First Installment, April 12, 2023—Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
The next chapters are about my quest to bring the vision of art to other Sarahs living in their tunnels.
Among the Antiques
Martha & Her Wheelchair Voyage
“Among the antiques” was an elderly friend’s favorite phrase to describe her contemporaries. There was a growing army of older women cloistered in separate tunnels, high up in the northwest part of the city, discreetly concealed among flowering gardens and statuesque trees, Victorian love seats, and grandfather clocks.
“It’s just as if they’ve been stored away. Among all the antique furniture…a-and, an-d,” my friend stopped, stammering, her usual habit when she was agitated, “and all those oriental rugs. Everything looks so nice….so genteel, when you walk into the front lobby. Neat…and polished. You know, perfectly arranged, and the decor just right…And the women…if you see any…are just sitting there…quietly, like decorations!” she emphatically ended, in disgust.
“And waiting to die,” I wanted to add.
It was Ruth who guided me to these tunnels of women. In the spring of that first year of Museum One’s operations, I began my numerous visits to them. Journeying around and throughout Ward III, up and down its central arteries, Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues, or farther back into the wooded maze of its side streets.
The ward, despite its established appearance, was chronologically one of the newer sections of Washington, built primarily after World War I. A residential enclave, with apartment complexes ambling along its broader avenues, single homes inhabiting its lesser thoroughfares. On the south, Rock Creek Park was the dividing boundary from the rest of the city, while Chevy Chase circle formed the northern boundary along the Maryland border.
The area is famous for the National Cathedral, the Smithsonian zoo, the Taft bridge with its proud lions, and art deco architecture. The dwelling of presidents as well, from Cleveland, who built his summer retreat in the last century, to the sometime apartment renters, Truman, Johnson, and Nixon.
Ward III is also significant politically and demographically, the home to a cross-section of official and media Washington, of “democrats and dogs” (an expression coined by the Reagan administration), and a former vice-president, soon to be unsuccessful presidential candidate. And representative of the predominantly white population in a city known for its black majority.
The tunnels and their occupants blended inconspicuously into the ward’s environment. Sedate, mannerly exteriors of brick (or related material), either imitation American colonial or inspired by a less classifiable split level style. Their surroundings always fashionably bucolic—landscaped grounds resplendent in neatness, with manicured shrubs and immaculate flower beds.
Yet, within awaited the regions of parlors: upstairs, downstairs, into the side wings and latest additions, from the grand showplace of the lobby to the tiniest sitting room. Common depositories of antiques—settees and highboys, needlepoint pillows and milk glass—diligently patrolled by the housekeeping staff.
A miniature society of women, the average age 85, resided within a beehive existence of cliques and subgroups, its social code tightly monitored and rigorously enforced. Active lives with husbands, children, and professions now memories; individual houses and apartments rented or sold—and a lifetime of possessions squeezed into a single room.
The tunnels did vary in collective attitude and overall mood. Some were static, depressing zones, permeated with a deadly, perpetual silence. The residents largely immobile, seldom venturing beyond the institution’s four walls, while in contrast the members of other tunnels enjoyed shopping excursions, theater outings and periodic vacations with family and friends.
But even in the most positive atmosphere, the fate of the women rarely changed. Each one traveled on a preordained route of decline through what were, in retirement vernacular, the different levels of care. From the independent living quarters, they moved gradually downward to assisted nursing and the final destination, an infirmary bed.
Martha Race was already well on that road when I first met her. An artist by profession, she was wheelchair bound, confined to the assisted care unit of the Faith Home. Yet, remarkably at 91, she conducted a watercolor class for her peers and loyally attended my programs.
I preferred her tunnel, the Faith Home (like so many facilities named after its religious affiliation), to the half-dozen institutions primarily for women I would reach by the end of the year. Perhaps because it was my most regular site where I presented a new American art program twice a month, or possibly due to my friendship with the social worker, who would eventually become one of my instructors. Or maybe I simply delighted in the company of its residents. All potential grandmothers to me, a warm and gregarious group congenially delaying me before or after class with personal stories and tidbits: of early artistic aspirations, or a relative who painted, or a favorite museum, a prized art book.
“Ladies above all” was their universal motto, signified by courteous behavior and exemplary attire—the standard floral and striped dresses, inevitably lavender toned that seemed to be the uniform of every women’s tunnel. A stray man or two did exist within their midst (occasionally the opposite sex was permitted in), as gentlemanly as their female counterparts were lady-like. Generally, an educated or what Laurie, the social worker referred to as “sophisticated” gathering; knowledgeable, if not in depth, and at least appreciative of the value of art.
I became friendly with a few individuals. Particularly Myrtle, a dynamic woman of unlimited energy, and an aficionado of poetry and philosophy; Marion, a former docent at the Smithsonian; and Elizabeth, a newcomer to the Faith Home, whose enthusiasm for the Museum One sessions aided in her adjustment.
But it was Martha Race and her expedition to art I would never forget.
For every other Thursday, at 6:30 p.m., Martha embarked on her wheelchair voyage, across a seaway of tiles, through the meandering hallway channel from her assisted care unit to our meeting room. In a massless, rudderless vessel—her arms were her sails, her hands her propellers. The North and South poles combined awaiting her in the distance traversed, the level of labor maintained. Thirty minutes by the clock, though eons measured in human will.
My initial view of Martha usually would be from afar, during one of the three or four preparatory jaunts to the equipment area before the 7:00 program. A soft, pale blur on the horizon, rolling and rocking doggedly down the institutional passageway—alternately stopping, then starting, its rhythm spasmodic and abrupt.
“Hi, Martha. How are you?” I cheerfully called, striding effortlessly forward, the apparition quickly becoming flesh and blood. Despite her gauntness and frailty, Martha had a youthful appearance. Her hair was cropped short and straight, framing a face still open and expectant, like that of an adolescent boy—an aged Peter Pan. Her voice was vigorous, too, its pitch clear and ringing like a bell. And yet, her manner was retiring and hesitant, almost sweetly shy (although I had been informed that she could be very hostile, especially when being bathed by the nurses).
“Fine,” she answered, her head and entire body pulled down by her struggle—her arms nearly wrapped around the heavy metal wheels that she was pushing jerkily, in spurts, absorbing her total strength.
“Are you sure you don’t need some help?” I inquired, pausing momentarily, bending over her in a position perhaps more condescending than respectful. “Can I get someone to help you?”
“No,” she muttered, surprisingly uncordial. “No, no,” she repeated, obviously irritated, then adding more diplomatically, “I’m fine. Please, please go ahead.”
By my third trip, Martha had navigated half her charted course, the immediate obstacle a pair of swinging doors. At this point, even Martha could not deter me from assisting her. “Ill get them for you,” I said firmly as I gingerly moved in front of her, skirting the cumbersome wheelchair obstructing my path, and then reached over to hold the doors for her.
“Thank you,” Martha responded, smiling politely at her self-appointed savior. “I’m all right. You can go now,” she instructed me, proceeding, business-like on her way.
As I hurried onward, I turned and glanced back at Martha’s solitary image—the reed-thin arms rotating, forcing each wheel slowly, ponderously around, while her legs remained useless, resting inert and lifeless on the wheelchair’s shiny rungs.
“Will she ever make it?” I wondered. Only ten minutes to go, and I was behind schedule myself, speeding back to the slide projector, with my second (and hopefully this time not defective) extension cord of the evening in hand.
But the tenacity and resolve of Martha prevailed until the last few yards. At 6:55, the meeting room was practically full, with approximately 25 residents chatting noisily in anticipation of the paintings and pastels of the American artist Mary Cassatt. I worried as I arranged my slides and corrected the uncentered screen. If I only had the chance to check on Martha’s progress.
Then, exactly at 7:00 just as I was about to turn off the lights, Martha and her wheelchair rushed in, propelled by the peripatetic Myrtle.
“We’re here, we’re here,” Myrtle half sang, half shouted. “I intercepted Martha just outside the door…but not without a fight!” she chuckled, charging toward me with her friend.
Martha looked up at me embarrassed, yet relieved to be finally with us. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she offered apologetically.
“No, you’re on time,” I assured her. Then I suddenly laughed realizing the irony of her name. “You’ve won your race.”
COMING SOON: AND VAUDEVILLE, TOO
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