I Always Cry at Art Museums

Posted by on May 10, 2015 in Rants & Reflections, Sue's Blog | One Comment
I Always Cry at Art Museums

I love watching my Facebook feed on Mother’s Day. I love seeing my friends honor their Moms or being honored by their kids. I admire the heartwarming commercials — like this one from American Greetings, which made people interview for the world’s toughest job. Or this one from UN Women, which is trying to change a cultural norm in the Middle East.

My own experience with the day is a little mixed. It’s been 15 years since I purchased a Mother’s Day gift. Hubby always takes care of buying something for my Mother-in-Law, and we don’t have kids of our own. So Mother’s Day barely registers as a blip on my radar, until I scroll through Facebook on Sunday morning.

I’ve written before about my Dad. Let me tell you a little about my Mom:

Esther Natsue Kanagawa grew up in Wailuku, Maui, the eldest daughter in a family of seven children. She went to Baldwin High School, then attended the University of Hawaii at Mānoa on a four-year scholarship granted by the Territorial Legislature (the equivalent of today’s UH Regents Scholarship). She majored in Secondary Art and Social Studies at the College of Education.

In her early years of teaching, my Mom taught at many schools including Waipahu Elementary, Pearl City Highlands, Aliamanu Intermediate, and Moanalua Intermediate. In 1972, she was presented with a great teaching challenge — building the art program from “scratch” at the newly opened Moanalua High School. In her 20 years at Moanalua she touched many lives, including many of my friends and classmates. I loved going to the same school where she was a teacher — and not just for the convenience of being able to get my last-minute permission forms signed. I recognized that my Mom was a well-loved teacher. I was blessed to have her integrated into my daily life.

In October 1992, while I was a Sophomore at Stanford, she was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor (oligodendroglioma). I didn’t know it back then (they never told me), but her prognosis at the time was really dim. It was the same type of aggressive tumor that killed Ted Kennedy in less than a year. But she was a trooper, had wonderful doctors, and survived miraculously for eight years after her initial diagnosis. I was able to move home after college and hang out with her and my Dad for the final four.

All of that seems so long ago.

I usually don’t get sad on Mother’s Day. You’d think I would (or should). The fact that I don’t might be because my sister and brother both were busy raising new toddlers during that year after my Mom passed, so it was a good time to start new family rituals. We actually began a tradition of having a Mother’s Day picnic at her gravesite.

Yes — a picnic. Some might think it to be morbid or irreverent, but the cemetery is actually a wonderful setting to gather as a family and enjoy each other. I think my Dad saw other families doing it, and decided that it could be our “thing”. He usually buys KFC and makes spam musubis. Brings out the lawn chairs and blankets. It could be Ala Moana Beach Park, except instead of the beach there’s peaceful mountains and a sea of flowers.

This evening my niece texted me a photo of the family gathered at the cemetery, and I got a little sad because I had let almost the whole day go by without thinking about my Mom.

But truthfully, unless there’s a family picnic, I rarely go to visit my Mom’s grave, and I’ve never been there alone. Quite honestly, if I wanted to “visit” her, the cemetery is the last place I would go.

My place to pay my respects to my Mom is in art museums. I remember the exact moment when I discovered that this would become my “thing”… it was in late 1998 and I was in Vienna on a somewhat random work trip (the only international work trip I’ve ever taken). I had a free day and decided to go to Belvedere Palace by myself. It’s where Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” is housed. I didn’t study art, but it was one of those pieces that appealed to me, so I think I had a poster of it when I was in college.

When I was I was there in front of the painting, I found myself bawling uncontrollably. My Mom was pretty weak and bed-ridden by then, and I became overwhelmed by the unfairness of the situation. My art-teacher Mom never had a chance to visit Europe, yet here I am, an uncultured but able-bodied band-geek, able to drink it all in.

At that moment I resolved that whenever I visited an art museum, I needed to appreciate it for her.

So now I do. The best thing is that every city always has an art museum. So wandering into one during a work-trip is an ideal way for me to “spend time” alone with my Mom. I don’t bawl uncontrollably anymore, but there’s always a moment or two when I wipe away a tear.

Happy Belated Mother’s Day, Mom!


My family today at the cemetery. Selfie by Leilani.

My family today at the cemetery. Selfie by Leilani.

1 Comment

  1. Sal
    November 2, 2015

    Just read this. Beautiful tribute to your mom. I’ve always known you to have strong aesthetic instincts (you know what you like, and have your own eye) so I just always thought of you as showing obvious streaks of being the child of an art teacher. So it surprised me that you could ever have thought of yourself as being “an uncultured… band geek” (huh?)!

    Took me back to remember our visit to the Getty – and spotting the sculpture “Falling Woman” by Aristide Maillol on the steps of the entrance. I was thrilled to see the work by the teacher of Mildred Stumer, who, as I told you then, was born in 1898 & who I met at a bus stop when I was in college at Evergreen. I never “got” sculpture until she taught me how to enjoy and appreciate “the turning of the lines” and to this day, I think of Mildred every time I see great sculpture.

    So your story really resonates. Thanks for posting it! I was touched to find it and get to read it, and am so grateful to know you. Love you, Sue.


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