Do you remember what we always did when I took you to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
I’d bring a yellow legal pad and pencils, and we’d sit in front of the paintings and you’d sketch.
“Bessarabia, what do you see?”
“I didn’t realize I was accompanied by the chief art critic of The New York Times.
“What am I supposed to see?”
“You tell me.”
And you’d get very close to the painting, your nose just a breath away from the varnish—the guards would bark at you and you’d jump back with an electric jolt and straighten your back, and we’d both wince and shrug at each other. And you’d collect yourself and clear your throat and stand there with your arms crossed, solemnly squinting at the paint- ing, rocking from foot to foot like a grand appraiser. Thirty seconds. A minute. Five minutes. You’d occasionally stroke your chin with two fingers like you’d seen Bugs Bunny do in a cartoon. You might as well have wiped your monocle on a handkerchief.
Finally, when there was practically steam coming out of your ears, you’d have your fully prepared remarks: “I think he loved hay and he probably loved painting.”
And I’d turn to the guard and say, “She charges fifty cents for a tour.”
After the art was the main event: the cheese plate. We’d go to the grand old cafeteria where it used to be in the back of the museum in the columned atrium. We’d line up, pick out two plastic containers full of cheese, find a quiet table away from the tourists and talk, and eat our snack very methodically. First the brie, scooping it out from the rind with the water crackers, and then we’d press a sliced strawberry into the soft cheese and eat it just like that. We were very French, you and I.
We’d eat the cheddar, throw away the blue; then on the way out the main entrance you’d buy a postcard of your favorite painting. Always something with flowers.
· · ·METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART,PERMANENT COLLECTION, 1994
GRANDMOTHER: Bessie, I want you to go around these rooms and take this notepad and tell me how many paintings were done by a woman.
GRANDDAUGHTER: And then we can look at the ballerinas?
A building full of all the greatest masterpieces, and all you want is to see how an old man kept wandering into dance practice. I’d have had him arrested.I like the ballerinas.
After this we can see as many damned ballerinas as you can stand.
[THIRTY MINUTES LATER]OK! Eight women.
Did you write them down?
[STUMBLING THROUGH PRONUNCIATIONS]Simone Martini, Andrea del Sarto, Camille Corot, Annibale Carracci, Andrea Mantegna, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Camille Pissarro, and Jan Steen.
Oh, honey. Give that here.
[EXTRACTS GLASSES FROM GIANT HANDBAG, LOOKS AT THE PAPER]Did I miss any? I saw them all.
All of those are men.They have girls’ names.
They’re just European names.Did I miss the women?
There aren’t any women.It was a trick?
It was a lesson.What’s the lesson?
If you’re born a man and halfway decent at something, everyone will tell you you’re great. There’s only one woman nearby. Right through here in the American wing.
[TAKES HAND AND WALKS ME INTO THE NEXT GALLERY]
Here she is. Lady at the Tea Table.
Mary Cassatt.I like it.
Yes, you do. You know how you can tell a Mary Cassatt?How?
She was kind to her subjects. She left out their hips.
Copyright © 2020 by Bess Kalb. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.