Melina Mardueño

Last October my brother, sister, and niece came to Boston to visit me. Due to the pandemic, they spent most of their visit in my home, but I was very excited that I managed to get us tickets to the MFA, since they wanted to see where I worked. I took them through the Museum and, while “Writing the Future” was the show to see, I found myself most eager to bring them to the Ancient Americas galleries. These have always been a place of retreat for me. They’re dimly lit and often have few other visitors, and they’re filled with gorgeous pieces of glittering gold, funerary items like masks, and charming figurines. I also wanted my family to see art from places personal and familiar to us. There was one case in particular with ceramics from West Mexico, where our parents are from. Every time I visit these rusty-colored figurines I imagine that ones just like them might be found hidden in an undiscovered tomb in places like my grandmother’s ranch in Jalisco, Mexico. As I showed my family the Ancient Americas galleries that day, I thought a lot about my grandmother, who had died of COVID-19 a few months earlier.

Ancient Nayarit sculpture depicting a man carrying a small child on his shoulders
Unknown artist, man carrying a child, Nayarit, late Preclassic to early Classic period, 300 BCE–200 CE. Earthenware: cream and white slip. Gift of Margret Craver Williams.

Aside from my family’s visit, I remember little else from the past year. It felt incredibly long and dark, as if I hadn’t really left my house. I remember the Museum’s closure in March, traveling to my parents’ home in California and finding out my grandmother died in August, seeing my siblings in October, and most recently the holidays. It takes me a second to sort everything else out in my mind since many days have felt so similar.

Even the calls from my mother letting me know when cousins of mine caught COVID don’t seem to have a place in time. I feel so fortunate that most of my family members who had COVID survived, but I feel a deep pain for the one I did lose.

My paternal grandmother, Martha, was my last grandparent. She lived in Mexico with many of my other relatives. She was a small 81-year-old who rode horses and had a great sense of humor. I still can’t believe how quickly her condition worsened. I was visiting my parents in California for my dad’s birthday, and I remember hearing one evening that she had been doing better in the hospital and might be released soon. It turned out that my dad didn’t want my siblings and me to know she was doing worse. Later that night we learned she had in fact already passed. I thought about my grandmother, alone in the hospital, and my dad, who couldn’t be with his parent in her final moments. I feel extremely grateful that my family was together for that, knowing it’s been very difficult for so many others, who not only couldn’t be at their loved ones’ bedsides but also had to mourn away from their families.

A mask depicting a solemn face carved out of gray and black jadeite
Unknown artist, portrait mask, Olmec, 900–500 BCE. Jadeite with black inclusions. Gift of Landon T. Clay.

Through so much in life, my parents have told me and my siblings to keep advancing and to focus on the positive. They’ve reminded us that at least we have each other to lean on and that one will always be there to do their best to cheer the other up when one’s feeling down. Strangely enough, when I think of their words, Jonathan Borofsky’s sculpture Walking Man, which stands outside the MFA on Museum Road, comes to mind. With wind in his brightly colored clothes, the figure strides forward, his limbs frozen in motion as he balances on a metal beam high above the ground. Every morning before the pandemic when I walked up to the Museum to start my workday, I met him there as the sun rose, and when I left each night, I saw him again, this time with the sun setting behind him. He’s become a symbol of renewal to me: a promise that while a day might end in darkness, a new one will begin again in light.

I spoke to my mom on the phone recently and asked her how my dad was doing. She said he’d been okay, that it was a matter of balancing. It brought me back to Walking Man on his beam. I know the pandemic isn’t over yet and I know we’re far from being in the clear, but at least now I can see that we’re moving toward its end.


Melina Mardueño is development associate, Annual Programs.