There is a painting that I remember but can’t recall from back when my mother and I used to go to the museum together every Thursday. It was an abstract painting, possibly by Jackson Pollock — I can’t be too sure — but it was stormy and intricate and troubled with a marvelous patch of sunlight near the top right of the canvas. At least, that’s how I interpreted the painting back then as a kid. The museum always had a distinct smell, this wonderful combination of dust and oil that somehow stifled the air and muted footsteps, and the smell was strongest when I plopped down on a black leather bench in front of that painting, trying to make sense of the frenetic daubs and sprays of thick oil and acrylic.
They say that out of all the senses, smell is the one linked strongest to memory. And so the other day, as I stood on the 3rd floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, contemplating Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 a few yards away from me, I detected that faint museum smell of dust and oil and my mind was flooded by nostalgic sensations: the echoes of footsteps along vast white corridors, the trickle of warmth up my arm as I squeezed my mother’s hand, and a fear that chilled my knuckles and turned my lips white. You see back when I was a kid, the thing I feared most was losing my mother. I utterly dreaded the possibility that one day she would drop my hand and tell me to wait on a bench in a gallery while she went to the bathroom and never come back. She went to the bathroom a lot, or so it seemed to me at the time. It was always the same drill; we would walk around in a gallery holding hands and then gently she would pause at a bench and tell me to wait while she went to the bathroom. And I would look up at her, hesitant, and she would squeeze my hand and smile. I would watch as she turned a corner and disappeared, waiting quietly on the bench, feeling faint, feeling my lips turn white as I watched the people around me milling about. Frantically I would stare at the painting in front of me, trying to immerse myself in a poppy field or a swirling pattern of abstraction, holding back my throbbing heart and a flood of tears, until just when it seemed like she had truly gone away for the last time, my mother would return, squeeze my hand and smile, oblivious to my inner state of panic.
I guess that’s why I loved holding her hand so much, and why I can still today recall each of the lovely creases on her palm, the way her fingers fit against mine. Our clasp of hands was my physical tether to the person whom I loved more than anything in the world. There really was no rational reason to fear being abandoned by my mother. Our family was stable, not like those soap opera families on television that I had perhaps been influenced by, and my mother was never hesitant to show her love for me, whether it be a sudden pinch of my cheeks or a kiss on my forehead. But I guess my fear confirms all the literature in the world that discusses the way love and irrationality intertwine.
I grew up, and she grew old. It seems more than a lifetime ago when I used to hold hands with her and go to the museum on Thursdays, just the two of us, and stare at paintings for hours on end. I’m in college now, and she thinks only of me. This I know because not a day goes by that I don’t receive some voicemail or email where she declares proudly her unconstrained love for me. And for me, I just end up feeling awkward whenever I hear or read such a statement by her. It seems more than a lifetime ago when a boy could unabashedly declare their love for their mother and not think twice about it. I am now of an age when young men profess their love and don’t really mean it, when hormones and self-consciousness get in the way of the purest form of life. When I was a kid, my mom would sometimes ask teasingly what kind of girl I wanted to marry. I would reply back in perfect seriousness that no girl was as perfect as her, that I didn’t want to get married and I never would.
Even now, the faded memories of my childhood with my mother have conspired to form a mental image of the perfect woman, my mother as a youthful adult, ever graceful, beautiful, gentle, yet full of a vigor she invested wholly in my upbringing. It is because of her that I am who I am today. She took me to museums on Thursdays. Once, she stayed up all night sewing together a gray mouse Halloween costume for me because I changed my mind at the last minute about what I wanted to be. She kept my bookcase stocked with books and kept me so well fed that one day in the middle school I was shocked to realize that I had actually become chubby. Then when I cried about it to her she smiled and hugged me, saying the extra pounds made me look cuter. Over time the museum visits became less frequent as I got busier with school and friends, and eventually they stopped altogether. Eventually I started holding her hand less and less as well. Instead her hand was replaced by the worn leather of a basketball, or the perfumed hand of some girl my age. My fear of losing her was forgotten, the memories of creased hands, white corridors and abstract paintings packaged up in a neat little box and stored in some dusty corner of my mind. And then one day, just the other day in fact, I found myself staring at Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 in the Museum of Modern Art, as people milled about snapping photographs, when I smelled the faint mixture of dust and oil. As I stared at the splashes and flecks and frantic daubs of paint, I felt suddenly faint, my lips turned white, and my heart throbbed with a familiar panic.
That night I called my mother, the first time I had done so in a long time. She sounded glad to hear me, although she seemed tired.
“Mom,” I said. “I went to the museum today.”
“Oh, that’s so good of you! Remember when we used to go together?” She said. I imagined her now, sitting in the living room, her hair slowly graying, her hands empty.
“Yes, I do.”
“Well honey, keep studying hard, but don’t get too stressed out now, OK?”
“OK mom. Say, do you remember that painting we always used to stop at? The abstract one, I think it might have been a Pollock.”
“Oh, that’s right! You really liked that one. I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of it though…”
“It’s OK, I’ll figure it out eventually. Anyways I gotta go, so I’ll talk to you later.”
“Be safe in New York, dear! Goodnight. I love you soooooo much.” She made a kissing sound through the phone.
“Me too. Mom,” I hesitated.
“What is it dear?”
And in that moment, I longed more than anything to hold her hand again, just the two of us, walking among sterile white galleries that smelled ever faintly of dust and oil.