“I wonder if we’ll see my Crystal Ball, today? Last time we tried, it was on loan to another museum,” Mom teases my older brother Jim and I as my father takes curve after curve of the Schuylkill Expressway just fast enough to make my stomach lurch. “Ouch!” Jim howls as I pitch his forearm hard. It’s payback for calling me ‘Clod-Hopper’ earlier, when I appeared in my best, Sunday going to the Art Museum dress — a bright floral with lace trim — and my shiny, new, patent leather Mary Janes. How dare he? I stopped wearing those stiff, thick-soled orthopedics at least a year ago. Bright red, you couldn’t miss them. ‘Clod-Hopper,’ I hated it! We’re antsy, torturing each other to pass the moments and ready to stretch our cramped legs, and more importantly, to visit Mom’s storied Chinese treasure.
“Settle down back there, kids. As I told you last week, I don’t need my Ball anymore to know what you’re up to!”
Apart from the tedious, winding car ride, I looked forward to our family excursions to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Ceremonial Teahouse was a must-see. I also liked dashing about the Armour room, imagining so many child-sized, medieval warriors battling in the mud, weighed down by metal suits and oddly-named, flesh-ripping weapons. Morning stars, flanged maces, horseman’s picks. The man catcher!
Oddly, the armaments of The Middle Ages didn’t bring on my nightmares, it was Rubens. At the tender age of six or seven, I was spellbound by his massive Prometheus Bound, its muscular, naked immortal strapped-to-a-cliff for eternity as a raptor feasts on his exposed flesh. I couldn’t look away from the doomed Titan or his oozing, chocolate brown liver. The masterpiece didn’t merely ruin my sleep, it ruined pudding, a favorite treat, for decades to come.
On most trips, my parents checked our coats before all of us climbed the museum’s majestic Grand Stair Hall. Our group would pause briefly, at the top, to admire the lithe, gilded huntress Diana, her bow staff stretched. Today, Jim and I ignore Diana and speed to the upper galleries, taking two steps at a time. We catch our breath before sailing past other intriguing spaces to enter the renowned East Asian exhibition and discover if our family prize, a 19th Century, Chinese Quartz Crystal Ball, is on display.
Jim and I are on a mission. We’re determined to poke holes in Mom’s account, to learn her true relationship to the stunning object and possibly, debunk her divination skills.
“The Crystal Ball is mine, you know” Mom whispered in our ears the day we first encountered the glistening, extremely-rare sphere — the world’s fourth largest specimen. “I loaned it to the museum.” To this day, Mom insists that, unbeknownst to us, she safeguarded the heavy globe for years in a dusty corner of the unfinished attic of our St. Davids’ colonial home. That she consulted it frequently, when we were younger, to predict our misadventures and even, to read our minds.
Her mystical claims have grown more outrageous, lately. Mom tells us she arose one morning, after a sleepless night, with an unbearable, all-consuming headache that eventually ceded to an intermittent tingling sensation. Soon after, she made a bizarre, life-changing discovery. Mom had acquired an astonishing superhuman gift - overnight! Something that lets her predict and track our movements without a Crystal or a Ouija board.
Mom’s Crystal Ball resides in Philadelphia these days, for everyone to enjoy, because she no longer needs it, so her story goes.
“There it is!” Jim squeals, pointing to the brilliant orb in the middle of the room, perched high on undulating waves of molten-silver. We race each other to the display — elbows out and forgetting our museum manners —to find Mom’s treasure lit from within, as if to greet us. With Jim beside me, I position myself before it, as we’d rehearsed. I reach out with grimy fingers, my hands hovering above its icy-surface then vibrating like the scryers I’ve seen in the movies. I pause, then repeat my gesture more vigorously, eyelids sealed in fierce concentration. Mom summons me before my third attempt; her operatic “Rebecca Mitchell Ridgway, you know better!” rouses the day-dreaming guard from his corner seat.
“I didn’t touch it!” I cry. The use of my full name usually spells trouble but, having come this far, I can’t resist a quietly-defiant “if the Crystal belongs to you, why can’t I touch it…why won’t it talk to me?” Dad catches up to the three of us after lingering to carefully examine an ancient jade carving. My father loves jade and Asian art and artifacts — he’s clearly displeased by the disruption. Towering over me at six and a half feet, Dad throws me a stern look. I stare at my now-scuffed Mary Janes, my cheeks and forehead aflame, wondering my fate.
Dad heads back to his jade, before long. I notice the small placard and press on, with a bold tactic. “It doesn’t mention Mom at all. The card says it’s the gift of ‘Major General and Mrs. William Crozier.’ In 1944!” I decifer, with pride. Turning from the glass case with a saccharine smile, I scrutinize Mom’s eyes and face for a tell of some kind. A twinkle or a suppressed chuckle, anything. She shakes her head with a laugh, but gives up nothing. Jim and I briefly confer. The card is intriguing, but the official provenance doesn’t completely undercut Mom’s ownership tale, we agree.
We’ve exhausted our ideas, so we improvise as other museum-goers flow into the gallery and gather near. Standing high on our toes, Jim and I take turns peering deep into its wavy, infinite center, imploring Mom’s sphere to release its secrets and reveal the truth.
The irritated line forming to our side tells us we’ve overstayed our welcome. We’re deflated and ready to move on, to visit with the chain-mailed knights and brave a meeting with naked Prometheus and his juicy liver before it’s time to leave. Our grand divining scheme failed miserably, and we both realize that uncovering proof of Mom’s newly-professed SUPER-power is a trickier matter. Jim and I will need to gain a better understanding of the human anatomy and then attempt to catch our active mother taking a rare afternoon nap. We’ll have to muss up her hair and thoroughly examine her skull without alarming or angering her. Risky business for a different day.
Jim and I are subdued on the drive home. There’s no pinching and kicking or name-calling in the back seat, and Jim neglects to taunt me with offers of gross-looking pudding. Neither of us has the energy to beg Mom and Dad for a before-dinner milkshake or hot-fudge sundae. Every now and then, Jim tosses me a sly glance, and I rise up on my heels to sneak a look at Mom’s head, without raising her suspicions. It’s no use.
Climbing into bed, hours later, I’m exhausted but relieved to end the day with Mom’s improbable, but delightful legend intact. Moms have all kinds of special talents or magical powers, I reason. I’ve seen Mom’s soaring soprano fill a cathedral and bring people to tears; she sight-reads Chopin and Cole Porter without missing a note. My Mom can whip up a dazzling, sky-high birthday cake and create the fluffiest breakfast souffle out of our day-old rice. Maybe she really does see into the future.
The days of slammed bedroom doors and yearning for privacy were coming soon but, for a brief moment in time, I was happy to believe my mother once kept us out of trouble by conversing with a priceless Chinese artifact she stowed in our attic.
And, I was certain Mom possessed an extra, invisible pair of all-seeing, all-knowing eyes, somewhere on the back of her head.
Mother’s Day 2020: In honor of my 92-year-old Mom. I hope she’s using all the magic she has during these strange and unsettling days of quarantine.