“Heureux qui, comme Ulysse…”

This was a creative nonfiction piece I wrote first year of college. It’s about homesickness and searching for a place of belonging, a theme still relevant to me today. It describes the narrator’s journey throughout the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA.

Sunlight dangled from the ceiling windows. The air smelled of earth and dust, and the voices of onlookers echoed through the room. I placed my hands on the stone parapet and leaned forward. Was this what they called a home?

The kind of home I knew about was a paradise of peeling paint and untrimmed forsythia. It was not and could never be a place where silhouettes of bell flowers framed a marble Persephone’s swan-like curves, where a white mosaic tracing Medusa’s spindling curls stretched beneath the sun, where a statue of a crouching Odysseus stared into the shadows. The statue of Odysseus reminded me of a statue in our own house, actually. A statue in our backyard that coincidentally depicted Odysseus as well (or rather, “Ulysses,” as my dad used to say). It was a much smaller stone figure that stood amidst a bed of violets. My dad used to read us abridged versions of Homer sometimes when we sat out there next to it at night.

My idea of home was of crayon pictures scribbled in second grade stuck on the fridge, not canvases of darkly lit paintings looming over the doorways. Home was supposed to have overgrown oaks with their roots tangled in sweet July grass, not palm trees and ivy vines stretching out across a marble stairway. Home was supposed to be filled with noise – the twinkle of a piano, the panting of a dog, even the family fights over Wednesday dinners. Not a hollow hallway of strangers’ voices come from far away to simply look, take a photo, and leave. But now that I was here in Boston, that home wasn’t really my home anymore. Or was it?

I peeled myself away from the cold stone parapet and kept walking. The hallway, cloaked in shadow, snaked around the brightly-lit courtyard. Entry into it was closed off by rusted chains hanging over the stairs. The white columns stood sentinel between each path, guarding against the stray wanderer who tried to tiptoe in. I looked down by my feet at the brick, neatly laid, and thought about how my steps were probably one pair of thousands and thousands of pairs that had walked this hallway. Had Isabella truly planned for such a thing? Had she really deliberately constructed her home to be a place of such activity? Home was supposed to be where the heart is. Had she really wanted to bear it to such extent, yet all the while cloaking strangers in shadows, strangers on the outside looking in? And was her heart one of such cold, crafted, calculated beauty?

I stopped once more, directly opposite the balcony where Isabella Stewart Gardner must have stood. Here was the perfect view of the garden – of the ferns lacing their leaves across the stones, of steps kissed with white and gray. And it was very beautiful, I admitted, but everything seemed to be holding its breath. The statues of women in cascading white robes had paused mid-prayer, their lips frowning, their eyes glazed. The keyhole windows framing the balconies cast yawning, empty blackness over the scene, as if waiting for a light to illuminate indoors. A fountain with sprays of nasturtiums chiseled into its base slept in silence – not a single drop of water chimed in the air. Even the lilacs sashaying in the sunlight resembled stones. And how unlike a home to have columns that were frosted at the top with Grecian curls, icelike in their glory.

Moving further alongside the stone parapets, the shadows still enveloping me, I thought about how it all seemed a conglomerate of Gardener’s travels. It was not so much an actual home as a pastiche of Venetian balconies and Grecian art and tropical vines. She had swept up the beauty of the Mediterranean in her arms and tried to hang it on the walls of her home like a picture. It was as if it were a collage composed of places where she tried to belong but just couldn’t quite stay.

Tourists bustled to and fro, snapping photos, taking selfies, and pausing to admire the intricate grooming of the shrubs. I pushed through the crowd and continued along the perimeter. Stumbling along the flood of visitors, I was forced towards the brick wall, away from the views of the garden. By this point, I had nearly circled the entirety of the courtyard and was not expecting to find anything more. But to my surprise, along this brick wall I found a hidden fountain, swirling in the shadows. It was, unlike the one in the center, alive and muttering with the rush of water. It was adorned with figures of men and women and beasts from mythology, all stone still in their longing gazes towards the sunlit greenery. I placed my palms on the edge, and watched the faint outline of my face shimmer in the murky depths of the water.

I remembered our garden, with our Odysseus statue – the hearth of our home. Home – a mess of unclipped shrubs and overflowing seas of dandelions on the lawn, but still a warm charm to its wilderness. Nothing like the cold, clipped beauty chained within Isabella’s hearth. I longed for home, but my home is no longer the place with scribbled watercolors and family fights. But the home that I long for isn’t truly the physical location, I began to realize. What I missed was the unconditional acceptance and the love associated with that place. Here, these things are not easily attained, nor are they guaranteed to be found. It is up to us to search for it. And it seemed to me that Isabella had been trying to search for it here, too. Maybe that was why she had opened it up to the world like this – perhaps she hoped that the home she’d been trying to search for her whole life would come to her. I wasn’t entirely sure that she had found it, but I listened to the way the fountain before me gurgled and laughed under the hush of the crowds, and I thought that at the very least, she had tried, and she had hoped.

One last time I looked back across the courtyard at Isabella’s statue of Odysseus, still crouching in the shadows. He was also still searching for his home, the one not in this garden but rather nestled in the mountains of Ithaca. I thought perhaps Isabella and I were not so different after all. Both of us had been on a journey – still were, perhaps – to find a place of true belonging.

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