I don’t always know what to do with a beautiful June day, when the sky is deep blue, the air is fresh, and the sun is shining. But when I’m at Hebrew Home, the best way to spend it is in the facility’s sculpture garden with my mom.
The works come from famous artists, and they’re abstract, arresting, stark, made of stone, or metal, or wood or other natural materials.
“What’s that?” my mom asks, pointing to something made of wood and metal, looking both like a tree and an animal.
“It’s a sculpture,” I say.
“What’s a sculpture?” she asks.
“It’s …. a work of art.”
“Oh,” she says. “Where is its head?”
“I don’t think it has one.”
“Well, as long as it doesn’t come over here,” she says. “It’s not going to, is it?”
“No.” I shake my head.
Appreciation of art was never one of my mom’s strong suits.
The sculptures are arrayed on a lovely grassy sort of knoll along the Hudson River, and there is a path where we can walk, with trees creating nice shady spots.
We sit in lawn chairs in one of these spots, gazing at the river and the trees and the vegetation. This is the kind of art my mom appreciates.
“It’s so beautiful here,” she says. “Look at that … that … what is it called?”
“A tree?” I ask.
“No, that thing up high, next to the tree.”
“That’s a building off in the distance.”
“That’s a building?”
A boat sails past. We can see it for a moment, but then it is shrouded by the trees on our side of the river.
“Oh, if I could cut those trees down, I would.” She starts to motion with her hands, as if cutting with a large clipper. “Just get a … a … and cut’em down.”
“Look at … oh that water is moving. Moving and moving.”
The waves in the river appear calm, but if you look closely, the sun’s reflection is jumping off of every little ripple, glimmering, sparkling. I wouldn’t have noticed it if she hadn’t pointed it out.
“Those things over there,” she says, pointing. “The bays, the chays, no … chairs.” She starts laughing.
“You mean the benches?”
“They’re benches? They don’t look like benches.”
“Yes, they are.”
There’s an unusual tree in front of us. It has a flat top.
“Get rid of that yucky tree!” she says, almost gleefully.
“Nothing wrong with that tree,” I say.
Less than two minutes later, she says, “I like that little tree.” She’s incredulous when I tell her she just said we should get rid of it. Then she laughs.
We sit for more than an hour, and the conversation repeats itself. As if the words are hanging in the air above us, swirling around, and she’s plucking them down and throwing them back, and plucking them back down as they recirculate in an endless loop. But they are constantly new to her. To me they are old, and I am bored. No, I am past being bored.
“You’re staying all night, right?” she asks. It’s a question she asks me every time I visit her.
“Of course,” I usually say, even if I know I’m leaving in two minutes.
“I can’t. I have to work tomorrow,” I sometimes say. That disappoints her, but these days she usually accepts it.
But this time, I feel like saying something different.
“Who’s going to take care of all the animals if I stay overnight?”
I don’t have any animals. But I say it anyway. It makes almost no difference what I say.
“Oh, right,” she says. “What kind of animals are they?”
“Cats,” I say.
“Oh yes. Isn’t there someone in our family who doesn’t like cats?”
“Dad. He didn’t like cats.”
“Does he still not like cats?”
“Umm … Dad died.”
“He did?” Incredulous again, but with a serious look on her face. “I didn’t know that.”
“No, seriously,” she says.
“You seriously forgot.”
I no longer have to be so careful with what I tell her, because even if it upsets her, it will only last a second.
I can almost experiment in our conversations, knowing I’ll have another chance to tell her something, and another, and another. An infinite number of chances, it seems.
Earlier that day, in her room, she broke into spontaneous laughter. Just as quickly it turned to tears.
“I feel so awful,” she said, weeping.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, and then the tears dissolved instantly.
Within seconds, she’d forgotten she was even crying.