A memorable lesson in art appreciation.
About ten years ago I took my grandmother, my abuela, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. To most New Yorkers, this amazing institution is affectionately known as “the Met.” My grandmother had never been to the Met. She was one of those Old World people who never go out for “entertainment.” These are people who still unplug all appliances and electronics when they are not being used. These people never buy something they don’t really need, barely speak English, and always think you have never eaten enough. My grandmother has never been to the movies, or to a concert, and certainly had not been to a museum.
I don’t want you to get the wrong impression about her. She was someone who appreciated the aesthetics of a thing well made. For all of her working years, she was a seamstress. She could make anything. As a child I watched her cut patterns out of newspaper, and then with discipline and determination make a suit you’d be proud to wear. Up until her stroke at the age of 89, she never wore a store-bought dress. I believe even her undergarments were made by her own hand. And no fabric was unsalvageable. When I was eight she made me, and my doll, the loveliest dress I ever owned from the drapes that used to hang in her living room. My doll still wore that dress long after I had moved away to college.
She was a simple woman. She lived on the ninth floor of her apartment building in the South Bronx from 1960 to 2007, and for more than 40 years (until her stroke) she only occasionally took the elevator, preferring to walk the stairs. She believed in shopping every day for the food you’d need that day, and when she cooked a chicken, she caressed it clean, as if it were a baby, preparing it for a bath of garlic, onions, salt, pepper, oregano, cilantro, and oil.
Over the course of her 92 years, she had only been in a car a dozen times. She came to New York City on a boat when she was 18, and only began to travel outside the city in the 1980s after her last living sister moved from Brooklyn to the Catskills. I think they moved, my great aunt and her husband, to have more room for the chickens. My great aunt Mercedes always raised chickens—she for the meat, and her husband for the cockfighting. The only other time I remember my grandmother traveling out of the city was to attend the funeral of her eldest son, my father, when he died at the age of 46, in New Jersey.
Before my dad moved to New Jersey, he lived in Brooklyn. I moved there too, when I was 22, to spend a year doing an unpaid music therapy internship at Flower Hospital, a hospital for developmentally disabled children and adults on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just blocks from Museum Mile. From 82nd Street to 105th Street along Fifth Avenue, New York City has designated the area “Museum Mile” because of the many museums and fine art institutions that line Central Park. In those days, the museums along the mile opened up on Thursday evenings for free. And I would go.
There is no better refuge, after a hard day’s work, than a walk into the circular structure of the Guggenheim, or a time travel through the past in the Museum of the City of New York, or a rest on a bench in one of the many courtyards within the Met. The only evening better than Thursdays on Museum Mile involved a trip to my grandmother’s for a home-cooked dinner. I would try to go once a week. It was only three stops on the train.
The Upper East Side and the South Bronx are quite close, and I would often take the train there to visit with my grandmother after work. I would tell her about my day, about the museums, about the movies I’d seen, or the books I was reading. While it was always a short ride to the Bronx, getting back to Brooklyn took a couple of hours by train. Despite the long trip, I came to think of it as short once I moved to Boston.
After moving to Boston, I began to come down and stay with my grandmother on the weekends about six or seven times a year. I would arrive on Friday night or Saturday morning. I’d rise early Saturday to do something in the city: visit a friend, go to the Village, walk the streets of Chinatown. My grandmother always stayed home to cook. She never understood the appeal of restaurants.
After I was married I brought my husband along too. On Saturdays, we usually took the train into Manhattan, which was much easier than driving and parking. Sometimes I just hung out with my grandmother in the afternoon, but inevitably I’d tell her not to cook for us. My husband and I looked forward to trying new restaurants in the city. Dinner and a movie proved a great Saturday night pastime. We’d promise not to be home too late, as her neighborhood wasn’t safe at night.
In the morning, we’d awaken to a breakfast of eggs, Puerto Rican corn fritters called arepas, bacon, cafe Bustelo, and orange juice, before making our way to the museum. Sunday in New York was museum day for me once I had moved to Boston.
After having kids I’d kept the routine simple. Come down Saturday night, stay over, wake up Sunday morning, eat our Puerto Rican breakfast, and go to the museum. Each time I would ask my abuela if she wanted to go with us. She always said no. Why would she go to Manhattan? For twenty years she had been saying no, and given that she was now in her 80s, this would mean taking the car, and she hated cars. She’d have to dress up, and people would see her. She would be out in the world; they’d laugh at her teeth.
But one Sunday she decided to go. I think her curiosity finally caught up with her. She just had to know what this “museum” visit we made every time we were in New York was all about. I think the fact that the kids went gave her courage. If young children could go, so could she. So, she put on her best coat—a coat she had made of checkered black-and-white wool, with special buttons—over her best dress, one made from store-bought cloth, not the drapes she had used in the past, and her best black stockings with a black scarf over her head. In her day, ladies did not go out without their heads covered.
We drove the 3.8 miles from my abuela’s house to the Met, found a parking space right on Fifth Avenue, and walked down toward the museum. Now you have to understand my excitement and near panic when my grandmother said yes. I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to make this visit right. I knew that once she had come with me to the museum, she would never come again. That this was the one time in a lifetime of living in New York that she would indulge me in my need to bring her along.
I felt so nervous. I thought—well, we’ll go to a few rooms. I knew I couldn’t overdo it, especially since my kids at the time were still quite young, 3 and 5 years old. We’d stay about an hour and go to the cafeteria, where we’d get coffee and a snack. This last part of the plan was risky. I knew my grandmother would be scornful about the coffee. According to her, Americans drink brown water, not coffee, and as far as she’s concerned, you can never trust a restaurant kitchen. They don’t know anything about food—how to prepare it with love and care, not to mention enough flavor. They don’t bathe their chickens, and restaurant kitchens in her mind were filthy!
As we drove down to Manhattan, I became racked with worry about which room to take her to. The Met can be an overwhelming place, even for me, and I had been going there for over 20 years. The place could seem like so much to take in, so much to marvel at, so much to absorb. The responsibility of deciding which art would be the only art she would ever see was nearly overwhelming.
I was sweating. Should I take her to something modern? Picasso is amazing! I kept thinking that perhaps something from his Blue Period would speak to her. The Guggenheim has a picture of the woman ironing from Picasso’s Blue Period in its permanent collection, and it had always reminded me of her life. But we were not going to the Guggenheim.
Perhaps it would be best if I took her to the American wing, with its Tiffany windows and open courtyard, its wonderful sculptures and breathtaking paintings by Homer, Sargent, and the American landscape artists. To get there we’d go through the Hall of Armor, and she might enjoy those soldiers and horses.
Or perhaps I should take her to the Greek or Roman sections—just think of all those large sculptures that had endured all these years. Classical beauty. Or maybe even something exotic—like her; how about the Japanese art?
No, I decided that I would take her to the Impressionists. Pears, haystacks, sunflowers, and cathedrals—these were scenes she could understand and appreciate. And I so wanted to share with her those gentle, soft lines.
As we passed the fountain in front of the museum and climbed up the front steps leading into the amazing rotunda, I found myself holding my breath. We walked into that grand atrium and I said, “Abuela, look at these flower arrangements. There are ladies who do these every few weeks, new flowers, imagine. Aren’t they something?” She stood close by, hunched a bit over, hoping no one was noticing her teeth or her person, and we mounted the stairs to the Impressionist rooms.
“What do you think, Abuela?” I asked.
“The floors are beautiful” she answered.
The floors? But the walls, Abuela? The paintings on the walls? “Oh yes … they are nice.”
Was it that she knew that someone had to clean these floors? Was it the wood and polish that she noticed? Was it easier to look down than up?
“Oh, and now I see how so many restaurants can stay open,” she added. In her generation, you knew it took hours to cook a good meal. Women should stay home to cook for their families, not do frivolous things like walk around a museum, and yet there were hundreds of people here. Now she understood why so many restaurants survived in the city.
I can’t tell you the month or time of year that I took my grandmother to the museum. I can’t tell you what snack we had with our “bad” coffee that day. And at the end of her life my abuelita sat in a wheelchair from the stroke that she suffered a few years before, making it hard to remember the way she had bounded up those nine flights of stairs. But when I remember that day, I see her holding my arm and walking with me through that atrium up the stairs of the Met. I feel the weight of her arm on my forearm. I can remember that, and the day that the floors of the museum meant more to me than any painting that hung on the walls.
Karen Estrella is a doctoral-level expressive arts therapist and academic. Excerpted from the book Class Lives: Stories from Across Our Economic Divide (Cornell University Press, 2014) edited by Chuck Collins, Jennifer Ladd, Maynard Seider, and Felice Yeskel. Copyright 2014 by Cornell University.