Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel–Arts and Aging in America, The Story of Sarah, Part II

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 chapter is about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.



The Story of Sarah–Chapter 2 (Continued)

It had been so easy for me to schedule the classes at Sarah’s home. “No one has ever offered a course in art history before,” the activities director informed me when I called her in April. “In fact, we have few regular programs from outside. Except some special entertainment. A sing-a-long, a magic show, you know. A couple of musicians from the neighborhood come in once a month to serenade the people. Show tunes, the old ballads, even some classical. But we have nothing on art.” She paused, then continued rather wistfully,”I’d love to find an art teacher to give lessons. You don’t give art lessons, do you?” She was suddenly excited at the possibility of a solution to her long-term problem.

“No, I’m so sorry,” I found myself stuttering, embarrassed by my lack of competency in studio arts. “I-I-I only appreciate art…Is that OK?” I queried apologetically, almost fearfully. What if she didn’t  want my course after all? “You see,” I began, trying to explain further. “I’d start out with Impressionism….”

“Oh, no, no,” she responded quickly, perhaps equally afraid she might lose an unsolicited opportunity. Volunteers and their services were prized commodities. “That’s wonderful. I’m sure they’ll love it!” She then stopped abruptly, reconsidering her enthusiasm. I was  sure she was thinking, what if I proved a failure.

Despite the reservations of the activities director, I was fairly confident of my success. Except for the endless tours of children at the national park’s museum, I had little teaching experience. I had developed into a competent leader during that year. At times I felt, especially with a responsive audience, actually inspired, gifted in my performance. My extensive family heritage in the teaching profession provided me with the considerable self-assurance that I was destined to be good, if not the best. (“You’re a natural teacher,” my mother had proclaimed after observing me instruct swimming at 14.)

I had also discovered as a museum guide that I enjoyed the so-called “difficult” groups as defined by most of the staff, particularly the inner city classes that would trek out from Newark, Patterson, and the Oranges, those decaying urban satellites of New York. It was a long ride, often an hour each way, on clumsy, bumping buses, much of it through the traditional traffic and congestion of northern New Jersey, so that when the students finally arrived, they were noisier, more energetic, and generally less disciplined than most classes.

Yet, I found they were the most challenging of all the children I taught that year. Unlike other groups of young people who dutifully and automatically assumed sitting positions on the floor, these students stood throughout most of the session. They moved quickly, shifting back and forth from one foot to the other, though still listening intensely, answering my questions at a rapid pace, their hands seemingly raised en masse, waving and straining for recognition for the full hour.

Surprisingly. I was stimulated by these sessions, thriving on the energy, the unorthodox behavior, but above all the dynamic spirit of these children. They were somehow more alive, direct, and honest than their suburban counterparts as if plunging into the world around them for knowledge, for truth. But overall I had been disinterested in my teaching ventures at the museum, preoccupied from the start with my departure. I distinctly preferred the Italian Renaissance to the American Revolution, and Florence to New Jersey, grandly planning ahead to my sojourn abroad. And, unlike many of my teacher friends, I was not enamored of children or of devoting myself to educating them. They made me nervous and uneasy, never quite knowing when their abounding enthusiasm would turn into defiance, which could be critical and even cruel.

I knew, though, that I would be comfortable with my prospective older students; the elder generation had always been drawn to me and I to them. From the earliest days of my childhood, I seemed to instinctively understand the rhythms of their aging existences—slower, calmer, wiser, the pace gradual, shaped and defined by encroaching illnesses and physical decline. I sensed even then they were close to death. Although my own grandparents might have seemed indestructible, even eternal to me, their friends appeared to be failing, marked as they were by states of either extreme heaviness or thinness, wrinkled skin with multiple, spidery veins encompassing their whole bodies, and voices that had advanced to a higher, quavering range.

Yet, I was not afraid of them, including the ones nearest to death.  I could still vividly remember a visit to Miss S., a close friend of my grandmother’s–so ill with cancer on that beautiful, summer Sunday, when I was ten years old. My cousin and I had just indulged ourselves in a luxurious dinner of favorite foods topped by swirling parfaits of chocolate and vanilla ice cream–our treat for having behaved in a most devout manner during a long, solemn church service. Now we were ready to play, prepared to shed our best clothes as as we reached my grandmother’s house.

Miss S’s small, second floor apartment was a detour for ua–just one final duty to perform before our recreational escape. Led by my grandmother, we climbed the rickety, stilt like steps, following her black silky dress into a room–the space of an invalid, floored with a bright white sunlight that seems to purify and cleanse the cancerous presence within it. In the center, lying completely flat, as if merged with the starched, crisp sheets of her bedding, was Miss S. At first glance, semi-mummified, partially alive, she raised her seeking eyes, first to my grandmother, then to us.

I stood back, watching, wondering when I was expected to approach her. Miraculously, she was speaking to my grandmother, those few words of conversation transforming her instantly into a human being like the rest of us. I felt slightly safer, less in awe. “Come on over,” my grandmother called to us, her hesitant grandchildren who were, she probably observed, suddenly, unnaturally, quite shy. “Miss S. would like to talk to you.”

I could never recall what happened to my cousin in the next moments—whether she was there or not–for the dying woman became the focus of my young universe. Although it was growing hotter, the temperatures of July having penetrated the unconditioned room, Miss S. appeared incredibly cool and clean, covered as she was with just a thin, vividly white sheet.

Her skinny body seemed to occupy barely a corner of the bed. Her arms, the most salient part of her structure, extended out from under her coverlet like elongated, bony poles.

I noticed an unfamiliar film on her skin, almost transparent perspiration, yet waxy in substance, almost sticky. The residue I realized in dawning repulsion, of her grave illness. Briefly, I detected a sweet smell, simultaneously bitter and sweet, which I knew must emanate from her.

I wanted to draw back, but I was expected to touch her. It was somehow my responsibility–a sign, a symbol of reverence for mankind that I as a child did not fully comprehend. Hadn’t I heard it in the sermon only that morning—of God, of Jesus, of a greater spiritual force, unseen, unknown, of a place far beyond my fairytale image of a heaven filled with pretty haloed angels and wooly, toylike lambs, half religion, half fantasy.

I finally reached for Miss S’s hand. I could feel the unusual smoothness of her flesh, the skeletal fingers, breakable, brittle, even in my tentative grasp. Was she truly going to die?

The enormity of her impending death was unfathomable to me. A vision of the town cemetery on the hill flashed in front of me. How could Miss S. be going there soon? Buried deep in the earth, smothered however under a heavy, marble tombstone. So final, intractable. The grass might be the freshest green, the sky the brightest blue, but she would never see it again.

And if she died, then, I would die too.The same fate was awaiting me, even though I was only ten. Dark fear, like an ominous shadow, began to engulf me, to overwhelm me. I wanted to flee the room.

But Miss S. held me with a gentleness, a peace that I had not known before. She softly pressed my hand, encouraging me to recite the highlights of my short life–my age, my grade, the length of my vacation, when I was returning home.

Yet, I felt as if I were speaking to an apparition, an aureole, a glow seemed to surround her, enfold her, as if her very soul were suspended there within the luminosity of the sunlight and sheets.

Then, abruptly, my speech was over, my grandmother having decided it was time to depart. I was then allowed to reenter my childhood, the interrupted day, and the luxury, the sense of timelessness, of a ten year old’s future.

However, I could never completely leave that room and the memory of Miss S. It was a moment that endured, haunting, unfinished, drawing me from the distant past and inevitably to Sarah.





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