Then Grace Interrupted

Mrs. Bevilaqua understood self-control. She kept a very strict schedule. Today was Thursday. Thursday was Mrs. Bevilaqua’s day for an arts outing. This is why she was standing in the hall of Roman antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

Story by Evalyn Lee, Spring/Summer 2014


Mrs. Bevilaqua understood self-control. She kept a very strict schedule. Today was Thursday. Thursday was Mrs. Bevilaqua’s day for an arts outing. This is why she was standing in the hall of Roman antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. But a cacophony of school children, brandishing their pencils like miniature lances, was crusading from the Medieval wing to the cafeteria. They were going to march right through her.

So much energy, so much endless human energy.

The stream of blazers with lumpy pockets and shrugging shoulders shoved Mrs. Bevilaqua into the side of a Roman sarcophagus where a husband and wife lay side by side, carved out of marble, holding onto each other’s hand.

“Oh, Daddy, look at that lady’s hair.”

Mrs. Bevilaqua was pushing herself off the side of the sarcophagus.

A small girl, holding her father’s hand, was pointing at her hair.

Mrs. Bevilaqua could not help touching it. She was very proud of her full head of white hair. For three hours, once a month, on a Tuesday, Mrs. Bevilaqua recreated the tight permanent her husband Dick had so loved, under the dryer of her hairdresser’s on the corner of 92nd and Madison Avenue.

“She looks like the Roman lady on the coffin!”

Mrs. Bevilaqua felt her face flush.

“Shh, Grace.”

The father was covering the girl’s mouth with his hand. He looked like a man who wanted to prevent a scene. But Mrs. Bevilaqua did not do scenes. She did daily stable walking. Of course, she wanted to collapse under the pressure of today’s unbearable energy, but she would not. She had come to the museum to see the Fra Angelico exhibit, not to be upset by unruly children.

This child looked to be around four years old. Clearly, Grace, if that was her name (an odd name for a Chinese girl), was at the age where she had to name the world, and name it out loud. Mrs. Bevilaqua remembered being four; she had urgently needed to identify every observation, object, person, animal, color, and each place of shadow and light, in her life. Her mother had struggled with her exuberance, especially in church. She did not envy this father the job of controlling his daughter.

Mrs. Bevilaqua looked at her small gold wristwatch. It was lunchtime. She should stop at the cafeteria but, without company, food held no interest. She decided to walk on. The walk down the stairs to the exhibit came as a relief. The growing stillness and the lessening of the crowds comforted her. As she waited to hand her ticket over, Mrs. Bevilaqua let her left hand with its wedding ring rest on a pile of show catalogs. She did not want to buy one. What was the point? Her bookshelves were full, and Dick was dead.

As she entered the exhibition hall, Mrs. Bevilaqua was grateful for the monastic air in the gallery. She noted how Fra Angelica’s work seemed to inspire each visitor to stand up straighter, and how the visitors would, one by one, walk up to a painting and bow at the waist to read the tag to the right of the picture. It made everyone look like supplicants. The show was beautifully hung. The paintings were luminous. Like stained-glass windows made of paint and gold leaf.

Mrs. Bevilaqua was surprised to find herself upset when she saw the frank little girl and her father enter the gallery. But Grace’s father, of all the visitors, did not bend to read the tags. Nor did he look at his child. No, he had walked straight up to the painting on the wall in front of him. In fact, the only people not looking at the Fra Angelico paintings were Grace and Mrs. Bevilaqua.

Mrs. Bevilaqua was watching Grace. Grace was not watching her. Grace was off, leaving her father to stare at art while she explored the sanctity of the gallery.

Mrs. Bevilaqua admired the child’s ability to get on with the business of being alive. I wonder if she is adopted. The extraordinary independence of this small child began to impress her. Mrs. Bevilaqua watched as Grace decided what she wanted to do next, which was to slide over the surface of the flat wooden benches grouped at the far corner of the hall.

Over and over, the little girl lay down on the flat belly of the bench with her round belly and then pushed off the floor with her feet. When she reached the end of her slide, to keep from falling off Grace put her hands down to the floor. Then she pushed herself back and started the game again.

I never would have been allowed to play such a game in a public space.

Grace stopped sliding and then lay down, on her back, on the bench. Mrs. Bevilaqua watched as Grace crossed her hands across her chest. Was she pretending to be a statue on top of a sarcophagus? The whites of the child’s half closed eyes looked a segment of hardboiled egg. Grace turned her head. She caught Mrs. Bevilaqua watching her. Grace then opened her eyes wide to look at Mrs. Bevilaqua.

No one had stared at Mrs. Bevilaqua this closely in months. No, not in years. Feeling an urgent need to hide, Mrs. Bevilaqua decided to walk around the corner of the exhibition hall. The inner courtyard of the gallery was filled with terracotta pots and plantings that reminded her of home. She was happy to be out of the child’s line of sight, but surprised to come face to face with Dick’s favorite painting: Christ Crowned with Thorns.

Blood from the crown of thorns streamed into and out of Jesus’s gaze. Here was a man very alive at his imminent crucifixion. Mrs. Bevilaqua felt hot then faint.

“Ma’am, ma’am,” she heard someone say. A museum guard? “Please don’t touch the painting.”

When Mrs. Bevilaqua opened her eyes, the guard was taking her right hand away from the wall. He was in his late fifties, spritely and kind. He explained that she had almost fainted into the picture. But fortunately the alarm had not gone off.

“Lean on me,” he said, “there are benches and a water fountain around the corner. You need a glass of water.”

Grace, who was lying on the bench as they came around the corner, sat up as the guard sat Mrs. Bevilaqua down. 

“Your face is as white as your hair now,” she said.

The guard did not seem to hear Grace. He left Mrs. Bevilaqua to go get some water. On his return he put a small plastic cup in her hand but did not nod at Grace.

He must assume that we are together.

Grace by now was leaning companionably against Mrs. Bevilaqua like a warm, small dog.

“Take a moment,” said the guard. “I can always call an ambulance.”

He stepped back against the wall, taking his place, in his dark gray uniform, to continue guarding the gallery. She was gathering her strength to thank him. She needed a bit more time.

When she could whisper, Mrs. Bevilaqua asked Grace, “How old are you?”

“Four,” said Grace. “How old are you?”

“I am eighty-seven,” said Mrs. Bevilaqua.

“That’s old,” said Grace.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Bevilaqua, “it is.”

“Are you sick?” asked Grace.

“No,” said Mrs. Bevilaqua. 

But she couldn’t lift the cup of water to her lips.

The overhead spotlight trembled on the surface of the water.

She put the cup back down.

“I do have unexplained fainting spells,” said Mrs. Bevilaqua. “The doctors don’t know why.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Grace. “You are sad and you don’t eat enough.”

Mrs. Bevilaqua returned to the task of sipping the water. The task seemed endless. Grace continued to sit beside her but now she was kicking her legs under the bench.

“Do you like all this stuff?”

Mrs. Bevilaqua put down the cup. “Yes, very much.”

“Me too,” said Grace. She looked at the cup between them. “You should finish your water.”

Mrs. Bevilaqua picked up the plastic cup of water and drank.

Grace waited for her to finish before asking her next question, “Do you know where heaven is?”

“No,” said Mrs. Bevilaqua.

She began to look around the room for the girl’s father. Where has everybody gone? The whole gallery was empty except for her, Grace, and the guard.

“Well, he’s there,” said Grace.

“Who?” asked Mrs. Bevilaqua.

“Your husband,” said Grace. “He’s in heaven.”

Mrs. Bevilaqua struggled to control the emotions she felt: the anger, the shock, and a strong sense of outrage. That this strange Chinese child, at a Fra Angelico exhibit, on a Thursday, at the Metropolitan Museum, was speaking about Dick’s death was unseemly and raw. Then for no reason she could explain, Mrs. Bevilaqua felt frightened.

She wanted to turn to the guard. But all she could do was watch as a last bead of water clinging to the cup’s rim let go. It slipped down the clear plastic side and onto the wooden bench. Grace rubbed the spot dry with her finger.

Neither of them spoke.

Mrs. Bevilaqua wanted tell the guard, to explain to him that this four-year-old child was lost. That he needed to take her away and find her father. But before she could speak, Grace stood up on the bench beside her. Good, the guard will come take her away. It must be against the rules for her to stand on this bench.

Grace’s small round face was now a dark shadow under bright spotlights.

The guard will help me get up.

Mrs. Bevilaqua felt two hands, warm hands, on each side of her face. A kiss wet her forehead, right below her crown of white hair. When Mrs. Bevilaqua’s head hit the bench, Grace was gone.


Evalyn Lee is a former CBS News producer. She lives in London with her two kids, husband and their dog, Hugo. The reporting and writing bug bit her hard when she was six years old. She went into a closet with a flashlight, a notebook and a pencil. She pulled the door shut and sat down in the dark on a pile of shoes while being smothered by coat hems. She was there to understand and write the life story of a pair of purple boots! She never looked back. Please connect with her on Twitter:

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