Childhood is a funny thing. For its inhabitants, it seems to go on indefinitely, yet in truth, it’s gone in an instant. Moments we take for granted as children later become cognitive snapshots we second-guess as adults—Was his mustache really that scratchy? Was the pool really that deep?—yet regardless, they leave a lasting impression, an invisible part of ourselves that impacts our lives moving forward, be they realistic memories or those warped through rose-colored glasses.
But when your cousin, Becky, one decade older than you openly shares her childhood memories of the grandmother you both shared, and they match your own nearly word for word, you know that your memories are not only accurate, but that the woman they depict really did, and does continue to, impact your life significantly.
When I think of my father’s mother, my Noni, I think of the color blue. Perhaps it’s because of the blue kitchen in which so many feasts were created and multiple conversations shouted across roomfuls of relatives (Many of whom I later learned weren’t relatives at all! But were always warmly treated as such.); maybe it’s because of the blue water of the above-ground swimming pool my cousins and I basically lived in during the summers (and that I accidentally nearly drowned my brother in, as I tried to teach him how to swim!); or maybe it’s simply due to the color of Noni and Pop Pop’s house—the feeling of sheer excitement upon seeing that blue exterior as we pulled into the packed driveway, and the accompanying sadness upon watching it (and my waving grandparents) gradually disappear as we left for home.
|Pieces: Window Pane #2. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.|
Blue was the color of happiness, of a warm embrace, of being passed from aunt to uncle to who-knows-who; blue was the color of the carpeted stairs that Erin, Jack, and I would slide down until we had rug burns or hit the floor a bit too hard; blue was the color of the ever-popular tacky backdrops in our annual school portraits that (although deeply embarrassing to look at) were always proudly displayed among dozens of other photos, old and new, on the wall above the living room sofa. And in later years (when I lived with her in the summer of 2009), blue was the color of my Noni’s nightgown, as we sat on that sofa: her, sassily teasing me and offering me food to the point of giggling and winking at me when I’d inevitably give in; me, sassing her back to make her laugh, and answering that evening’s three repeating questions with varying answers to keep us both entertained (as by then, her Alzheimer’s had truly begun to set in, especially in the evenings).
But red—red was the color of music.
|Pieces: Window Pane #9. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.|
As a lifelong professional-level pianist and organist, my Noni played every mass, every wedding, every funeral, all while teaching quite literally every child in “Western Mass” weekly piano lessons from the small music room in their home. Family gatherings would naturally spur impromptu duets between Pop Pop on bass or guitar and Noni on piano, with a Pied-Piper flock of grand- and great-grandchildren huddled round and adding the occasional spirited (yet out of tune) chord on the other end of the keys, which was always welcomed with laughter and delight. Between my Italian grandmother and Portuguese grandfather, food was certainly a huge part of every visit (You could show up unannounced and somehow there would undoubtedly be a roast chicken in the oven!), yet I would argue that despite every DIY Network show saying “the kitchen is the heart of every household,” here, at the Guerra’s, it was the music room that was the heart. While living with Noni years later, I’d awake (far too early) to sounds of Mozart and Beethoven—at times, romantic and passionate, at others fiery and complex—but always red. Red as the blood in her veins, the blood we share; red as the dress adorned by the pianist in the painting opposite her in the room. Red was, and continues to be, the color of music.
|Noni and Pop Pop, assorted images.|
Fast-forward to 2017: As the year started, I was already knee-deep in my We Create project, having begun my work as one of its selected 2016-17 cohort artists in September. I was honored to be chosen for this project run by Marsha Parrilla, Director of Danza Orgánica, and although I ultimately found the 2017 We Create Festival to be largely flawed in its execution, the piece I created through this process turned out to be quite poignant in more ways than one.
Through April, I continued to research and develop my initial concept: delving into the cohort’s 2016-17 theme of “hidden stories” by creating an art installation recognizing those with physical and mental disabilities. As my work unfolded, I found myself narrowing in on the specific story of my Noni’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, and society’s habit of tucking Alzheimer’s patients away—glancing by them only on the surface, unaware of the beautiful, multifaceted lives hidden within.
After many early sketches and conceptual notes, I eventually landed on the concept of peering through a window (itself, taken from the wall of my childhood bedroom, since knocked down…luckily, like me, my dad keeps everything!), to find layers of overlapping memories (some complete, some missing sections, and others seemingly looping on repeat), as this is often what Alzheimer’s does to the brain.
|Pieces: The making of. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.|
The construction process was difficult, as I knew I wanted each layer to consist of varying opacities, to blur into one another once eventually backlit by a simple table lamp. Scanning old photographs, I spent hours delicately taping tissue paper to cardstock, successfully printing one image, only to jam my printer on the next. By the time I reached the textual memories I planned to incorporate, I’d gotten a bit smarter (so I thought) by purchasing semi-opaque plastic film, only to learn the hard way that ink takes way longer to dry on plastic than it does on pulp! Ink-smudged hands and a healthy portion of swearing later, I embarked on the most tedious task yet: intricately hanging each image with thread onto thin wooden dowels acting as a trellis above.
|Pieces: The making of. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.|
Setting the full installation up in my tiny Boston living room, I was so pleased. Visually, the lamp, window, and images of Noni reminded me vividly of every evening visit on my way to and from Mount Holyoke College as an undergraduate, peering through the living room window to find her doing her crossword by lamplight. Symbolically, I was putting into physical form the age-old saying “Eyes are the window to the soul,” while the lamp served as the human spirit—still bright and beaming behind all those layers of misaligned memories.
|Pieces. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.|
My intention was to place an empty chair in front of the installation, encouraging audience members to sit and peer through the window panes, piecing together bits of the puzzle and learning about this beautiful multi-faceted woman by simply taking the time to do so. The goal was to speak to Alzheimer’s (and society’s treatment of the elderly) as a whole, reminding viewers that simply because an older individual might be slow to respond, it is not for a lack of knowledge, as they have years more experience than we, ourselves, have known. There are stories there, and when given the time, the patience, to peer through those eyes, we too can piece together the puzzles of these memories, and construct a truer image of who this person is, not was.
|Pieces. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.|
I will keep this next section brief, as I do not want to dwell on my negative experience with the We Create process, but its outcome is key to the full experience of my installation, which I had titled Pieces. Explaining to Marsha just how delicate and complex an installation this was, I inquired if I should be setting it up during tech on Wednesday, or setting it up directly before opening night on Friday, as I wanted to be sure it wasn’t damaged in between. (My project was the only one that was an installation piece; the rest were various performance art works.) After being told Wednesday was definitely the day to do it, I carefully and lovingly spent a full two hours setting up the piece, complete with the chair, a lamp from our home, and a small write-up on the work.
Two days later, Sean and I entered the space to a bustling audience, a clearly lit stage, and—to my shock—no installation. I felt my heart plummet, as if I’d misplaced Noni herself somewhere in the room. Where could it be?? With Sean’s help, we eventually found it: literally shoved into a corner, the chair gone, the lamp unplugged, and several of my delicate tissue paper memories torn.
|Delicately installing Pieces. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.|
I was heart-broken, as my mind instantly replayed one of my “bad” visits with Noni earlier that year. I had shown up at her center to find her, and ten others, lined up along the wall in their wheelchairs waiting to be wheeled into the dining hall, and while I completely understand that the staff can only be in so many places at once, my Noni was at the end of the row, tucked around the corner, anxious and confused. I tried to calm her; tried to explain where she was and where she was heading next. I tried to show her photos of my parents; tried to remind her I was “the dancer” as she always called me (she regularly “auditioned” for my dance company while gliding through her kitchen in later years), yet nothing worked. Over and over she repeated, while crying, “I’m sorry; I’m so sorry I don’t know you. I’m so sorry I don’t remember these people. I’m so sorry I don’t remember who I am.” I held it together until the staff came to wheel her to lunch, then sat in my car and sobbed—not because she didn’t remember me, but because she was apologizing for forgetting herself.
It was amazing to me how the simple act of wheeling her into an empty hallway with no one around, no reminders of her family (photos, music), and no one to talk to, had led to that light briefly going out. And now here I was, staring at my forgotten installation—an installation whose purpose was to actively remind the public not to bypass the elderly by leaving them alone in a hallway (but to sit with them and learn from them), literally pushed aside, forgotten, and abandoned. As I hurriedly reset the now damaged work with Sean, the symbolism of this incident was lost on neither of us. (I later learned that the performance space serves as an after-school program for kids during the day, hence the installation was moved for “safety” reasons. My instinct to arrive early on opening night had been the correct one.)
|Pieces: Window Pane #7. Merli V. Guerra, 2017.|
As we left that night, taking Pieces home with us, a gust of wind hit us moments before placing the installation inside the car, causing all of my intricately threaded memories to instantly knot and entwine, as if permanently damaged. It seemed beyond hope to untangle it, nor did I know of another event I’d be showcasing it at down the road, yet I still felt compelled to make it right. As if performing a ritual, I spent hours upon hours carefully unbraiding each strand until all were back in their rightful place. I packaged it up for safe travel to our next destination, and it hasn’t been opened since.
|Photo: Quincy Guerra Hepburn, 2020.|
Fast-forward one last time to now: mid-April 2020. Never in my wildest thoughts would I have known that the entire world would be in quarantine; that my Noni (despite the staff taking incredible precautions) would be diagnosed with COVID-19; and that my family would be visiting her exactly as my installation had portrayed: spending time with her by peering through a window, sharing memories, and enjoying that precious light emanating from her soul as flickers of memories, her signature humor, and boundless love glow from the other side of the glass.
As I write this, I am trapped in New Jersey, whose quarantine is strictly enforced, and beside me (by pure chance), among all my disheveled art projects since moving into our new home, is the damaged, yet carefully preserved installation. I cannot drive up to stand outside the window; and even if I could, I cannot indulge in the comforting “blue” of that warm embrace; but there is one thing I can hold onto: This past December, not long after her 95th birthday, I visited Noni on the second floor of her building. Perhaps my hours of installation detanglement were finally paying off, because from the moment I entered the room, Noni and I shared the most incredibly lucid, loving, and joyous 2.5 hour visit (with poor Sean and Banksy waiting patiently in the car). “Where’s Sean?” she would ask, “He’s just so handsome.” “He has a bad cold, Noni!” I replied, “He didn’t want to take a chance and make you sick.” “But he’s so handsome,” she insisted (with a twinkle in her eye), “I’ll take that chance!”
|Photo: Quincy Guerra Hepburn, 2020.|
And so we sat together, chatting away like old times, showing her photos and videos from our summer trip to Scotland, photos of hikes in New Jersey during the fall, videos (on her request) of my recent choreography, and as I showed her a sweet video of Banksy opening an early Christmas present in my parents’ family room a few days prior, she suddenly paused—her hands cupping mine around the phone. “Play it again,” she said, peering closer, and so I did. Her eyes brimmed with tears as she pointed above my pup to the guitar on the wall, “That’s John’s. That’s John’s guitar!” “Yes, Noni!” I exclaimed, having become so used to my grandfather's guitar being there that I’d nearly forgotten. “Johnny, your grandson, plays it now.” She shook her head, crying yet smiling, “That’s so good. That’s so good… You know,” she reminded me, “John and I could never dance like you—we were too busy playing in the band; we never learned to dance!” Laughter returned to her soul, and I listened to her reminisce about my Pop Pop, her true love, and their deep connection through music.
And so, as I sit here feeling so far away, I will hold onto the fact that she and my Pop Pop will soon be reunited—a vibrant red reunion—for red is the color of music; their music.
ADDENDUM: I completed writing this post on Thursday, April 30th, 2020, a little before 7pm. I read it aloud to Sean, sent it to my cousin, then heard the phone ring—my Noni had passed away just after 7pm.
This post is lovingly dedicated to Francesca Cristina Guerra (1924-2020).