Amy Wright

...so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost
—Elizabeth Bishop


1 Degas, Program for an artistic soiree (1 of 2), 1884. Charcoal on buff paper, 23.4 x 30 cm [Short Gallery—on a cabinet]



When he killed the motor I swung my leg off the bike. I saw only what we had seen hundreds of times exploring this farm as children, kicking deer scat, pinching juniper berries, scattering hellgrammites. Nineteen, and two inches taller than our father, Jeremy walked over to an ankle-twisting hole in the ground and stood beside its dark mouth. There was no evidence of a snake's path. Clean and open, here was no groundhog's mound or rabbit's warren.
      "It's a cave," Jeremy said, dropping in a tennis ball he had brought with him with kite string tied to it, feeding out line to take its measure.


2 Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633. Oil on canvas, 161.7 x 129.8 cm inscribed on the rudder: Rembrandt (sic). f::/1633 [Dutch Room— in a large frame on the south wall of the gallery, at right]

The Huskies shuffled against my legs when I went inside to answer it.
     "I have a tumor," Jeremy said.
     "What do you mean?" I asked. "What kind of tumor?"


3 Degas, Cortege aux Environs de Florence. Pencil and wash on paper, 16 x 21 cm [Short Gallery—on a cabinet]

Calcium carbonate in the bedrock wears away, leaving behind bone yards and fissures sometimes as large as a Volvo or cathedral. A glass of water from my parents' kitchen sink stirs with limestone motes like gunmetal dust in an open-ended snow globe.


4 Vermeer, The Concert, 1658–1660. Oil on canvas, 72.5 x 64.7 cm [Dutch Room—on a table by the window facing the doorway]

images, or written memorials. His portraits like Girl with the Pearl Earring went unappreciated for centuries, the scenes they depict bringing a drama into sharp relief with only a shimmer of suggestion.
                 The key to appreciating a Vermeer, one critic says, is to look "into" his work "as opposed to looking at it." Of course, one cannot look into what is not there.


5 Manet, Chez Tortoni, 1878–1880. Oil on canvas, 26 x 34 cm [Blue Room —beneath the portrait of Manet's mother]


gathered at her feet like wide-eyed grandchildren her "bebes." We spent more time discussing Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Guernica (1937) than we did The Tragedy (1903), but I remember most its blue expression. The bowed heads and stooped shoulders formed a triangle, but something seemed missing. Their family only had three.


6 Chinese bronze beaker or Ku, Chinese, Shang Dynasty, 1200–1100 B.C. H. 10 1/2 in. Diam. 6 1/8 in. Wt. 2 lbs. 7 oz. [Dutch Room—on a table to the right of Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee]

After Jeremy's surgery, two months remained until my classes ended, during which time he would begin chemotherapy. My mother wanted me to fly back to Colorado to finish the semester. I sat on the steps, back pressed against a sliding glass door. Leaves stirred at my feet and the hollow of my stomach stretched into darkness deeper than the cave he found.
      When I was a kid, I thought the Devil lived underground because some older kids at the babysitter's house told me they were going to dig down and show me. I borrowed a garden trowel from my mother and dug until I hit rock, a severed earthworm pulsing from the bared wall. "This little light of mine," we would sing in Sunday school: "Won't let Satan _____ it out," blowing on a raised index finger like a birthday candle.
     We were reading Jean Genet's Thief's Journal, a partly autobiographical novel that re-imagines the 20th century French writer's imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. "Criminals," he writes, "turn me away from the world and its laws." i


7 Degas, Three Mounted Jockeys. Black ink, white, flesh and rose washes, probably oil pigments, applied with a brush on medium brown paper, 30.5 x 24 cm [Short Gallery—on a cabinet]

During the third surgery on Jeremy's lungs, after the cancer metastasized, our grandparents sat with my parents and me in the waiting room. I pulled earphones from my ears and tried to think of something to say to them. My once loquacious grandmother had progressed far enough in her Alzheimer's disease that it frightened her to talk much. The only thing I could think of was the time Jeremy wrecked on his dirt bike.
      He and the Mudlick Maddogs were riding in the mountains behind our house when his bike slipped sideways on the trail. He caught the falling filly by wrenching his body to the left and putting his foot down—wearing sandals. His big toe caught on a root and shaved off the top half inch along with his toenail. He rode back to the house, wrapped his bleeding metatarsus in a paper towel, pulled on a pair of work boots, and was back on the trail before the other riders knew he was missing. It wasn't courage my grandparents would appreciate.

Once home and recovering, Jeremy drove the farm pickup to take a bag of grain to calves in the field. I sat over the back wheel in the bed of the truck, thinking how similar he looked to our father, whose sense of humor often diffuses family tension. He parted the partition window between us and cranked up Dad's Credence Clearwater Revival cd, belting out "Doo, doo, doo, looking out my back door," grinning into the rearview mirror at me.
     "I love my life," he told Mom.
    "More cheeps?" he would say when friends came over, and they would head to his favorite Mexican restaurant.


8 Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, ca. 1634. Etching, 1 3/4 x 2 in. (Bartsch 2, Rovinski 2, Hind 57) [Dutch Room—on the side of a cabinet beneath Rembrandt's Self Portrait]

Edmond Jabès writes in The Book of The Absent that "Brotherhood means giving, giving, giving. And you can only give what you are." I asked the poet Gerald Stern if his essay collection, Stealing History, might be an example of the kind of brotherly—or sisterly generosity Jabès says comes of giving oneself. Stern said, "The brotherhood and sisterhood that you mention sometimes exists in words alone, in poems alone, but I think really that life is more important than art, but maybe it is absurd to separate them. I think basically that Stealing History has, as its underlying motif, this brotherhood and sisterhood that you mention even if it is sometimes ruthless." ii
      We knew Jeremy's death was coming. He knew. Not knowing is the worst, people say of missing persons. I would imagine a soldier coming to our door, as one did for a friend who lost her husband. I would picture Jeremy as my California cousin Michael, who got sheared on his motorcycle by the undercarriage of a truck. It wasn't hard. Jeremy had a Suzuki GSX.
      Every time we drove to the hospital, we passed the house of our neighbors whose boy got pinned under a tractor and burned to death. I stared out the car window, at Jeremy's fingernails, the back of my mother's neck, at a fleck of Cheez-it on the floorboard. The horror of losing him was happening in fragments of time that stretched onto the backseat for hours then leapt forward, a startled doe in that moment just before collision. I never wanted it to be over.
      Once, I strode out of the hospital on mission to the Seven Eleven for a Mountain Dew Slurpee elated to feel less helpless. I, who lectured my father on kidney-damaging soft drinks, would have carbonated the syrup myself if none were available.
      Jabès must have known giving to your brother in such situations relieves you from the incredible burden of not giving enough, and ultimately prepares you to give more.


9 Rembrandt, A Lady and Gentleman in Black, 1633. Oil on canvas, 131.6 x 109 cm inscribed at the foot: Rembrandt.ft: 1633 [Dutch Room—in a large frame on the South wall of the gallery, at left]

The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum does not disguise its loss. Famously empty frames commemorate what thousands of eyes would be taking in were Vermeer's The Concert, Rembrandt's only seascape and the eleven other works in their respective places.iii
     The FBI identified the original thieves, but the statute of limitations has long passed for their prosecution. Still, they offer a five million dollar reward for a clue to the art's whereabouts and periodically increase their outreach appeals. "We hope that through this type of public campaign," Museum Security Director Anthony Amore says, "people will see how earnest we are in our attempts to pay this reward and make our institution whole." iv

"I don't trust the idea of closure," my friend Ken said in conversation some months after his mother's death. "People seem to think there is a moment of resolution when the grieving process ends."
     "No," I said, "Probably that is what one can accept rather than death."


10 Finial in the form of an eagle, gilt metal (bronze), French, 1813–1814 H. approx. 10 in. [This originally sat on top of the pole support of a silk Napoleonic flag, which remains. Short Gallery—above a Napoleonic flag]


puzzling takeaway may have been the bronze eagle that once topped a Napoleonic flag.
         Jeremy sketched an eagle in grade school my mother kept. In it, the bird's wings are flared the way a woman might shake out her hair. A framed eagle in flight also hung over his bed, which my parents had given him for a graduation present. Totemic symbol of ferocity and endurance, the eagle is an apt scout for a finial— the terminal feature from whose perch armies exchange advantages, dark roses abloom at their feet.
         With his keen eye for distance, Jeremy spotted a kin living on the ridge nearby and kept a lookout for its outstretched wings trickling currents of air.


11 Govaert Flinck, Landscape with an Obelisk, 1638. Oil on oak panel, 54.5 x 71 cm Formerly attributed to Rembrandt [Dutch Room—on a table by the window, opposite the Vermeer]

What stays with me from the Gardner collection is not in their collection. A blue stained glass window on the second floor filled my eyes with nautical ether, the opaque world beyond it filtered cerulean, my ears fathoming silence. Irises open to absorb the dusky veils beneath the royal ones, indigo slipped into ultramarine, periwinkle into midnight like muskrats into a creek bank.
     The only way to parcel enough color was to let my eyes downcast before looking back, sipping, satisfying nothing but contrast.
     Leaving that corner, I understood the temptation to take something, to want color like an azure dish to place the keys of the eyes nearby. Later the museum's online gallery informed me there was no stained glass in that second floor corner, but I had been looking at The Interior of the Abbey Church of Saint Denis, a painting by Paul César Helleu—the glass brush strokes, the streaming light that transported me to the Abbey oil.


12 Degas, Program for an artistic soiree (2 of 2), 1884. Charcoal on buff paper, 23.4 x 30 cm [Short Galleryon a cabinet]

In The Museum of the Missing, Simon Houpt explains the political ramifications of removing in-situ art, raising questions of ownership and distinctions between art and property. He suggests there is some irony in the Gardner theft considering her primary adviser received commissions from a dapper charlatan who capitalized on relocating Old World masterpieces to the New World.v The crime is not justified, he makes clear, but the possibility remains that they were returned to their countries of origin.vi


13 Degas, La Sortie de Pesage. Pencil and watercolor on paper, 10 x 16 cm [Short Gallery—on a cabinet]

Jeremy's acceptance of death bewildered the hospice doctor, who was a family physician on loan to the understaffed hospice center. We found out months afterward that he went on to direct it, explaining that witnessing Jeremy's death renewed his perspective on end of life care. "Seeing him let go changed my life," he said.
     A rainbow lifted in the light rain over the mountains that morning. Turkey vultures that were always circling the knobby pastures rode the sky in wide slow arcs. An eagle soared apart with its heavy wings lifted in aerodynamic carriage so high one almost couldn't make out its missing feathers.



i] Genet, Jean. Thief's Journal. Trans. Bernard Frechtman, Grove Press. New York (1994) p. 9-10

ii] Wright, Amy, "I Knew Some of Them, But They All Knew Me: Interview with Gerald Stern," Zone 3, Fall Issue, 2012 [Print]

iii] Williams, Paige, "The Gardner Heist Twenty Years Later," Boston Magazine. www.bostonmagzine.com, April 27, 2013 [Web]

iv] Ibid.

v] Houpt, Simon, The Museum of the Missing: The High Stakes of Art Crime, Toronto: Key Porter Books (2006) p. 27 [Print]

vi] Photographs of all works stolen from the Gardner Museum are available online at: http://www.gardnermuseum.org/resources/theft





This piece originated when my friend Josh dreamed I lived in the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, though I would not have made the connection if not for Emily Stone's assignment in a Creative Nonfiction Memoir class to write about grief.