I moved to Boston in the summer of 2021. Perhaps moving 3,000 miles away to start graduate school in the midst of a global pandemic was not ideal, but my choice had been made. Upon my arrival, I soon realized that I was alone in a city where I knew absolutely no one—a reality both terrifying and exciting. As the pandemic had stripped away so much of the structure within my life, I was determined—maybe even desperate—to regain some sort of control over my circumstances.
I began working at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as part of a work-study in September 2021. I was drawn to the Ambassador position for a number of reasons—the main one being that growing up in San Diego, I spent countless weekends at Balboa Park wandering through its wonderful expanse of gardens and museums. Ambling through the galleries of the MFA brought a sense of familiarity and comfort. The Museum became a solace and escape from the intensity of graduate school.
During my first couple weeks, I stumbled on Jan van Huysum’s still life Flowers in a Terracotta Vase (1730). I remember looking at the piece and immediately being taken by its vibrancy. The painting shows a variety of flowers—from roses, peonies, and red poppies to primroses. There are splashes of bright blue, yellow, and red offsetting the green of the garden scenery behind the arrangement. The flowers are grounded by a beautifully sunburnt orange terra-cotta vase decorated with two cherub children examining a garland. Crystal droplets of water, the lush leaves, the trembling wings of the butterflies, the soft feathers within the bird’s nest, the buzz of the bees and flies, all evoke the senses of touch, smell, and sound. I imagine myself sitting in the garden, surrounded by such gorgeous scenery and feeling so much. The portrait floods your mind with its life.
I lost my mother to terminal cancer in January 2019. As I picked up the shattered pieces of my own life, I watched as the COVID-19 pandemic then ravaged the lives of so many others—just so much grief. Collectively, we mourn not only those we’ve lost, but any semblance of normalcy we once knew. For me, the pandemic has been a reminder of the fragility of all we know and how fleeting this life truly is. I find myself coming back to this painting to ponder the flowers and their ephemeral lives captured so passionately. Although the flowers in Van Husyum’s still life are long withered and gone, their life is captured forever. If grief has taught me anything, it is to hold on to what brings you comfort—to find joy in these tiny moments that make up our lives, especially when it seems there’s nothing else you can do.
Grief is forever, that is an undeniable truth, and yet, even in the midst of sorrow or loss, there are still ways to celebrate life. To understand that tomorrow is never promised is how we learn to cherish today. Van Huysum’s Flowers in a Terracotta Vase stands as a testament that life, though fleeting, carries on. Yet, we must find time to stop and smell, or in this case, gaze at, the roses.