A Journey to Remember

A Journey to Remember

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Tribute to Moms

A Journey to Remember

Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.

Pablo Picasso

My mailbox was filled with requests for money and advertisements for children’s tiger T-shirts. My impending tenth college reunion at Princeton was coming up, and these pleas for my wallet were getting more intense.

However, one notice stood out. John Wilmerding, my thesis professor in the art and archaeology department, was retiring. As I opened the envelope, I drifted back to those mesmerizing works of Early American art that illuminated the darkened classrooms. Wilmerding demanded intellectual curiosity and rigor, but tempered that exigency with his humor and wit. While Wilmerding has certainly left a brilliant legacy—his leadership at the National Gallery of Art, numerous publications, and donated works of art—his greatest legacy cannot be easily summed up on a résumé. Exceptional teachers affect more than just their students. Their magnetism reaches beyond the classroom, and Wilmerding unwittingly enriched a bond between a dying mother and her daughter through his teaching.

My mother was a little bit nuts, lovable, but a bit nuts. She only lived an hour and a half away from Princeton and took that fact as an open invitation to come for a visit any time she pleased. She would show up in my college dorm at 6:00 AM on Sundays with bags of groceries and fresh donuts. While my roommates enjoyed the fresh strawberries and chocolate fritters, they did not appreciate the early morning wake-up calls.

Whisking my mother over a passed-out roommate, we would trot by the nighttime revelers scuffling their way back home to be the first ones on line at PJ’s Pancake House. It was there that she was first introduced to John Wilmerding—not in person at first, but vicariously. While munching on chocolate-chip pancake stacks, I would share the details of that week’s mesmerizing lecture of Early American art. Although my most difficult, his class was my favorite. Weaving the background stories of the artists with the moments captured on canvas, Professor Wilmerding would unravel the mysteries of the image to us. Like a compelling detective story, we would be introduced to all of the facts—an examined look at the brushstrokes, research into the artist’s dreams, the placement of the objects—and watch as the clues became untangled. I was always disappointed when class came to an end. The lights would turn on, abruptly closing the pages on those absorbing stories until the next lecture.

My mother soaked in these magical stories. She was captivated. I was captivated. It only took a few more breakfast dates (although many calories later), before she played hooky from work to attend Professor Wilmerding’s lectures in person. The door would open just a crack a few minutes after the lecture had begun and a figure would quickly enter the darkened room. While she would always sit in the back row, she was obviously the most engrossed one in the classroom. A perennial student, she fit right in (sort of).

Those classroom visits to Professor Wilmerding’s lectures ended abruptly my senior year. At the beginning of the school year, she was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer and had only a few more months to live. A true bibliophile, she was able to lose the pain within the pages of her books and find solace in the character’s triumphs. However, once morphine was prescribed, the words became just as cluttered as the disease. I knew how desperately she wished to hide in the back of the cozy slide rooms of McCormick Hall and take copious notes on the secrets and stories that Wilmerding would unveil. Cancer now enveloped her, not those dark lights and beautiful images.

Looking back now, what I did was probably against campus policy, but I snuck a mini audio recorder into Professor Wilmerding’s lectures in an attempt to capture his words so that I could bring at least a piece of these magical college moments back to her sterile hospital room. However, I could not afford a very expensive recorder, and what turned out on the tape was nothing more than a mumbled mess.

Not one to give up, I brought my art history notebook along with me and tried to re-create the thrill of Professor Wilmerding’s lectures for her, which she enjoyed. She passed away later that fall, but she took with her the adventure through art that John Wilmerding created in each lecture. And what a magnificent journey it was to share with her.

Michelle Gannon

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