It was one of those days where heat can be seen. The concrete jungle warped and undulated like the ripples of the East River. I strapped my niece to her stroller, grabbed my Canon Rebel t3i, and headed out into the furnace for the New York subway. I never thought I would have to navigate two subway stops, and walk over two miles with a sixteen month old baby and all her supplies to satisfy my love for seventeenth century Dutch art. However, I was determined to stand in front of Jan Steen’s The Dissolute Household, and see each brush stroke for myself. An art history class had introduced me to this beautiful work when I was thirteen. I appreciated it for its irony. After studying masterpiece after masterpiece, the humor in this painting struck me. For four years, I had been longing to view it in person: the rosy cheeks, the mischievous tomcat, the stream of liquid pouring into the lazy woman’s welcoming glass. The day had come.
My companion that day was my baby niece Miriam. The moment I saw her newborn face on my cell phone screen at 3 a.m. on March 13, 2012, I fell in love. When I was invited to babysit her in New York City last summer, I jumped at the chance. During the sweltering month of July, I became Miriam’s surrogate mother. We explored bakeries, romped in the neighborhood park, and traversed chaotic New York streets. Although each day was a whimsical new adventure, I decided to tackle something more exciting. Miriam and I were going to brave the subway and visit the art museum. Alone.
Even though I was so close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the thought of radiating heat, menacing subway stairs, and the long walk up Fifth Avenue, intimidated me. But the rich colors of The Dissolute Household pulsed in the back of my mind, and I knew I would regret returning home to Spokane, Washington without visiting the museum. A record heat wave was all over the news. With that in mind, I fed Miriam some salmon quinoa mash, packed her diaper bag, charged my camera battery, and shoved extra water bottles and a sippy cup into her stroller. I felt as prepared as I could be.
After a short walk, we arrived at the subway, and I stared up at dozens of steep concrete stairs. I wrapped Miriam onto my body in the intricate baby carrier I had mastered the night before. With one hand holding her head, and one carrying her stroller, I trudged up to the platform. As we exited our first stop, a swarm of people rushed around me in all directions. Everyone knew where they were going, except me. I approached a map, but the colorful snake-like lines offered no help. After a grumpy ticket agent failed to assist me, I asked a mother with twins. With a robust smile, she pointed me in the right direction for our transfer.
On the second train, I examined a slew of faces drenched in sweat. I can only imagine what I looked like, with hair plastered to my forehead, a twenty six pound baby strapped to me with thick canvas, and a heavy camera bag pressing uncomfortably on my shoulder. Once we left the train, I plunged up the stairs like a salmon heading upstream, and emerged onto Fifth Avenue. I returned Miriam to her stroller, and we both took a swig of water before walking the final two miles of our journey. Every now and then, I stopped along the way to take some photographs: an oversized pigeon snacking on a hot dog, a little girl with face and hands squished against the window of Tiffany and Co. (her eyes as bright as the trinkets inside), and Miriam crawling in Central Park. When Miriam fell asleep in her stroller, I found a secluded park bench, and sketched while she napped beside me. Before long, she awoke, ready to complete our mission.
We arrived. The magnificent eight columns of the Metropolitan Museum of Art rose in front of me. As we stepped through tall glass doors, a cool air-conditioned room refreshed our glistening skin. I grabbed a map. Once again, colorful squares representing the layout of each floor bewildered me. After half an hour of wandering, asking countless guards for directions, I found what I was looking for.
At last, I stood in front of Jan Steen’s The Dissolute Household. I took in every brush stroke: blissful faces, drink forgotten on the floor, glimmering sunlight leaking from the window. Not a speck of original canvas peaked through the thickly painted surface. Simple linen had become a masterpiece. Jan Steen’s beautiful painting of an ugly scene revealed to me that beauty often resides in the most unlikely places. The paradox delighted me. Grinning, I looked at my niece. Her squeals and clapping echoed in the high-ceilinged room. Miriam’s applause was for the challenges I overcame along the way, not for the trophy at the end. Each filthy stair, each drop of sweat, each time I felt lost made the success more worthwhile. The more trying the journey, the more precious the reward. Miriam taught me that.