First installment April 12, 2023
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.
This next chapters are about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.
Is There a Rainbow Yet?
Chapter 7, Part II
(Google The Terrace by Bonnard, 1918, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)
“Is there a rainbow yet? I would like to see it.” (Continued from May 16)
A rainbow? I turned around quickly and instantly recognized the speaker. How could I forget her? That uncanny, semi-apparition of a woman who had disrupted my class on Matisse with her visions of animals in the wallpaper. What was she doing back? I had assumed she had vanished forever—any future appearances curtailed by her obvious antiquity.
How, I asked myself rather cold-bloodedly, appraising her condition, had she survived the pat weeks? Compared to her, Sarah was a sturdy, healthy specimen, even robust—seeming, incredibly, to dwarf her nearest classmate in size. Oddly, though, the wheelchair of Mrs. Extraterrestrial (which I would actually christian her) was gone, replaced by a walker. Somehow, she was now occupying a blue chair without any apparent support, except the sheer power and energy of her spirit.
Did she truly possess a spinal cord like the rest of us? And ribs, muscles, and tendons? Or was she composed of a more transparent mass—formless, weightless, without skeletal structure? I had difficulty determining the core or torso of her body, her legs, and arms evaporating into the velvety midnight blue material of her long, flowing robe. Or was it a dress that stretched down and around her, literally wrapped her in its folds like some gigantic, ambling tablecloth that Matisse might create?
But her head was masterful, indomitable–especially her enormous eyes, overwhelming any other feature. They flashed surreally at me, I imagined, glistening matrixes of light, while the tall, white topknot of her hair rose eerily above, a homemade antenna of hairpin receptors.
“Is there a rainbow yet? I’d like to see it,” she repeated, appearing non-pulsed by my slowness to respond.
Fortunately, Sarah intervened. “No, Mrs. Gerasimov, it’s still raining,” she informed her friend, leaning over to reassure her. “Maybe later.” Then Sarah turned to confront me, as if it were her responsibility to explain and even justify the presence of the other. “We’re very lucky to have Mrs. Gerasimov here tonight,” she announced proudly and I suspected a little defensively. “Do you know that she was one of the first modern dancers? And that she was born in Russia, although she’s spent most of her life in Europe and the United States. She’s been working so hard to walk again…”
“Then will we see pictures of outer space?” Mrs. Gerasimov interrupted abruptly, unimpressed or oblivious of Sarah’s dissertation on her life and accomplishments.
“Her son writes science fiction stories,” Sarah hurriedly interjected, trying valiantly to prove the rationality of her friend. “He’s an astronomer, you know.”
I nodded positively, pretending to appreciate fully the connections between the son’s profession and the mother’s remark. But Mrs. Gerasimov made me uneasy. I glanced sideways at the specter beside me, avoiding any direct contact with those inflammable eyes. What was she thinking as she sat, no, more accurately, floated there in her own private sphere of existence? Was she already contemplating the next rainbow? Or an upcoming intergalactic explosion? Or was she actually planning something—devising some scheme or strategy to thwart me in the next hour?
Her eyelids, I realized, were closing safely now, her face gradually transforming itself into a mask, placid and calm, silent, in waiting. For what I pondered? Or for whom?
The last spasm of thunder echoed as I flashed Bonnard’s The Terrace on the screen—our first painting of the session. Or The Wild Garden, Le Jardin Sauvage, which was its alternate title, and definitely a more apt description, corresponding to the turbulent weather outside. Bonnard’s lush interpretation of his backyard at the end of day, which had so entranced me in the Phillips museum, seemed darker tonight, the vegetation dense, the atmosphere more foreboding and menacing, like some vast domesticated jungle.
Yet the colors had not diminished in their intensity and splendor. In the background a maze of trees swayed in the wind, rich waves of emerald-violet and amber-green leaves crowding against lavender clouds and lemon sky, while further in the distance lay orange-pink plains and aquamarine hills.
At the foreground edge, Bonnard’s veranda pushed outward toward the spectator. On the right, the semicurve of a rose-striped table adorned with china plates, jars, and bowls glided gracefully through pastel shadows, blue and powdery. On the left, a row of potted plants, earth and clay in hue, marched in orderly fashion down the twilight reflections of a brick wall.
But the painting had mysteriously changed—or at least my perception of it had. Was it the quality of the light? Or the complex and sometimes distracting lines and patterns Bonnard wove into the fabric and design of his canvas, especially the foliage and flowers? Or was it simply me and the aftereffect of my hazardous climb here? I felt suddenly exhausted and depleted, barely able to sustain my vertical position at the slide projector. Maybe I should sit, too, like the rest of them, just for a moment, as I introduced Bonnard and his career to them. No one would notice or care, I was certain, sinking down gratefully into my own blue chair.
“That looks like a waiter,” crackled Mrs. Gerasimov directly behind me. I jumped up, startled, and revolved completely around facing her. “Now wait a minute,” I wanted to reprimand her, eyeing her in the half-light emanating from the slide projector, “that’s not right.”
She was grinning at me now. I grimaced back. “And,” she added matter-of- factly, “he’s wearing a black tie and white collar. Just,” she continued her voice distinctly rising in pitch and volume, the hybrid accent of two hemispheres evident for the first time, “like waiters wear.”
“Hey, that’s good,” Mr. Ginsburg belly-laughed. “And while we’re at it, let’s not forget walruses. Didn’t they wear them in Alice in Wonderland or something like that?”
“I don’t see what’s so funny,” Mrs. Stevens, the perennial schoolteacher, chastised Mr. Ginsburg from her usual perch on the left edge of the semicircle. “You should have more respect for a great artist.”
Good, I thought, she’ll help me retain control of these proceedings. I was after all the teacher.
“Bonnard,” I began, emitting the first (and last) word of my biographical sketch.
Then, unbelievably, Mrs. Gerasimov started to yell, “Please, please,” she screamed shrilly, gesturing frantically at the painting, “let me see him.” Our alien was shouting in an extremely human way at me, her cries obliterating the final watery rush of the dying storm, driving angrily against the Blue Room’s windows.
I panicked, moving quickly to switch the carousel to the next slide, trying to erase the source of Mrs. Gerasimov’s outburst.
Sarah stopped me. “No, no, it’s all right, Joan,” she advised me calmly, staying my hand. “Let’s just look at it for a bit. That won’t hurt, will it?”
“O.K.,” I acquiesced. I trusted Sarah, ever the arbitrator and politician of our group. She seemed to understand Mrs. Gerasimov’s behavior and the entire range of her idiosyncrasies.
I walked determinedly to the screen. Wasn’t a professional teacher flexible, able to adapt to the needs, in this case, demands of her class members—although I strongly questioned the status of the extraordinary Mrs. Gerasimov as my student. When I reached my destination, Sarah diplomatically instructed, “Could you point to him for Mrs. Gerasimov?”
I resolved not to feel like a fool as I directed my right hand toward the trees of The Terrace, intuitively searching their curving branches for the elusive waiter. Did he actually reside within the intricate web of Bonnard’s brushstrokes, camouflaged from earthly sight?
I groped awkwardly into the very heart of the landscape, immersing myself in its veins and arteries of pigment and varnish. From this perspective, up close, objects were no longer recognizable, but a dizzying array of blots and dabs of vibrant paint surrounding and bombarding me with multihued sensations. Disoriented, I accidentally knocked the screen, threatening to topple it backward onto the blue floor.
Mrs. Gerasimov was incensed at my clumsiness. “No, no, that’s all wrong!” she berated me. “Just a minute,” I automatically barked at her, forgetting all consideration of her advanced age, as I struggled to balance the screen.
“I’m ready….O.K.?” I said rather sarcastically, resuming my original position of pointing readiness.
“No, no, over, over,” Mrs. Gerasimov commanded, as I traced a tentative path from the background of the painting, carefully gravitating toward the middle, afraid that I might countermand her orders and provoke another display of temper.
“No, no…yes, yes, that’s it,” she exclaimed when my fingers circled over an outgrowth of yellow. “Can’t you see it?”
“Yes, yes,” I pretended to agree, trying to placate her in any way possible. “Yes, I can,” I affirmed, although when I drew back to consider the area from a greater distance, I saw nothing that resembled a waiter.
Mr. Ginsburg was more blunt. “Where? I don’t see it. It looks like a bunch of trees to me.”
“Well, it takes a little concentration,” I lied. And, I told myself, a tendency to hallucinate. Yet, why hadn’t I noticed that intriguing shape almost exactly in the center. Was it a bush? Or perhaps a tree? A sapling, really, its trunk upon another, sharp yellow against verdant green, while to the left, their sapphire-toned brother grew delicately upward.
Had I been asleep each time I viewed it both at the gallery and projected as a slide on my apartment wall? Obviously, I had overlooked some parts of it, too eager, I supposed to pass on to the next tantalizing Bonnard. Or was I too engrossed in analyzing it in terms of style and history, a process that interfered more frequently than I wanted to admit with my clearly seeing a work of art.
But I was certain that the waiter did not exist, although I rather wished now that he did. Still, weren’t those two figures just under the trees, the boughs forming a natural arbor over what looked like a man and woman—she in warm orange, he in navy black.
Sarah, as if reading my mind, called out excitedly, like a cheerleader at a football game, “I see them, now! It’s a couple, definitely. A man sitting and a woman standing.”
Thee others quickly joined in, equally adamant in their observations.
“No, she’s bending,” Mr. Ginsburg asserted. “And she’s handing him some grapes…yes, that’s right, I’m sure. Because there’s a grapevine behind them.”
“They have to be picking flowers,” the Maybelline lady uncharacteristically disagreed. “Can’t you see the roses near them…just over to the side?”
I could, too—pink with blue leaves, miniature in scale, nearly invisible within the grand scheme of Bonnard’s flowing creation.
“And yet…don’t they seem so lonely,” Sarah added rather wistfully, “like they’re on the edge of an ocean….or a storm.”
“After tonight, we don’t need any more storms,” Mr. Ginburg quipped.
“No, seriously—it is a storm. That’s why the trees are so dark—dark and purple,” her voice trailing off into a whisper of reflection,
and eternal,” her utterance so soft that I was sure only I heard it.
“I’d like to refute that,” Mrs. Stevens broke in. “It’s simply the end of the day, and the birds are flying to their trees for the night.”
“Are you sure Margaret?” One of the ladies who usually clustered near her, a bit defiantly. “I don’t see anything like that.”
“Of course, there are,” another member of the subgroup immediately responded, supporting her leader and friend. “Like Miss Hart says, “If you concentrate, you can see them,” she lectured. “And if you look hard enough you can even see one on the ground, next to the couple.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Stevens confirmed emphatically, her already, high level of confidence bolstered by the reassurances of the other. “And if I had more time, I’d name of them in detail for you.”
“You know that makes sense!” Mr. Ginsburg proclaimed. “For once I agree with you, Mrs. Stevens.”
A minor miracle, I observed—two opposing forces finally converging. Perhaps like the couple in the painting, Mr. Ginsburg and Mrs. Stevens might yet share some civil conversations and dare I hope, even companionship? Should I credit Mrs. Gerasimov’s imagination with this unlikely development as well as the rapid succession of discoveries by her peers? Was she truly our catalyst, rather than the challenger I first envisioned—my initial antagonism changing now into a tentative respect.
A woman’s voice interrupted my reverie, solitary and low, quivering on the edge of speaking. “I see a cat,” she murmured quietly, then growing louder, stronger. “A cat—over there. It’s black and white.” The rest of us in unison turned and stared at her. She belonged to the metal row of wheelchairs normally assembled on the right; unfortunately, I didn’t recognize her. Was she new—or perhaps an anonymous participant whose name I just hadn’t had the opportunity or time to learn? Or was she the woman with the owlish eyes who identified the fruit in the Matisse still life?
“It’s black and white,” she started again, her entire body shaking and shivering as if in a state of prolonged cold. “Look at it!” she demanded, fortified by her conviction. “Look at it,” she repeated, then abruptly stopped, calmed by the large arm of the nurses’ aid, gently enfolding her.
O.K., that was enough of The Terrace. I told myself I should proceed to the next Bonnards—maybe I could squeeze in The Palm and Cote d’Azur before 8:00. But would Mres. Gerasimov permit us to desert her beloved waiter, that only she, despite our concerted efforts, could see? Was he someone she had actually known before—a memory, a phantom of the past?
I stealthily approached the slide projector. Mrs. Gerasimov was too close to the machine for me not to disturb her, but I had to take a chance. As I eased nearer, carefully, trying to edge myself over the carousel, I bumped the leg of her walker. Yet she failed to react, verbally or physically. Was she asleep? Yes, I realized with relief, her eyes were sealed, at least momentarily. Would she open them again soon, like some napping Buddha-like doll awakened by another beautiful revelation?
“Is she asleep?” I whispered to Sarah, who had been watching my unsteady progress intently. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t try to find out, if I were you,” Sarah warned, wisely.
“O.K., ” I agreed. I began to move my hand toward the switch, when I felt a finger lightly, rhythmically, tapping my elbow. Then I heard the familiar refrain, echoing again among us: “Is there a rainbow yet?”
COMING SUNDAY: THE RETURN OF THE ARTIST
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