A few days before she moved, somewhat against her wishes, to North Carolina, my mother and I visited the Walker Art Center to spend one last afternoon together. The day was muggy; my mother had suggested the museum for its air conditioning.
The galleries were empty. In most rooms the only people were the guards. Their walkie-talkies sent static echoing off the walls.
We seemed to be following a French family. They all wore pastel-colored polos with the collars turned up and were using their iPhones and iPads to take pictures of the pictures. Now and then, thinking myself clever, I took pictures of them.
“Oh, look at this,” my mother said. We approached a display of 10 or so postcard-sized images that seemed to be identical. Each showed a sunset — or, maybe, a sunrise — with rays of light shining through sparse woods. Looking more closely, though, one could see little variations between the pictures: here the sun was higher; here the tree trunks were thicker and darker.
After a moment, my mother said, “Oh, they’re all the same.” She was reading the didactic. “They’re all postcards, it says. I mean they’re all the same postcard.”
“Yes, obviously,” I said. “That’s obvious.” I stepped back from the images, and their differences dissolved.
“They’re by Sherrie Levine,” my mother said, still reading. And then she said, “I don’t know who Sherrie Levine is.” I noticed, as she bent nearer the didactic panel, the ways in which she was aging. She’d been diagnosed with osteoporosis some years before and despite the bone-strengthening exercises she did each morning, her posture had started to bend. She resembled, if slightly, a lowercase R. Her black hair was graying — no, her black hair was gray. At 60, she didn’t want to move to North Carolina, didn’t want to deal with the anxiety of auditioning new friends. Despite her shy nature, she had plenty of friends here. But her husband had been offered a job in Raleigh. And, to support him, she agreed to go.
I continued to watch as she read the didactic, and was worried for her. Because she was leaving, because she was aging. Or perhaps I was worried for myself. Earlier that week I’d hauled my yearbooks, baseball cards and cross-country ribbons from her basement storage space. I didn’t want to throw them out, but I didn’t want to take them with me, either. I wanted her to have them. She was my childhood. And, I suppose, I was her motherhood. After she moved, we’d be distanced from these fundamental components of ourselves.
Now the youngest member of the French family took a selfie in front of a photograph of Mount Rushmore. I took a picture of him taking his selfie.
My mother said she was getting tired (“I’ve had enough art, I think”) and proposed a drink in the museum’s cafe. We ordered a hummus plate and a glass of wine to share. (“In two glasses, if that’s OK. Sorry. Thank you.”)
The cafe was busier than the galleries. Several families with several children were crammed around the tables. Their faces were red with heat. They’d just come in, it was clear, from playing putt-putt on the Walker’s terraces.
“We used to play putt-putt,” my mother said. “Do you remember? It was right behind the Walgreens.”
“Of course,” I said. “That was where I got high for the first time, actually. Nevermind.”
“You loved putt-putt,” she said.
Our hummus arrived. We were sitting by the window and, below us, Hennepin Avenue was being renovated. The street was a jumble of barricades, torn up concrete and port-a-potties. There were no cars, and I joked that it was an installation, a vision of the future after society had been destroyed by capitalism, technology and global warming. “I don’t think I follow,” my mother said.
The museum, too, was being renovated. Farther down the street we could see the edge of the Sculpture Garden, which was closed off to the public, its foundations torn up to make way for new works. Right now it appeared to be a field of dirt.
“I’m sad we couldn’t do the Sculpture Garden,” my mother said. Her half-glass of wine was now an empty glass of wine, and she’d become wistful. “I would have liked to see it one last time.”
“You’ll be back,” I said.
“We used to spend so much time there. You liked to play on the giant swing.”
“Mom,” I said.
But she’d started to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said. And then, dabbing her eyes with her napkin, she said, “OK. I’m OK now.”
The French family appeared again. Their cheeks were sun-flushed, and the collars of their polo shirts had wilted. They, too, had just come in from playing putt-putt, and we watched as they ordered bottles of water at the counter.
“Oh, look at them,” my mother said, resettling her napkin in her lap. “They’re such a family.”
I raised my phone to take one last picture of them. But one of the children saw me and, embarrassed, I stuffed my phone back in my pocket.
Max Ross works for FindLaw, a division of Thomson Reuters. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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