Memories are funny. Without intentionally choosing, we seem to toss out superfluous ones, and often, we somehow manage to condense huge chunks of time into manageable packets that just get pushed to the back of a shelf and ignored. Other moments sit at the front of that shelf, catching our eye every time we walk by, inviting us over and over again to pick them up and reexamine them.
One field trip with my eleventh grade Art History class fits into the last category. My teacher, Mrs. Prilliman, arranged for a dozen or so other St. Mary’s girls and me to view the art collection of a friend of the school. We traveled just over a block to a crisp, midcentury modern home, which I had somehow never noticed, and were greeted by the owner.
I frankly had no expectations other than to enjoy an hour away from school work, but, surprisingly, I still find myself reflecting on this trip. Inside, the James Bond era home contrasted with priceless artwork, ranging from ancient Roman objects, to Japanese silk screens, and bright, modern paintings. Clarence, the owner, warmly showed us through each room, gladly answering questions, and, most surprisingly, inviting us to touch the statues and other works of art. He insisted that he wasn’t worried about our breaking anything and was more interested in our being able to fully explore the fascinating objects. It was marvelous. Having grown up going to art galleries, I was no stranger to the little sirens that sound and stern looks from guards when leaning in too close to a picture.
This was such a different experience. Getting to run my hand over the cold, stone hair of a Roman bust brought the statue into my world and made it real in a way that viewing a carving behind a glassed in pedestal never had. In the living room, students passed around an ancient, bronze figure, and I imagined how many centuries this delicate piece had endured and how many other hands had passed it. It was also aspirational to think that this man lived every day with what we had spent months studying in text books. It didn’t occur to me until years later that this collection was monetarily priceless. Instead, I specifically remember being amazed to view a Mondrian painting hanging in a hallway because, though the artist isn’t usually to my taste, it really resonated that we had studied this artist only a week earlier. In this moment, a character in my textbook had come to real life, just down the street from the school where I had learned about him.
I find that I am constantly in awe of seeing the authentic origins of what I’ve studied. I’ll never forget unexpectedly finding a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio exhibited in the basement of Windsor Castle and being aware that because of this book, the literary world is so much richer. I also wondered what it would be like to read an entire play from the worn pages. I understand why this isn’t a plausible scenario, but I always return to the day when the exhibit was hands on.
I only met Clarence once for about an hour and have since learned that he recently passed away, but his invitation to share something he enjoyed with complete strangers has impacted me. Thomas Merton paraphrases Thomas Aquinas in explaining that “the things that we love tell us what we are.” My brief meeting with Clarence told me that he was passionate about history and art, but moreover, he loved selflessly allowing others to fully experience what he found interesting and wanted them to share in the joy those things brought him. An online biography confirms that this impression was true. Our host was a great philanthropist who gave as much of his own time as he did monetary donations.
Such a short field trip left such a lasting impression both from the way I experienced the art around me and from the person who welcomed us into his home. I wonder if I could only spend an hour with someone, what I would share with them, and what my loves would tell this visitor about me.
As we move into the Christmas season, many of us will get a chance to welcome others into our homes. What will we share of ourselves? What impression will we leave for years to come?