much the familiar can be so exclusive.  In the end, I know I don't belong there, don't even want to, but leaving seems to pull something precious out of my hands.