Carmen At The Cloisters


The Cloisters sits on dark granite at the north end of Manhattan and overlooks the Hudson River.  My 94-year-old father, 3½-year-old granddaughter, and I are driving south. I realize we can stop at the Cloisters on our way. My crew will be happy for a break.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses medieval European works in this place. The Cloisters is a serene oasis, originating with bequeaths from artist George Barnard and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  

Mom grew up not far from here near Columbia University where her father taught. Dad tells me she came here often as a high school art student. The timing is perfect today. My granddaughter Carmen had napped for two hours before we arrived.  

We turn off of the busy West Side Highway and drive up the winding road through thick woods to the top of the hill. This feels like wilderness. We park right in front of the door of the Cloisters in a spot with a big hole no one else had taken. “That’s great!” says Dad. He taught me to drive and to be resourceful about parking places.

The statues and tapestries are in large rooms with high, arched ceilings. Light pours down from those windows. The curves above pull my gaze upward and my breath catches. I flash to a memory when I was myself a child. We parked in that same lot. I remember my ten-year-old sense of anticipation to see the unicorn tapestries. Because of his dementia, Dad can’t remember if he’s had breakfast or where we are going. Here, in this place, he is awake and attuned and makes thoughtful remarks.

Carmen straddles my left hip, holding on and leaning towards a wooden statue of a Madonna. She points to the face, which to me seems alive, like a modern teenager. Carmen’s eyes shine as she looks the statue up and down and says, “It’s broken.” She notices the missing arm, and I say that it is very old. Carmen nods again, gaze fixed on the statue.

She gets down and steadily walks from room to room, peering around the corner into each new one. Between statues there are manikins with modern outfits inspired by the old ones. “Look at the sparkly one Grandma!” she says. 

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We explore further, and walk into the room with the seven 15th century unicorn tapestries. These wall hangings in wool and silk are the heart of the museum and Rockefeller’s most valuable gift. At Carmen’s eye level is a unicorn with its horn cutting into the side of a dog. Wide-eyed she says, “Unicorn is hurting the dog, Grandma!”  

The unicorn is thought to be an allegory about love, the seven tapestries representing the nature of voluntary captivity.

I look at what she sees then take in the whole, huge tapestry. Actually, a pack of dogs is attacking the unicorn. Hunters are pointing spears at him. No matter how much I explain, Carmen is only focused on the unicorn hurting the dog. She doesn’t see anything else. She doesn't see that in this panel, the unicorn is defending itself.  We wander into a courtyard in the middle of the building. The sun pours down on a mass of wild flowers and herbs in a protected space with archways all around. One set of arches frames a bank of trees across the river. When we get closer we see the Hudson below and the George Washington bridge to our left. Carmen walks with confident step around the perimeter of the garden. I feel a ping of delight as I watch her explore. Then I find a bench. Dad sits down beside me and leans over to say, “Everyone talks softly in this place. They respect the quiet.”    


In the middle of the courtyard is a fountain with a small trickle of water. The two of them stand in the midst of the quiet surrounded by the sway of herbs and flowers that reach for the sun. Carmen stretches out her hand to feel the water.

We find a food cart, buy lunch and sit at a table in another courtyard. The sparrows know the routine and hop on the stone wall right by the table, delighting Carmen. I don’t care how much time we spend here. We will get home when we do.

It takes a while to find our way back out. We are not in a hurry. Carmen stops to point at a statue encased in glass. Then she turns on her heel, swings her arms and heads for the nearest door. We find our way out to the car, grateful that it is close.

Carmen talks about the unicorn hurting the dog all afternoon. Even a few weeks later she remembers. She’s not upset, just wide-eyed. This may be a glimpse into what life inevitablydelivers to all of us.

I think back to my first visit at 10. The memory is deep and barely conscious. I feel connected to my mother who loved this place. Dad is still with me, uplifted here even in his dementia. For a fleeting moment I miss my daughter Meli, Amelia. When she was small we enjoyed adventures. Now she is preoccupied and stressed. She doesn’t have time. I recall that she would relax and laugh with my mother and that I snapped photos of them together.  Amelia keeps one in her bedroom. Now I’m the grandmother for Carmen. We circle around the sun.

I appreciate the allegory of the tapestries. Though many people write about these works of art, the mystery persists. I reflect on the pain of the unicorn attacked and of the injured dog. I lean back with full and aching heart and observe the tapestry of my family, those who are here and those no longer with us.