Miniature Torta #3: "The Voyage of Life"

My mother, an only child born and raised in Manhattan by poor but arts-loving parents, tried her best to instill an appreciation of culture in her own children. This was a strictly uphill battle.

She used to sign us up for things against our will, such as the symphony usherette program in Utica, 20 miles south. Being a Symphony Usherette meant escorting symphony attendees to their seats, with the reward of listening to the concert for free.

Sounds good, right? But we were semi-feral teenagers, raised in the woods, and we resisted her efforts by 1) never really learning the seating layout of the auditorium, thereby leading elderly patrons up and down various aisles while apologizing profusely, and 2) fleeing to the nearest McDonald’s in our long dresses the minute the orchestra started up.

The one thing she did that actually worked, though, was to take us to the Munson Williams Proctor Museum of Art. We went there a lot. I can still see the galleries in my mind. Our mother didn’t try to teach us anything about art; she just let us wander around. My sisters and I were transfixed from an early age by The Voyage of Life, a series of paintings by a man named Thomas Cole. Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age. They were huge, majestic, old-school paintings. That’s the Childhood one up at the top of this post.

My whole life I have thought about those paintings. I loved them as a child, but they also disturbed me. That sense of inevitability, the passage of time, progressing from Childhood to Old Age. And the last one always felt to me as if the artist had stroked pain out onto that canvas. Resignation. Loss.

The last time I was at Munson Williams was many years ago. I pushed my grandmother around in a wheelchair and we admired the art. There was the Voyage of Life, in its customary place. I remember resolutely pushing her past the last one.

I wish I could paint, the same way I wish I could write music. Thomas Cole knew exactly what he was doing, even though he painted the Voyage of Life when he was a young man.

The closest thing I have to the Voyage of Life are the quotes I have taped to my computer over the years. There have been only three.

A diamond is a piece of coal that stuck with the job.

That one stayed on the computer for ten or so years.

Write a little every day, without hope and without despair.

That one also lasted maybe ten years.

There must have come a day when Thomas Cole looked at his fourth painting –“Old Age”– and thought, Okay. I guess I can’t do any more. And then he must have put down his paintbrush and moved on to something else.

Now I’m on my third taped-up quote, a line I heard in a song by one of my favorite singers.

Make yourself a blessing.

That one’s still in progress. Maybe it’ll be the one that outlasts me. Some of us have oil paints and paintbrushes and giant canvases that hang in art museums where little girls stand before them, transfixed, absorbing something that they will never forget.

And some of us have Precise V7 Extra Fine Rolling Ball black pens and scratch paper that we scissor into quarters and use to jot down shopping lists and to-do lists and, once in a while, a quote that might last us the rest of our lives.