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.
It Always Seemed Like Autumn
Chapter 11, Part 2
Lady Hancock’s Room
My students at the Home remained mostly strangers to me throughout that initial autumn. Enclosed with me every Monday in Lady Hancock’s Room, a tiny gift from a local embassy, we were squeezed and jammed together in the semidarkness. A dozen wheelchairs, a few walkers, slide projector, screen, and myself, tightly congregating under the watchful photograph of our benefactor, smiling graciously from a rose-covered garden, always reminding us that we were in her room.
We seemed sealed off from the rest of the Home, our sole link the two-paneled door left a bit ajar for purposes of ventilation. Through it, the bright electric light of the hall peeked in to reveal the shiny, checkerboard linoleum floor just outside. The noises of the institution, slipped in, too: an announcement over the intercom, a stray laugh or shout, or the sporadic clanging of the firebell resounding in error.
Yet, despite our close proximity, a psychological distance existed between the residents and me. Was it perhaps the wheelchairs, acting as a barrier from the group, their hard metal frames seeming to push and press against me in an intimidating half-circle? Or was it the perpetual silence? My audience’s voices predominantly muted, their owners, I imagined, quietly observing and appraising their youthful teacher. My disabled judges, stoic, unmoving preparing to pass sentence.
The atmosphere was so different from Sarah’s tunnel, where a spirit of conviviality and animated discussion accompanied each work of art. But I had to acknowledge that my first students, comprised a diverse gathering, both physically and mentally. The still active, intermingled with the very ill, and even then, in the latter case, the condition was either temporary or a disease primarily of old age. Here in the Home, however, illness could be a lifelong experience, in some instances spanning years, permanent and irreversible.
Surprisingly, Margaret, the activities director, kept inviting me back, week after week, assuring me in her low-keyed manner that everyone was enjoying the sessions. In contrast to Alice’s effusiveness, Margaret was as undemonstrative as the residents she served.
“N-a-a, don’t worry about it,” she drawled casually, in response to my concern. “They like you.”
So I continued my course, a rather lengthy excursion into the Renaissance. From September into December, I presented all the giants of that period—Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian. While the blackness of the advancing winter tapped threateningly against the Home’s windows, I tried to recapture the creative sun of the Italy I had known.
On the screen, standing next to me, a succession of slides illuminated the congested room: scenes of the Old and New Testament, Moses and the prophets, and the cycle of Christ. I lectured comfortably from this position, feeling safe from the encroaching wheelchairs and my still largely unknown class.
But gradually, a personality or two began to emerge. Here and there, in the reflections cast by the projector’s steady beam, I would distinguish a face, a form, or noticeable gesture. Vague portraits, like sketches, the details rough and unclear, rendered quickly with the sparsest lines.
Just a few feet away, closest to the front, a mirage of a woman always levitated before me, as ancient as Mrs. Gerasimov, if not older. The thin, white strands of her hair were threaded into a wisp of a bun, pulled up from a visage so sheer and narrow that it was scarcely real. Her white, brittle skin seemed to merge with her ghostly bones, any traces of flesh and blood absorbed long ago.
Her name, I would learn later, was Rachel, and according to my speculation, she was at least minimally 100 years old. She was completely speechless during the sessions, never emitting a word or sound, remarkably oblivious to her fellow inmates. Entranced, it appeared, by the slides directly ahead, her eyes, intense pinpoints of radiation, penetrating into the realm of Renaissance angels and other celestial beings.
Closer, but way down, almost parallel to the floor’s surface would be Beth—or at least her head. A young person, really—a lifetime or two younger than Rachel. What was wrong with her, I often wondered, that made her slump so severely. Sinking and tilting in her wheelchair, like a perennially limp doll doomed forever downward by a field of gravity the rest of us could resist.
Her countenance, though, was quite beautiful. Her hair, a rich, chestnut brown with matching eyes, rimmed with velvety edges, resembling mascara, while her cheeks seemed painted, a vivid rosy red. Yet, the floor must have functioned as the prominent vista of her existence: walls, ceilings, and full views of her companions were impossible, unless she were placed completely on her back. A victim of her own inertia, forced ultimately to possess an extensive knowledge of others’ feet.
Then, off to the right, May, a plain looking woman with bright white hair shining in the dark, also slanted toward one side in her wheelchair, but the angle of decline not as drastic or debilitating. She could, it seemed, manage to hold her head up with her right arm during most of the class. Occasionally when May and her elbow would begin to slip, she would abruptly jerk herself upright, firmly gluing her hand and fingers to her face and temple, like Rodin’s thinker.
She was one of the few participants who contributed regularly to the sessions, although I rarely could understand her. Her speech was garbled and grating in sound, a little like a blend of marbles clicking together and a W.C. Fields imitation, necessitating the intervention of Margaret as interpreter.
Unfortunately, the majority of the other residents would not follow May’s worthy example, even those individuals who might have seemed most likely to participate, such as the well dressed, coiffured English lady on my left, or her nearest companion, an intelligent, alert-appearing woman, respectfully attired. And how would I ever expect any type of rational discussion or response from the short, heavy woman sitting zombie-like in the back, her mouth agape in an expression of constant perplexity? Or the toothless, gray-braided resident even farther behind, positioned like a sentinel at the two-paneled door, her cane lodged squarely and defiantly in front of her?
But I would have no doubts about Erica.
COMING NEXT: ERICA—THE ARTIST INSIDE
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