We call her The CLM (Cute Little Mommy), though in fact other than her tiny physique, she is anything but cute. An exotic beauty, she has hair the color of charcoal only now beginning to show silver streaks and piercing hazel eyes. I’m not sure what color the eyes in the back of her head are, but they have always been able to see the transgressions of others, especially her children, with hawk-like acuity. Growing up she was the beautiful mom, the eccentric mom, and at a time when most other moms were stay-at-home, mine was the working mom.
The CLM is an accomplished and well-known portrait painter. Her work is featured in the homes of celebrities and the halls of government. She is the only artist to have a wing in the Pentagon devoted to her portraits. There are 20 original Jean Pilk portraits of the past Joint Chiefs of Staff hanging with solemn majesty in the nerve center of the world’s greatest military industrial complex. She has painted General Colin Powell, Chief Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, astronauts Michael Collins and Edward White, as well as former Maine Governor John Baldacci. She has painted jeweled society matrons and nude figure models, captains of industry and children of all ages.
Building a Career
Her renown as a portrait artist didn’t come easily. An Army wife with five ill-behaved children and a random menagerie of animals didn’t have the luxury of abundant free time to build her career. Familial obstacles notwithstanding, no matter where we moved, she found ways to work in her field, if not to pursue her passion. She taught drafting in Kansas, organized art classes for military wives in Panama, created newspaper illustrations in Florida, and even filled in to draw a nationally syndicated comic strip in New York when the author/illustrator went on vacation.
No matter where we moved, The CLM made her work a priority, managing to grow professionally, in spite of odds that were definitely not in her favor. She generally skipped the routine coffee klatch that started after school let out, the neighborhood moms crowded around a kitchen table, smoking like sailors and drinking first coffee, then later Chablis, while hoards of their feral children roamed the neighborhood. The CLM was definitely not a helicopter parent. Quite the opposite – as long as we came home for dinner relatively unscathed, my mother figured her job was done.
Most afternoons, she was holed up in whatever room she had commandeered for her studio, painting or teaching some talent-challenged student the basics of proportion and perspective. Her children learned to cook as an act of self-preservation. When The CLM was on a roll, meals might be undercooked, overcooked, or simply missing in action.
When we were young, she wore her tumble of dark hair in a fat braid, so heavy it barely moved when she walked, keeping her tiny frame and her outsized talent anchored to this world. When she painted she wore jeans and an old oxford shirt so encrusted in oil paint they could stand up unassisted when she tossed them in the corner after a long day in the studio. She trailed a wake of paint stains behind her no matter where in the house she went. The dog bowl? Paint stained. The window sills? Covered in cadmium red. Kitchen counters, door jams, toilet seats. They all bore the distinct mark of The CLM.
On weekend nights, I would sit on her bed and watch her prepare for an evening out. She swept her hair up into an intricate French twist, sometimes topped with a whisper of netting fashioned into cocktail hat. Makeup was minimal, but there was always a slash of red lipstick. Revlon’s Cherries in Snow was her weapon of choice, a color that created a lipstick revolution in 1953, the year I was born, and is one of the company’s most popular shades to this day. Her scent, Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew, which also debuted in 1953, lingered long after she left the room.
Her wardrobe was museum-worthy, and except when she was painting, she always looked like a diminutive Vogue model. To envision her look, think Audrey Hepburn meets Jackie Kennedy, but fun sized. Her designers of choice were Bonnie Cashin, Pierre Cardin, and of course, Chanel. The CLM and her own mother were forever on the hunt for beautiful shoes in their unimaginably small sizes. My grandmother, as much a lover of couture as her daughter, wore size 2 ½ shoes, my mother a 4. These were motivated shoppers, mère et fille, and their shoe wardrobes were enviable in their beauty and scope – pointed toes and kitten heels, ballet flats and wedges, pumps, both spectator and d’Orsay – their footwear collections were works of art.
In a staggering quirk of genetic good fortune, the women on my mother’s side age at a rate that rivals Dorian Gray. At 92, The CLM could easily pass for a much younger woman. She paints every day and is still working on portrait commissions. It is undoubtedly her work that keeps her mind in as good condition as her youthful body.
In spite of her enviable health, The CLM has, in her later years, developed a touch of agoraphobia. Never one thrilled with being too far from the comfort and familiarity of her own home, she also hates the very idea of flying. She is content to lose herself in her work or a good book rather than venture beyond her neighborhood.
An Art Adventure Is Born
And then she read about the Van Dyck exhibition that was going to be shown at the Frick Collection in New York City. The CLM lived and worked in Manhattan as a young, single woman but hadn’t spent much time there in decades. Her admiration of Van Dyck’s work is boundless as is her love of the Frick. This once in her lifetime opportunity was one she couldn’t pass up.
Preparations were made, tickets were purchased. It would be a quick trip, just two nights in the city. We would go first class all the way, staying at the iconic Carlyle Hotel, chosen as much for it’s old school style and luxury as its proximity to the Frick.
The CLM does yoga and walks unassisted with a ballerina’s posture. Still, in anticipation of making our way around the city and in an effort to conserve her energy, we invested in something not quite a wheelchair but a very helpful travel accessory. It looks like a wheeled beach chair, lightweight and portable when not needed, but perfect for getting around city sidewalks and museum lines.
So off we went, my Hodor to The CLM’s Bran. (Game of Thrones reference. Non-fans, please ignore.) We were whisked on the plane prior to general boarding – all that carryon space! – and settled in for the 56 minute trip. For someone with a panic-inducing fear of flying, The CLM was one cool customer, in no small part due to the tiny TV in the seatback in front of her. JetBlue distracted her attention with HGTV and Fox News (don’t ask) for the entire flight.
Museums and Retail Therapy
As mother/daughter get-aways go, ours was just about perfect from start to finish. We went straight from the airport to the Frick. The Van Dyck show was everything The CLM had read about and more. Just being in the Frick, a mansion designed to become a museum, was inspiring.
After trying not to drool on the artwork, we checked into the Carlyle. Words fail when trying to describe this intimate, luxurious property that is everything you could ask for in a deluxe hotel, from the warm and gracious staff to the mid-century, large-format New York photographs hanging in the lobby, to the exquisite décor from lobby to guest rooms. My darling brother even had our room stocked with The CLM’s favorite Champagne and fresh berries.
We rolled a few blocks from the hotel for an early dinner, then back to our room. As luck would have it, one of our favorite old movies was playing on the Turner Classic Movie channel. (Spoiler Alert!) After Fred MacMurray breathed his last in Double Indemnity, we snuggled between the most divine eight trillion count Egyptian cotton sheets covering a bed that felt like sleeping on a cloud and were off to dreamland.
The next morning after breakfast, we rolled over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art intent on seeing the Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology. This was the exhibit that gave the Met Gala this year’s theme. Reader, it was extraordinary, a show that was at once ethereal and technological, art and science combining to create exquisite apparel. Each dress was a work of art, something of the fashion world, yet beyond it. Luckily we arrived early and saw most of the pieces before things picked up at the Met. Warning: motivated museum-goers seem to have no compunction about pushing chair-bound women of a certain age out of the way to get a close-up view of a Chanel design.
We left the museum as stores started opening along Madison Avenue, and spent the next few hours window shopping, eyeing merchandise we could not afford, but could eagerly admire. Our last stop was at the famous Zitomer Pharmacy across the street from the Carlyle. To describe Zitomer as a pharmacy would be akin to describing Sophia Loren as a cute Italian girl. It is a pharmacy on steroids that stocks a spectrum of high-end and hard-to-find merchandise from around the world. We left with scented candles and obscure manicure implements, French milled hand soap and Italian foot lotion.
After another early dinner in the neighborhood with an old friend, we once again sank into our sumptuous beds for a night of old movies then lights out.
Our trip home early the next morning was uneventful. Even the infamous New York City traffic cooperated on our way to the airport. It was a beautiful day to fly, with nary a bump or hint of turbulence to make The CLM regret her decision to reintroduce air travel into her life.
I feel so lucky to have had this adventure with my mother. It was an unexpected gift because I thought her adventuring days were behind her. We have the magic chair stowed but handy, ready for our next excursion. I wonder where we’ll go.
Tips for Traveling with Seniors
Meanwhile, if you’re planning a trip with aging parents or friends here are five travel tips that may help make things just a bit easier.
1. Check for discounts. It’s amazing to me how many companies offer senior discounts. An AARP membership card is a passport to myriad discounted travel deals, attractions, and accommodations. Don’t be afraid to ask, no matter where you go, if they offer senior discounts. You should also inquire about upgrades at check in. Some credit card programs offer room upgrades and free dining options when available.
2. Time Travel: Take advantage of traveling at times when families and working people can’t. Going to a museum at 10 am on a Tuesday practically guarantees you’ll have easier access than visiting on a weekend.
3. Take It Easy: Don’t try to fit too many activities in one day. One or two quality experiences will trump a whirlwind of activity almost every time.
4. Do Your Homework: It will be easier on everyone if there is a specific itinerary and plan of action for your trip. When possible buy tickets to events and attractions in advance. Research places for breakfasts and lunches and be sure to make dinner reservations.
5. She’s the Boss: Let your travel companion dictate the pace of the activity. Remember this adage from the world of adventure racing: “You’re only as fast as you can help your slowest teammate go.”